When Jon Kreidler, co-founder of Tattersall Distilling in Minneapolis, set out to make vodka, he wanted his organic corn-based spirit to be “as neutral as possible,” he says. But that didn’t mean he wanted it to be completely devoid of character.
“There’s a big difference between vodkas, if you taste them,” says Kreidler. “To claim that vodka is flavorless and tasteless is just silly.”
A new federal statute supports this perspective. On May 4, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) announced changes to labeling and advertising regulations for wine, distilled spirits and malt beverages. Among these was an update to the Standard of Identity for Vodka, which drops language that defined vodka as “without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.”
Among those that favored the definition change were distillers at Altitude Spirits in Boulder, Colorado.
“[It] is no longer appropriate given the variety in base ingredients, flavors and flavor profiles found in the diverse vodka category,” wrote Matthew Baris, Altitude Spirits’ chairman and cofounder, in response to a TTB post requesting comments.
Lance Winters, master distiller of St. George Spirits in Alameda, California, also replied that varying distillation techniques, proof, filtering and base ingredients lend “character and distinctiveness” to finished vodkas.
If all vodka tasted the same, “there would be no reason to produce them,” he wrote. “There would be no reason for a consumer to choose one over another, except for price.”
The TTB responded that “the requirement that vodka be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color no longer reflects consumer expectations and should be eliminated.”
The agency now requires that vodka is distinguished and defined by its specific production standards: “Vodka may not be labeled as aged, and unlike other neutral spirits, it may contain limited amounts of sugar and citric acid.”
In other words, vodka will be defined by what it is, rather than what it’s not.
“I’m happy that’s changed,” says Ricky Miller III, CEO and cofounder of Carbonadi Vodka in Newport Beach, California. He calls the former classification “archaic” and says it complicated efforts to differentiate his vodka from others in a saturated market.
“Grumpy bartenders always fall back on saying vodka is ‘odorless and tasteless,’” says Miller. “But there are differences that seasoned palates pick up. [The new definition] makes room for personality and character, which is great.”
Of course, there’s still a place for vodkas that skew closer to the old notion of a super-neutral, nearly flavorless spirit.
Many bartenders and spirits producers consider Smirnoff, an American-made vodka, among the most neutral in aroma and flavor. (A previous Wine Enthusiast review arrived at a similar conclusion.) According to data from IWSR, Smirnoff was the No. 2 vodka brand in sales during 2019, behind Tito’s.
The TTB’s amended description also puts to rest the contentious idea of barrel-aged vodka. The new amendment states “vodka may not be aged or stored in wood barrels,” with the exception of paraffin-lined wood barrels, which would not transmit the characteristics of the wood.
Yet, going forward, consumers may be more willing to embrace a broader range of nuances among vodkas.
“I like to think people are figuring it out,” says Kreidler. “A corn-based vodka will have sweetness to it. It’s just inherent. Wheat-based vodka is going to be a little drier. Potato has a wonderful soft mouthfeel.”
If absolute neutrality is no longer the prevailing benchmark, Kreidler believes that some vodka producers will be willing to accentuate naturally occurring flavors.
Carbonadi’s Miller doesn’t plan to change how his vodka is made. But he views the new definition as permission to press harder on the message that not all vodkas drink alike.
“It supports our case for selling our vodka,” says Miller. “Now I’m not the crazy guy going out there and selling the vodka full of personality.”
Here are six vodkas that show the spirit’s range.
Black Cow Vodka; $33, 91 points. Distilled from whey, this vodka has a faintly earthy aroma and neutral, slightly sweet palate that finishes with a citrusy lilt. It’s more about texture than flavor: markedly plush and rounded, ideal for a head start on White Russians and other creamy cocktails.
Shelta Cavern Spirits Vodka; $30, 91 points. Made from malted barley and wheat, look for distinct fruity notes on nose and palate. It’s not the absolute neutrality some seek in vodka, but it’s still pleasant, light and soft with tinges of coconut and cinnamon heat into the finish.
Tom of Finland Vodka; $35, 91 points. Named for Touko Laaksonen, the Finnish artist and gay icon better known as Tom of Finland. Made from organic wheat and rye, this versatile vodka has a mild, slightly citrusy scent and a smooth, vanilla-tinged palate that finishes brisk, with peppy hints of lemon peel and white pepper.
South Fork Vodka; $19, 90 points. This small batch vodka distilled from corn has a distinctly sweet, marshmallow-like aroma. The palate also has a sugary tone, hinting at marshmallow and coconut, finishing brisk. Best Buy.
Source One Vodka; $34, 87 points. A single-estate vodka distilled from oats and cut with water from High Sierra snowmelt. Look for earthy, spicy, savory dried-herb notes on nose and palate, reading slightly vegetal. The finish is brisk and peppery, with a mouthwatering saline hint.
The Heart Distillery Vodka; $25, 87 points. Made from corn, this vodka has a faint but unmistakable anise note on nose and palate, reading almost like the mildest absinthe ever. It’s light and drying, with just a hint of sweetness and a citrusy finish that echoes that distinct anise note.