You already love a range of liquors that clock time in barrels—whiskey, rum, brandy and, recently, even gin. But traditionally, straight vodka has always been barrel-free.
Now brands are releasing wood-aged batches, and it’s stirring up controversy over whether it’s actually legal to call this new breed “vodka.” Under federal law, to be called straight vodka it must be colorless, flavorless and odorless, yet oak aging often adds all three.
But as the buzzkills at the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau scratch their heads over what it is (and as a result, delaying many bottles reaching your liquor-store shelf), bartenders are already mixing the stuff, be it from the few brands available, or from their own barrels behind the bar. This new take on such a commonplace and otherwise basic booze is like a shiny (well, brown-colored, mostly) toy for mixologists, and many of their new barrel-vodka cocktails are diving deep into new flavor territories.
Introducing wood adds complex flavors and a richness that has been purposefully absent in straight vodka, including aromas of the source—be it potato, wheat or honey, says Orson Salicetti, a bartender at Ariana SoHo in New York City, where premade vodka drinks age in oak casks for six weeks, including the bar’s signature vodka martini.
“It mellows the vodka heat a bit, much like whiskey, and gives you so much more flavor to play with,” Salicetti says.
David Kupchinsky, head barman at The Eveleigh in Hollywood, struck liquid gold when, jokingly, he reimagined the ultimate club classic in a Sherry barrel, using an aged vodka, Red Bull and Green Chartreuse. The drink is a fruity mix with subtle herbal and nut notes and folks are drinking it down faster than he can batch it.
“I just thought it would be funny to do a barrel-aged vodka-Red Bull,” he says. “But it came out pretty good and it sold quick.”