I always think choosing vodka is a bit like choosing white paint. You presume they’re all the same until you try them side by side, at which point you realise that Apple White looks nothing like Twisted Bamboo and you end up agonising over these tiny nuances for days.
Vodka can actually vary considerably in both flavour and texture, depending on what it’s made from. Wheat vodkas tend to be bright and elegant, while potato vodkas tend to be more buttery, with a viscous mouthfeel. Rye vodkas can be quite complex and attitudinous, which makes them a favourite among aficionados. But you can also make vodka from apples, quinoa, even milk – Black Cow (£28 for 70cl), a milk vodka from Dorset, is deliciously creamy.
For decades, vodka companies played these differences down in an attempt to distance themselves from Soviet hooch of yore. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s (the same era that gave us weak lager and CK One), the message of neutrality sold. More recently, though, vodka has seen a welcome return to flavour.
This week, Belvedere launches a new duo of vodkas that shine a light on the role that raw material and terroir have in shaping a spirit’s character. Belvedere Smogóry and Belvedere Barte˛zek (both £45 for 70cl) are distilled from Dankowskie Diamond Rye, but each is made with a crop from a different part of Poland. The mild climes of Smogóry, west of Warsaw, produce a vodka that’s roast-y sweet, with espresso and cocoa characters. Snowy Barte˛zek, by contrast, produces a vodka that’s grassy and floral. Both are unfiltered to maximise their flavour and are complex enough to sip neat. Ideally side by side.
The Belvedere NPD department no doubt had one eye on Vestal, the Polish artisans who have been making quiet waves with their own brand of site-specific, vintage vodkas. Each release of Vestal (which usually runs to just a few thousand bottles) is made with one potato variety, grown in a single location, in a specific year.
Vineta potatoes give the 2010 Kaszebe (£64 for 50cl) a delicate, sake-like character, while the 2009 Podlasie (£565 for 50cl) – made with Lord potatoes – has a cherries-and-chocolate taste akin to Black Forest gâteau. The Ludmilla potato is the key to the 2014 Pomorze (£32 for 75cl), which has an almost mezcal-like smokiness. “We wanted to push this variety as far as it would go,” says Vestal founder William Borrell, who makes the vodka not far from the family farm in Kashubia, northwest Poland.
These aren’t vodkas for mixing with Coke. They behave a bit like wine, says Borrell, who believes each vintage reaches a sweet spot at around six years old. “I like the idea that vodka might regain its pride again,” he says. If his vodkas are anything to go by, it’s well on the way.