The spirit of the season: in defence of vodka

With the advent of the craft liquor movement, vodka has been somewhat left by the wayside in favour of spiced whiskies, flowery gins, hoppy IPAs and fiery ryes. Despite surging international sales, vodka is continually written off by so-called booze aficionados as being too bland, too boring or, troublingly, “too feminine.” Contrary to popular belief, vodka has both a rich and diverse array of flavour profiles, a vibrant cultural history and a small but burgeoning craft market, all of which go largely under the radar of the average sipper.

This is at least partly the liquor industry’s fault. Mega-corporations like Diageo highlight product lines of sweetened and artificially flavoured Smirnoff vodkas to try to snag coming-of-age drinkers, assuming that young people don’t like the taste of alcohol (even if they didn’t, that’s what mixer is for). It makes sense, really—if you convince customers they don’t like liquor but want to get drunk, you sell more and save production costs by making a lower-quality spirit. As someone who does like the taste of a well-made vodka, I take issue with such a model.

Despite being legally defined as “to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or colour,” vodka does indeed have a subtle flavour and mouthfeel that differs widely from bottle to bottle. Unlike whisky, which is primarily made from barley, rye or corn, vodka is made from these and more, including wheat, winter wheat, potatoes, beets or even rice. Each of these imparts a very different flavour. For example, potato vodkas like Luksusowa have an earthy taste and a smooth, creamy texture, while wheat-based distillations such as Ketel One offer a crisp and peppery palate that pairs perfectly with smoked meats and cheeses. On top of that, many under-appreciated spirits – such as the Polish bison-grass infusion żubrówka or the Scandinavian caraway liquor, akavit – are produced by flavouring vodka with traditional spices, botanicals or herbs that can easily compete with high-quality craft gins.

Let’s also not forget that vodka is the progenitor and propagator of the post-1970s cocktail climate of which we are now familiar. Nowubiquitous drinks like the martini, the bloody Mary, the white Russian, the Moscow mule, the cosmopolitan and even the simple screwdriver all feature vodka as the chief ingredient—and indeed helped kindle our continent’s craving for concoctions far more accessible than the stiff whisky-and-bitters mixtures you might see in “Golden Age” cinema.

In New Brunswick, we are also lucky enough to have a growing selection of fledgling craft vodkas produced nearby. Snowfox Vodka, made by Port Royal Distillers in Moncton, is deliciously crisp and slightly sweet in character, and Fils du Roy’s Grand Bagosse – my personal favourite – offers a clean and subtly herbal palate that rivals big names like Belvedere at a fraction of the price. With such great spirits at our disposal, it’s high time to ditch the tired notion that vodka is tasteless, banal or akin to drain cleaner.

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