PROOF POSITIVE May 2005
Flavored vodkas are infusing even more life into an already superpopular spirit.
The Making of Belvedere Flavored Vodkas
Vodka in 2005 is a wildly broad, explosive and diverse galaxy that boasts as many flavors, perfumes and hues as any ice cream shop. Gone is the misconception that vodka, the world's most dominant distilled spirit, is colorless, odorless, tasteless and without character. Though the burst of flavored vodkas is a relatively recent phenomenon (they started hitting the market in the 1980s), adulterated vodkas have been consumed since the 1700s. In his historical account titled A History of Vodka (Verso, 1991), author William Pokhlebkin defines flavoring as something "originally used to conceal unpleasant flavors, but later simply to impart an interesting taste."
Up until the 1970s, flavored vodkas were ignored for the most part. A major commercial push by American distillers in the 1950s and 1960s focused squarely on standard unflavored vodkas, especially brands like Smirnoff, Kamchatka, Gordon's and Popov. When vodka became a leading distilled spirit player in the 1970s, European distillers toyed with the idea of introducing vodkas that had distinct and recognizable flavors. By the mid-1980s, Absolut (Sweden) and Stolichnaya (Russia) took the lead by offering a handful of rudimentary, if safe, flavors such as citrus (mostly lemon) and pepper.
Today, flavored vodka is one of the fastest-growing distilled spirits segments of all, with double-digit annual growth the norm. Flavors today run the gamut from fruit combinations such as raspberry and cranberry (Boru Crazzberry) to dark chocolate (Vincent Van Gogh Dutch Chocolate) to passion fruit (42 Below) to odd indigenous fashion statement fruits like Meyer lemons and Kaffir limes (Hangar One). Figures supplied by the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS) give a telling snapshot of the growth of flavored vodkas. In 2000, flavored vodkas made up 6.68 percent of all vodka produced; in 2003, that percent zoomed ahead to 11.3. With vodka accounting for a remarkable 25 percent of all distilled spirits sold internationally and with DISCUS figures for 2004 showing volume up 4 percent from 2003, there appears to be no limit for flavored vodkas.
The popularity of flavored vodkas is most often dictated by the support of bartenders and food and beverage managers in restaurants, lounges and bars. Bartenders especially have their fingers on the pulse of fast-changing consumer trends. Who's requesting flavored vodkas? "It seems to depend mostly on age," says Steve Schuler, the beverage director for Toscani and Sons Piano Bar and Restaurant in New Paltz, New York. "Younger customers order more flavored vodkas than older customers." Traditionally, younger imbibers are more adventurous. The continuing popularity of cocktails, the most appropriate and natural arena for flavored vodka, is also fueling the feverish growth of flavored vodkas.
Do bartenders who mix scores of cocktails over the course of an evening have personal favorites? "Most flavored vodkas are too intense or sweet to be enjoyed by themselves," observes Neyah White, head bartender for Mecca in San Francisco, California. "I do not say this in criticism since it is the same properties that make them so mixable and fun to work with."
When mixing flavored vodka cocktails on your own, you'll need something to cut their sweetness. Citrus fills that role admirably, which is why so many newer cocktails call for lemon, lime, orange juice or even unsweetened pineapple and cranberry juices. Vanilla, chocolate and caramel are more difficult to mix in cocktails and, as a result, are taking longer to catch on with consumers and bartenders.
| The Art of Infusion
Infusing flavor into vodka is an extremely delicate, if arduous, art. It is one that demands patience, determination, money, skill and, most of all, time.
David van de Velde, president of Luctor International of Reno, Nevada, has his award-winning Vincent Van Gogh line of super-premium vodkas produced at a family-owned distillery in Schiedam, Holland. "On average, it will take about a year to create a new flavor. There are no books fully explaining how to make each flavored vodka. Our master distiller, Tim Vos, uses his experience in creating the perfect flavor," says van de Velde. Miles Karakasevic, proprietor and master distiller of hallowed Domaine Charbay Distillery in Napa Valley, is a notorious perfectionist and has taken even longer with a yet-to-be-released flavored vodka. "Our upcoming whole-leaf, green-tea flavor took two years to source, formulate and [then] develop the specific technology to extract and distill the layers of flavor and fragrances of the leaves and incorporate all of them into the vodka," reports Karakasevic.
