A matter of TASTE
Decanter|August 2021
Think vodka is a bland, flavourless spirit? Think again. With producers focusing on provenance and terroir, vodka is reinventing itself as a characterful choice for connoisseurs
RICHARD WOODARD

Back in 1939, when a little-known vodka called Smirnoffwas first sold in the US, it used a memorable – if technically incorrect – strapline: ‘Smirnoffwhite whiskey: no smell, no taste’. Given that the brand now sells roughly 25m cases a year around the world, the approach seems to have worked.

To most people, blank neutrality epitomises vodka. It is the chameleon of spirits, an efficient and malleable alcohol delivery system that takes on whatever flavours you throw at it in any number of cocktails or mixed drinks. Until recently in the US, its characterless character was even enshrined in law. By definition, vodka had to be ‘without distinctive character, aroma, taste or colour’.

But there’s always been a part of the vodka world that eschews the dismissive notion that all vodkas taste the same because they don’t taste of anything. Russians and Poles would find the idea laughable – and now increasing numbers of people in the western world would agree.

GRAIN OF TRUTH

‘You know, I think we are in a golden age for vodka drinkers and connoisseurs,’ says Chico Rosa, master distiller at The Oxford Artisan Distillery (TOAD), one of the countless craft operators to have sprung up around the world in recent years. ‘There is more and more emphasis on terroir and flavour in vodka.’

Terroir? In vodka? Really? But when TOAD started making vodka three years ago, it sourced rye grain grown in sandy soils near Oxford, in central southern England; more recently, it switched to rye from clay soils. ‘Now that is something very different,’ says Rosa. ‘It still has the same kind of flavour profile, but the character is definitely not as silky.’

TOAD’s Oxford Rye Organic Vodka happens to use the same raw ingredients (rye, wheat and barley) as Dima’s Vodka from Ukraine – but the two liquids have highly contrasting styles. Where Oxford Rye is rich and round, full of cocoa bean and dark chocolate, Dima’s is fresher, zestier, but with rye’s peppery edge. ‘Flavourful but smooth was our overarching aim,’ explains founder Dima Deinega, Ukraine-born, but resident in the UK since the age of five. ‘It took us 38 tries to get it right, because we wanted something that was more refined and complex.’

Like TOAD, Dima’s makes great play of its raw ingredients and origins – grains grown in the ultra-fertile black Ukrainian soil called ‘chernozem’, so prized that it is sold by the truckload on the black market.

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