Sip don't slurp: Ultra-premium vodkas are spirits worth quaffing

The new breed of posh vodkas are much too interesting to be drowned out with mixers.

A vodka that comes in a bottle shaped like an ancient quartz crystal skull seems like an appropriate place to start when exploring new arrivals to the spirit world. But Crystal Head, the ghoulish-looking new arrival from Canada (owned by Ghostbusters star Dan Aykroyd) isn’t the only new arrival on the luxury spirit market. Beluga, a favourite among the discerning in its native Russia, has recently arrived on these shores, while luxury group Quintessentially has recently launched Quintessentially Vodka, an “ultra-premium sipping British vodka”.

The new arrivals join existing market leaders such as Grey Goose, which calls itself “the world’s best tasting vodka” and Belvedere, “the world’s first super premium vodka”, and a whole host of other brands trying to capture their share of the market.

Since overtaking whisky in 2007, vodka has been the No 1 spirit in the UK, with 108 million bottles a year sold in the UK and sales estimated at £2.2bn. In tough economic conditions, the standard vodka sales for the past year are down, yet sales for premium vodka are up.

It suggests that we are starting to see the spirit not simply as a flavourless hit, easily overpowered by a mixer, but as something more to be appreciated and savoured.

Those at the mixing end of the drinks industry are also noticing the difference. Piyush Chavda, head bartender at the fashionable 5cc cocktail bar in London’s Exmouth Market, says that his customers are more aware of what vodka they want.

“Consumers nowadays generally ask for their brand of choice and are more aware of the subtle differences between varieties. For example, ­people tend to ask for Crystal Head and tonic or specify the vodka in their martini as well as how they would ­prefer it,” he says.

“Premium vodka has become a bar staple due to the demand, which in turn has relegated Smirnoff from the bar. Premium brands are used more often by ­bartenders because of the emphasis on taste and quality as demanded by our consumers.”

Chavda adds that rather than a ­flavourless mixer, a top-quality ­variety of vodka should have the same taste subtleties and differences to rival ­spirits. “A good vodka tastes of its core ingredients, hence you would ­expect a potato vodka to taste creamy and earthy. Rye vodka, however, takes on a spicy or peppery profile and you would expect a spelt-grain vodka to be richer with a hint of wheaty sweetness.”

While at one time brands seemed to be at pains to show just how many times they had distilled or filtered their product (presumably for those who wanted their spirit to slip down with the minimum of fuss), things today are different. The manufacturers who use high quality ingredients want to show them off and know that too much meddling can result in the loss of flavours and qualities that give the drink its personality.

Belvedere Unfiltered variation, made from a baker’s-grade grain, is offered up as the “whisky drinkers’ vodka” and serves as a reminder that there is something interesting on the other side of your tonic. Similarly unfiltered is the barley vodka from the British manufacturer Sipsmith, which is distilled in a copper still in London and involves adding no glycerine, fructose or aromatisers. Also using the copper­-still method, meanwhile, is the Swedish brand Absolut, which has recently launched Elyx from a single estate at Rabelof castle in Sweden, contained, as one might expect, in a well-designed bottle.

This single-venue approach is similar to that of Vestal, the small British-owned and Polish-produced vodka. The company, which has won praise for its products, treats the ­potatoes used in its production like a winemaker would treat its grapes. Small potatoes are grown in the same fields, alternated by crop rotation and harvested via horse and plough. Instead of turning out the same product under the same label, each year Vestal create a different vintage.

“We’re not trying to drum out the same product year after year, instead there’s a sense of anticipation,” says William Borrell, one of the founders of Vestal. “Our goal is in about a year’s time we will sell the spirits en primeur, before it’s been bottled. We thought the closest thing to [the French concept of] terroir is potato vodka. It’s regional and it lives there. Historically, 200 years ago a vodka used to have as much identity as a whisky, brandy or cognac. Unfortunately today, vodka has progressed into something else… dumbed down.”

The phrase “dumbing down” seems aposite when you start to exploring the so-called luxury market, where marketing often seems to take precedence over what’s actually in the bottle.For every example like Snow Leopard, a good quality spirit that gives 15 per cent of all profits to the Snow Leopard Trust, there are plenty of others seemingly more concerned in reinforcing their “bling” images. Some brands advertise that they are filtered through diamonds (perhaps to show that they are beyond the traditional method of filtration through charcoal), while G Vodka No 1 takes a different route entirely: pouring all its spirits over the bare breasts of a model.

This is because, in their own words, “good flavour is the basis, the feeling conveyed is the highlight”, adding that “there is nothing better than the eroticism of a beautiful woman”.

A fine reminder that even though the overall quality might be going up, it’s still wise to choose your vodka with care.

High spirits: Seven to sip

Vestal

Creamy and smooth, this delicious vodka is a connoisseur’s choice

Belvedere Unfiltered

Grown-up flavours come from the Dankowskie Diamond Rye

Absolut Elyx

Very smooth, fresh, clean taste, a stylish drink to match its stylish packaging

Sipsmith

Nutty and spicy, both on the nose and on the palate, this British vodka shows that the spirit doesn’t need to come from traditional areas.

Beluga

Subtle yet tasty flavours, its makers suggest it as an accompaniment to caviar. The Gold Line variety is £100

Crystal Head

Smooth Canadian offering, made with glacial aquifer water and with a bottle that will impress and scare your friends

Grey Goose

Full of flavour, this French offering was a rare, early, example of a mainstream brand that was good enough to drink neat

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