Vodka distillers, or their flavor contractors (a k a flavor designers or flavor houses), around the world use one or more of the following fundamental flavoring production methods: circulation (the flowing of a liquid into another to marry flavors), maceration (the act of soaking substances in a liquid in order to obtain the essential flavor of the substances) or infusion (the gradual introduction of flavoring into a liquid by compound extraction). By all accounts, circulation is better suited to the production of large-scale volumes of flavored vodkas. Infusion and maceration are labor-intensive and are, therefore, more suitably applied to brands with smaller production quotas. Most distillers favor one style of flavoring over the others, while a minority espouses the employment of two or sometimes all three. Because attaining the right flavor is frequently difficult, a high percentage of distillers consult with flavoring companies to help them develop their line of flavored vodkas.
Paul G. Coulombe, president and CEO of White Rock Distilleries of Lewiston, Maine, imports the well-received Three Olives Vodkas from England. Coulombe believes in the circulation method because "[it is] easier to blend the extracts into the process of filtration and get a more consistent finished product." Across the North American continent, Paul Fuegner, vice president of marketing for Skyy Spirits of San Francisco, California, prefers to be flexible in his company's methodology. "The method depends on the base ingredient essences and how they can best be expressed from a flavor profile," he says. "Some flavors are distilled like Skyy Vanilla, while others are brewed like tea, then blended with Skyy Vodka."
Lorne Fisher, spokesman for FRIS Vodka of Denmark, casts his vote for circulation, pointing out, "FRIS chooses to flavor its vodka using circulation. The product development team feels that mixing the flavors at or close to the final alcoholic strength achieves the best final product. Specifically, the flavors are added after FRIS's patented freeze distillation step, but before final filtration."
Jeffrey Hopmayer, CEO of England's Blavod Extreme Spirits of London, likes the infusion method because he strives for intense flavors. "I believe you need to have the robust, explosive flavors [of infusion] and not just hint at it. I don't believe that maceration or circulation really achieves the level of flavor development that we like to show in our vodkas." Ian Crystal, the Stolichnaya Vodka brand manager for Allied Domecq Spirits, North America, says that the distillers of Stolichnaya also employ infusion, but for different reasons. "We work with flavor designers and due to our process, our flavors do not fade. Stolichnaya uses a blend of essential oils and other natural fruit flavor components."
"All of these methods [circulation, infusion, maceration] imply the use of real fruit, which is not true for the production of most flavored vodkas on the market," warns Jorg Rupf, master distiller and owner of St. George Spirits in Oakland, California. Rupf makes Hangar One vodkas. "We infuse the unflavored vodka with fresh fruit and let it macerate for a period of time, extracting flavors and some color. We then redistill a portion of the infusion to refine and stabilize the aromas."
So, which are the hottest new flavors for vodka in 2005? "We see raspberry and mango as hot flavors," says Reid Massie, marketing manager for Burnett's Flavored Vodka of Bardstown, Kentucky. "We expect cherry to be an extremely popular player." Indeed, cherry and mango are viable Rookie Flavor of the Year 2005 candidates as more appear in the marketplace. Raspberry and other berry flavors continue to show strength while citrus flavored vodkas are perennial favorites because of their inherent mixability. However, as more brands of one type of flavored vodka come onto the scene, that type begins to suffer from variety overexposure.
"The consumer is searching all the time for what is new," says Van de Velde. "We hope to satisfy that search by producing flavored vodkas which are not on the market, [or are] difficult to make."
How about Praline Flavored Vodka? Oreo Cookie? Wild Atlantic salmon? Only time will tell.