Trendwatch: New Barrel-Aged Vodka

The colorless classic is barreling toward your bar with a new hue.

We love a whole range of liquor that’s aged in barrels—whiskey, rum, brandy and even gin. But traditionally, vodka has always been barrel-free. Until now. 

Brands are slowly releasing wood-aged versions, and it’s stirring up controversy over whether it’s actually legal to sell these new hybrids as “vodka.” Under federal law, vodka must be colorless, flavorless and odorless, yet aging often adds all three.

It’s taken a while for commercial producers to navigate the maze imposed by the buzz-kills at the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The final resolution: “oak flavored vodka.” Oak by Absolut (also spotted in airport duty-free shops as Absolut Amber) has been generating some buzz with its recent roll-out of its amber-hued “vodka rested on oak.” We even sampled it at Tales of the Cocktail, mixed with artichoke-based bitter Cynar as a shooter called the “Oakie Doke Artichoke.” 

Other contenders in the aged-vodka brigade: Oregon’s Bendistillery may be easiest to obtain: its Crater Lake Vodka is aged “briefly in New American oak,” imparting a subtle vanilla flavor but no color. Meanwhile, across the pond, England's Chase Distillery offers two aged-vodka takes – one rested in Kentucky bourbon barrels, another in casks that previously held Islay Scotch.  

Of course, mixologists have been experimenting with barrel-aged vodka for some time, taking vodka cocktails deep into new flavor territories.

The draw isn’t mere novelty—introducing wood adds complex flavors and a richness that’s purposefully absent in vodka. And having it clock time in a barrel brings out the aromas of whatever the sugar source is, be it potato, wheat or honey, says Orson Salicetti, who created a line-up of wood-aged vodka tipples for Ariana Soho in New York City, where they age pre-mixed vodka drinks 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.

The aged vodka martini is just the starting point: The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas has the Age of Enlightenment, a mix of Hangar One vodka, Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur, which lives in a Peju Sauvignon Blanc barrel for about three months before it’s served.

And at The Eveleigh in Hollywood, head barman David Kupchinsky has experimented with a knowing wink at the ultimate clubbing classic, the vodka & Red Bull. He filled a sherry barrel with vodka, Red Bull and Green Chartreuse, then let it sit for two months. The final result? A fruity mix with subtle herbal and nutty accents.

“I just thought it would be funny to do a barrel-aged vodka-Red Bull,” he admits. “But it came out pretty good and we sold out pretty quickly.” 

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