Vodka is like the artist’s blank canvas, the potter’s lump of clay, the chef’s simple chicken breast. Not a lot of distinction by itself, but add a splash of color, a dash of spice, a distinctive bottle and plenty of imagery, and the spirit takes on a completely new character. To the untrained palate, vodka tends either to provide the anonymous potency in their Cosmo, or serves as a sign of brand identification served in a Martini with a twist. Compared to most other spirits, vodka alone doesn’t offer much flavor variety from one to the next.
That is, until the recent wave of flavored vodkas. This is where brands have been making a mark beyond their distinctive bottles and catchy ad campaigns. The development of the flavored vodka trend has helped brands foster more recognition and loyalty among drinkers.
The trend has three major benefits: it gives brands a chance to mark out a more definite category for themselves by further establishing their brand image in the minds of the consumers; it gives consumers more options in a broader array of flavors to choose from; and finally, flavored vodkas give those behind the bar a chance to flex their creative muscles, play with the artistic side of mixing cocktails and establish some signature drinks that keep customers coming back for more.
Infused and flavored vodkas aren’t exactly new; old-timers remember vodka flavored with grass grown in fields where the buffalo roam, and the recently-departed pepper-flavored Stoli Pertsovka and spiced Stoli Okhotnichya had been in the US market for years. But the latest wave of commercial flavored vodkas is on a growth curve that doesn’t yet show an end in sight, undoubtedly bolstered by the massive marketing power of Absolut and its various flavors.
But with four flavors, Absolut isn’t the leader. Stolichnaya had perhaps gone the farthest in the flavored vodka game, with a line that included cinnamon and coffee among the ten or so flavors that were launched at the same time in the mid-1990s. Without the devotion of marketing muscle to help promote them individually, many of these flavors didn’t survive. Stoli’s down to five flavors, with Vanil and Razberi strong players and Persik (peach), reportedly due to be re-released this summer (bring on the Fuzzy Navels!).
Luctor’s Van Gogh is up to five flavors now (Lemon, Lime, Orange, Wild Appel and now Dutch Chocolate), Grey Goose offers an orange, Ketel One its Citroen, and Finlandia has added lime to go with its cranberry flavored vodka. But among the more distinctive flavored vodkas are the four from the Domaine Charbay distillery. Unlike every other flavored vodkas on the market, this line isn’t an outgrowth of an existing traditional vodka product. “We’re into flavor,” explains Marko Karakasevic, whose family has been distilling for thirteen generations, the last two generations (Marko, with his father Miles) working together in California’s Napa Valley. They launched with Meyer Lemon and Blood Orange vodkas in 1998, and followed that with the launch of Key Lime and Ruby Red Grapefruit in 1999.
Restaurants and bars in the Napa Valley area and beyond quickly looking for distinction in a crowded market latched onto Charbay as a premium brand that stood out from the crowd. Each flavor begins with seasonal fresh fruit, from which the Karakasevics pull a pure extract of flavor and color, the key to the fresh-fruit flavor of the finished product. Other flavors are in the works, though Karakasevic wasn’t ready to share what they’re working on. This summer, though, the distillery will release their first traditional, unflavored vodka, completing the backward circle.
Wading Through the Options
The national market may be able to support a dozens of flavored vodkas, but any one bar will likely only carry a few. Taste is the place to start, trying different brands side by side and deciding which vodkas have a flavor profile that will work in your environment. “You really need to understand the flavor profile of the spirit, the individual brands and styles, before you simply start making cocktails,” says Tony Abu-Ganim, beverage director at Las Vegas’ Bellagio, of the flavored vodkas available. After tasting trials, for instance, he found that Absolut’s Citron suited their Cosmo best, while Ketel One’s Citroen was the best match for the Lemon Drop.
Not all flavored vodkas are created equal, some more suited for mixers, others worthy of top-shelf status to serve on the rocks or up. That’s for each bar to decide, the best way to make the choice is again with side-by-side blind tastings. “Don’t underestimate the variety of flavors the different vodkas have, even if you’re adding it to mixers,” Abu-Ganim advises. Some of those citrus vodkas, for instance, kick in with a straight-on lemon flavor, others more a melding of different citrus types; some smell and taste like fresh fruit, others like generic “lemon flavor,” with the result that no two citrusy vodkas taste exactly the same. The same can be true of berry and vanilla and other common themes in the flavor arena.
The change that flavored vodkas has made on cocktail menus and in bars around the country is significant. Early on, when Absolut launched their first flavored vodka, Peppar, Bloody Marys were all the rage. The peppery spice of this spirit gave bartenders the option of streamlining that cocktail to simply add the vodka to tomato juice, pop in a garnish and serve. It’s a formula, the streamlining of cocktail crafting, that is still prevalent today, even more so with the growing range of flavored vodkas available.
