Got Vodka? Spirits Made from Milk, Olives and More

bottle of vodka
Illustration by Enya Todd / Photo by Tom Arena
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Prized for its pristine, neutral profile, some might suspect that vodka has little to say. That would be a mistake. This spirit speaks volumes.

It’s also seen plenty of innovation.

To understand its roots, look to Russia, the spiritual home of vodka. Even the word is rooted in Russian. It’s a diminutive, affectionate term for “water.”

“Vodkas vary wildly depending on their base ingredient and how each variety is crafted,” writes Darra Goldstein in Beyond the North Wind (Ten Speed Press, 2020), a cookbook about Russia’s food and culture.

“The spirit can be distilled from any fermentable ingredient,” says Goldstein in the book. Grains like rye, corn or wheat are common. They yield brisk, crisp spirits that have “a bit of an afterbite,” which enhances pairing with fried foods or other rich bites like Russia’s iconic caviar. Potato is another staple, providing earthy softness.

It doesn’t stop there. Vodka has been crafted from fine wine grapes, all manner of fruits, vegetables, dairy products. Even excess baked goods have been turned into vodka.

What characteristics should vodka possess? “Good vodka should have a pleasant aroma, with no hit of ethanol or oily finish,” writes Goldstein.

All of the following vodkas have a story to tell, whether distilled from unusual raw ingredients, made in a unique way or distinctive location. While cocktail ideas are suggested for each bottle, another option is Goldstein’s preferred way to enjoy Russian vodka: right from the freezer, served straight up and icy-cold.

vodka illustration bottle
Illustration by Enya Todd / Photo by Tom Arena

Sip: A mouthwatering Greek vodka distilled from olives

Kastra Elion Vodka ($57)

In Western Greece, the town of Nafpaktos (also known as Lepanto) is home to picturesque beaches along the Corinthian Gulf, a well-preserved Venetian castle that overlooks the city and numerous olive groves. Greek olives and grains are distilled into this smooth, slightly buttery vodka. It opens with mild almond sweetness and winds into faint, mouthwatering salinity.

Mix: a Dirty Martini variation

Dirty (Sue) Martini

Courtesy Cari Hah, bar manager, Big Bar, Los Angeles

Cari Hah is a control freak about proper dilution in cocktails. “If too much water is added into the Martini, it will taste flat and watery,” she says. “Not enough water in the Martini, it will be too strong and flavors of the cocktail won’t bloom.” Her solution? This no-ice version. All the components must be kept “super cold,” she says. That means vodka and glassware in the freezer, vermouth and olive brine in the refrigerator. Her brine of choice is from Dirty Sue olives, hence the name.

  • 2 ounces vodka, chilled
  • ½ ounce dry vermouth, chilled
  • ½ ounce olive brine, preferably Dirty Sue Premium Olive Juice, chilled
  • 3/5 ounce ice-cold water (a bit more than ½ ounce)
  • Green olive, for garnish

Combine all ingredients in chilled coupe with no ice. Stir to combine. Garnish with olive.

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Illustration by Enya Todd / Photo by Tom Arena

Sip: A base of Midwestern sugar beets gives this vodka earthy sweetness

Bēt Vodka ($35)

Pronounced “beet,” this vodka is made with Minnesota-grown sugar beets and is distilled just over the border in Wisconsin. Expect a slightly sweet aroma and mild, earthy palate that offers an unusual grippy, drying quality. It has a brisk finish that’s slightly fruity and earthy.

Mix: a citrusy aperitivo

The Clean Break

Courtesy Benjamin Schiller, beverage director, RPM Restaurants, Chicago

Schiller recommends peeling the skin off of the citrus before the fruits are juiced and setting those strips aside. The peels then are added along with the other ingredients, and everything’s shaken together, a technique called the “Regal Shake.” Essential oils from the citrus peels provide additional depth of flavor.

  • 2 ounces vodka
  • ¾ ounce Aperol
  • ¾ ounce simple syrup
  • ¾ ounce fresh lemon or lime juice, plus peels of the citrus skin
  • 3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
  • 2–3 wheels fresh cucumber
  • 1 strip fresh citrus peel, for garnish
  • 1 cucumber wheel, for garnish

In cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine all ingredients. Shake well, then strain into Old Fashioned glass over large ice cube. Garnish with citrus peel and/or cucumber wheel.

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vodka illustration
Illustration by Enya Todd / Photo by Tom Arena

Sip: A Cali vodka that incorporates wine country grapes and San Francisco fog

Hangar 1 Fog Point Vodka ($134)

“Inspired by the Bay Area fog,” according to the producer, this limited-edition vodka starts with a Chenin Blanc-Viognier blend from California’s Pine Ridge Vineyards. The vodka was distilled and cut with water sourced from Hangar 1’s “fog catchers,” which are sheets of mesh that become waterlogged as fog floats through it. Water droplets fall into a trough, a sustainable way to collect fresh water. The vodka is silky and light as it transforms from distinctly fruity to a citrusy, peppery finish. Hangar 1 Straight Vodka ($41), distilled from grain and Viognier grapes, is also brisk and balanced.

Mix: a bubbly, lightly fruity Collins

Grape & Rosemary Collins

Courtesy Johnny Swet, owner/bartender, Grand Republic Cocktail Club, Brooklyn, NY

Rather than infuse a syrup or vodka with fruit and herbs, this twist on the classic Vodka Collins relies on muddling ingredients to impart fresh flavors. A vodka with nuanced fruit notes is a perfect foil for this tall, refreshing sipper.

  • 3–4 grapes, plus more for garnish
  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary, plus more for garnish
  • 2 ounces vodka
  • ¾ ounce lemon juice
  • ½ ounce simple syrup
  • Club soda, to top

Muddle grapes and rosemary sprig in bottom of cocktail shaker. Add vodka, lemon juice, simple syrup and ice. Shake well, then fine-strain into Collins glass over fresh ice. Top with splash of club soda. Garnish with grapes and rosemary sprig.

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vodka illustration
Illustration by Enya Todd / Photo by Tom Arena

Sip: A velvety vodka made from the milk of cows that graze the English countryside

Black Cow Pure Milk Vodka ($33)

Created by a Jason Barber, a dairy farmer in pastoral West Dorset, England, this vodka is distilled from whey, a byproduct of cheese-making. (Black Cow also makes Cheddar cheese.) While it doesn’t taste like milk, the vodka is mildly sweet and has a markedly plush, rounded texture that’s ideal to mix into creamy cocktails.

Mix: an upscale White Russian

Moneygun White Russian

Courtesy Will Duncan, director of hospitality, Moneygun, Chicago

A traditional White Russian mixes vodka with coffee liqueur and cream. This version, however, channels a boozy iced latte, with fresh espresso and simple syrup frozen into ice cubes. Make extra cubes to sweeten morning cold brews and iced teas.

  • 1 Demerara ice cube (see below)
  • 1 ½ ounces vodka
  • 1 ounce fresh espresso
  • 1 ounce cream
  • Grated nutmeg, for garnish
  • 3 coffee beans, for garnish

Place Demerara ice cube in double Old Fashioned glass. Pour espresso over cube. Stir to melt cube and chill espresso. Add vodka and cream. Do not stir, which will create swirl effect. Fill glass with crushed ice. Grate nutmeg atop drink. Garnish with coffee beans.

Demerara Ice Cube

In small saucepan, combine 1 cup each Demerara sugar and water. Stir until sugar dissolves. Bring to boil, then lower heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and cool completely.

Pour into standard ice cube tray. Freeze until solid. Makes 16 1-ounce cubes.

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Published on September 21, 2020