Vodka is the simplest of all spirits – its name is taken from the Slavic for “little water” – but as connoisseurs of Danish furniture can attest, getting more from less is an art of its own. It may not require months or years of ageing, but it’s a singularly unforgiving spirit, with no juniper berries or smoked peat to distract your taste-buds.
“It’s better made in smaller batches,” says Ron Cregan, head of business development at creative agency Sedley Place and a judge at the World Drinks Awards. “You need to put a lot of love into it, really filter it out. You don’t have a lot to play with, so you need the ingredients to be very high quality, and you have to pay attention to every detail, right down to the shape of the still.”
The 90s and 2000s tarnished vodka’s reputation with dozens of cheap, flavoured varieties finding their way into bars and nightclubs, but the craft scene is helping to restore it to its rightful place near the top of the spirits tree. The relatively low barriers to entry have attracted scores of small-batch distillers, producing a vast array of high-quality vodkas.
Poland remains home to a host of exceptional varieties, but perhaps most interesting right now is the US craft market, with brands like Tito’s, pictured left, making brilliant, distinctive products.
The most common ingredients are fermented wheat or rye, while corn, barley, potatoes and sugar beet molasses are also popular (any sugar-rich liquid can be used to make vodka). The base ingredient gives the final product a distinct – albeit subtle – flavour, and a good bottle should be sippable without drowning it in mixer. Serving it straight from the freezer should give it a slightly creamy texture; if it freezes, chuck it in the bin.
“I look for a clean, elegant taste,” says Cregan. “It should be lightly fragrant but not floral, with a lovely mouth-feel. Some of the premium spirits from the big producers are worth a look: Smirnoff Black is made using a former Irish whiskey still and is fantastic, as is Absolut Elyx, which uses a special copper catalysation process, giving it a really lovely finish.”