Why does no one make vodka this good?, I thought as I tried the sublime colourless liquid. I was at the Glenfarclas distillery on Speyside sampling their new make spirit (it cannot legally be called whisky until it has been aged for a minimum of three years but in Glenfarclas’ case it will be aged for much longer in former sherry casks). I’d assumed that most of the flavour in whisky came from the barrels but this liquid had so much character. There was a bready, beery quality that is hardly discernable in the aged spirit.
Vodka’s highest calling, in contrast, seems to be absolute (or perhaps that should be Absolut) tastelessness. Russian Standard vodka bills itself as: ‘ultra-clean, smooth & delicious’ and made from ‘pure glacial water from the frozen north.’ The marketing guff for premium vodkas always concentrates on smoothness, purity, and how many times they have been distilled and charcoal-filtered. It’s the adman’s dream, a product with no distinctive flavour to get in the way of the marketing.
Until the mid-19th century most Russian and Polish vodkas would have been made much like whisky. This changed in 1895 when Czar Alexander III made vodka a state monopoly. Distillation switched to the recently invented rectification column which produces a stronger, purer and blander spirit. This neutral industrial spirit, only a whisper away from pure ethanol, became the model for vodka around the world. Happily for the discerning drinker there are a few companies doing things the old way. One is Vestal Vodka from Poland who produce highly-distinctive vodkas from potatoes. You can really taste the potato but also distinct notes of spice, fruit, caramel and pepper with a creamy texture. You must drink them cool rather than ice cold. Most of their vodkas are not only vintage, ie from a single potato harvest, but also from a single variety of spud. These are vodkas that can compete with wine for complexity and sense of place.
It’s interesting to see if whisky might go down the same route. The barley in Scotch can come from anywhere – the only terroir qualities come from the climate and the water – but some distilleries are returning to local raw materials. A new distillery, Ballindalloch just up the road from Glenfarclas (full disclosure – the master distiller Charles Smith is my uncle), have just started distilling from barley grown on their estate but won’t have anything to sell for a good few years. Perhaps they should sell a little vodka until their spirit matures. Vestal produce a vodka aged in sherry-seasoned barrels which has something of the single malt about it. Soon we won’t be able to tell where vodka ends and whisky begins. These are confusing times for booze traditionalists but with spirits this good, who really cares?