At Tini Bigs in Seattle, a house favorite is the Hangover Martini, using Absolut Peppar shaken with some Bloody Mary mix and served up. “You don’t have to use as much Bloody Mary mix to get the pepperiness,” notes bar manager Patrick Haight, which allows the vodka to come through more and not be totally overwhelmed by the mixer. And their best seller is the Backyard Martini: Stoli Razberi with a splash of cranberry juice, garnished with lime. Simple and streamlined, the vodka-berry combo making quick work of a well-balanced cocktail.
Paul Lynn, co-owner of the hip 1351 Lounge in St. Helena, California, is a huge fan of nearby Charbay’s flavored vodkas. A chef for fifteen years, he understands the value of starting with quality ingredients, which is how he looks at Charbay’s place on his back bar. “Their commitment to excellence is already well known,” says Lynn, and he devotes a good part of his cocktail menu to Charbay products. The ruby red Hemmingway starts with ruby red grapefruit vodka, adding fresh grapefruit juice and just a touch of simple syrup. Two warm-weather favorites are the Key Lime Rickey (key lime vodka, a dash of Angostura bitters, topped off with ginger ale) and the Napa Valley Iced Tea (Meyer lemon vodka, a tiny splash of Chambord and iced tea). “These products are great for the experimental bartender,” says Lynn, though he notes that it can take some educating to get customers to try a product that’s so different from the rest.
Consider some other options: the classic Madras, equal parts orange juice, cranberry juice, and vodka, which can be modified with the use of just an orange vodka with a splash of cranberry, or a cranberry vodka with a splash of orange. Or a Black or White Russian made with vanilla-flavored vodka, adding another subtle layer of flavor to those classics. Vanilla, too, pairs naturally well with mixers that have vanilla tones of their own, including cream soda and cola.
Vodka makers don’t have a corner on the flavored vodka market. In fact one vodka distiller, Finlandia, did their part to spread the word about house infusions back in the 1980s, with their promotion that sent bars infusion jars along with recipe suggestions. That big infusion wave may have passed–not all bars are willing and/or able to maintain an infusion program–but what remains is an appreciation in some bars for the creativity that making house infusions allows. They help you to put your own stamp on the flavor trend, creating a signature that sets you apart.
For over ten years now, Nick Mautone at Gramercy Tavern in New York City has been infusing vodkas. Through the years of experimentation, his favorite ingredient has proven to be fresh herbs. Two year-round specialties are the basil and rosemary vodkas based on their house vodka, Peconika, from Long Island. Mautone’s signature Basil Martini uses that basil vodka and dry vermouth, garnished with a paper-thin dried tomato chip floating on top. The Rosmarino starts with the rosemary vodka, dry vermouth and a hint of Pernod, served ice cold with a caper berry. “Cocktails are a great precursor to a meal at Gramercy,” Mautone explains, saying that his cocktail list is influenced by what’s going on in the acclaimed restaurant’s kitchen. “The Cosmo still sells better than my Basil Martini,” notes Mautone, “but that’s okay.”
Tini Bigs is one of Seattle’s favorite destinations for a classy cocktail. Bar manager Patrick Haight and his bar staff are constantly on the lookout for the next great thing–whether a new product or a new house concoction–that will wow their customers. A wide range of flavored vodkas get active play in this busy bar, but they do make the effort to create some house infusions as well, often during the summer with fresh seasonal fruit. But two signature infusions are year-round favorites: apple and watermelon Jolly Rancher. They simply unwrap loads of the candies, drop them into bottles of vodka and wait patiently for them to dissolve into the spirit. So good they serve it on the rocks or up, these vodkas are also great mixers. With cleaner, less overpowering flavor than the schnapps-based Pucker spirits used in many bars.
What’s on the Horizon
Tom Kappenman of K&L Distributors in Washington State points out that flavored vodkas are among the fastest growing categories in the nation. Much of the trend began in the premium, high-price segments, but in recent years the trickle-down effect is seeing less expensive brands coming on board with flavored vodkas to meet the needs of more price-conscious bars. Smirnoff released their Twist label of flavored vodkas at a price point below the premium brands, and now Burnett’s offers prices a bit below Smirnoff, further broadening the playing field and give bar managers that many more choices to suit their business and their price threshold.
But within that premium category where the flavor trend began, it can seem the playing field is already a bit crowded. “We may be near an oversaturation point,” notes Mautone. “Everyone has a lemon vodka, for instance, and they’re beginning to fight for shelf space and the field is starting to overcompete. Many of the products are quite good, but there’s only so much shelf space any one bar can devote, not matter how good the different flavored vodkas are.”
Some bartenders will do their best to accommodate customer calls for specific brands, because there is no denying the name recognition of some labels. Still others shoot for accommodating the customer while leaving room for “education” about other brands or styles that might appeal, helping create a niche of loyal in customers who will welcome a bar’s interest in expanding their palate for the wide world of flavored vodkas. It’s a competitive market, but there are a variety of ways to make that competition work in your favor.