Vodkas With Flavor

IN MY GLASS

February 28, 2007|By ROB KASPER

There was a time in vodka's history that its creators added flavor to cover up its rough spots. Nowadays, flavors are added to smooth vodkas to capture market share, create buzz and add a few dollars to the purchase price.

An up-to-date menu of vodkas reads like one found at a juice bar. There are pear, pomegranate, pineapple, green apple, grapefruit, raspberry and lemon offerings. There are vodkas that taste or at least smell like dessert. Finally, there are the marriages made in caffeine: espresso and double-espresso vodkas.

Veteran vodka drinkers may "tsk" over their perfect martinis at the mention of flavored vodkas, but they have become a big fact of beverage life. Once depicted as hooch made by desperate men - see Steve McQueen in The Great Escape - vodka has climbed the status ladder.

Vodka is, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, the nation's favorite hard liquor well ahead of the second-place finisher, rum. Over the last four years, most of the growth has come from sales of flavored and so-called super-premium vodkas (more than $21 a bottle).

Smoothness is a key factor in good vodka, according to Pat Couteaux, a master distiller writing on the Web site Cocktail Times (cocktailtimes.com). The type and quality of ingredients used to make vodka, along with distilling and filtration tricks, determine its caliber.

Modern vodkas are made from a variety of grains - corn, potatoes, molasses, barley, rye and wheat, according to Couteaux. They are distilled and filtered multiple times, claim more noble European roots than the Hapsburgs, command fancy prices and travel in gorgeous bottles.

Joe Ciletti told me that about 10 years ago he was skeptical at the notion that a bottle of vodka could garner a $25 price tag. But it was Christmastime and Ciletti was feeling magnanimous, so he agreed to stock a few bottles of this new super-premium Belvedere vodka in his store, the Wine Merchant in Lutherville.

The top-dollar item disappeared off the shelves, and the stream of new vodka started flowing in, he said. Absolut had a peppered vodka, then came a crop of citrus-flavored vodka, then an orchard of fruit vodkas and somewhere in there, Ciletti said, were the herb and buffalo-grass mixtures.

Many drinkers met their first flavored vodka at a bar. Younger drinkers willingly try out new flavors, said David Acquarulo, maitre d' at the Brass Elephant, a downtown Baltimore restaurant that conducted a flavored-vodka tasting last summer.

Women drinkers, he said, seemed to be more willing than men to experiment with their beverages. While Acquarulo has encountered few fans of flavored vodka over the age of 50, he said they do exist. "They convert when they try the good ones," he said of the gray-haired imbibers.

After encountering flavored vodka at a nightspot, adventurous drinkers often try to re-create the experience in their homes. This leads them to the vodka aisle of their local liquor store.

Liquor store proprietors like Joe Falcone of Wells Discount Liquors follow the ups and downs of the flavored-vodka market the way recording industry analysts track CD sales.

This winter, the hottest flavored vodkas in his North Baltimore store, Falcone told me, have been green apple, raspberry, pear, vanilla, espresso and Dutch chocolate.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

SAMPLINGS: ANY PALATE-PLEASING POURS?

Steve McQueen might not approve, but I tasted my way through several flights of flavored vodka. Here is what I found.

BEST SIP

Van Gogh Double Espresso Double Caffeine Vodka:

70 proof, $26

My favorite. Tastes and smells like coffee; amazingly smooth with no rough edges. Made in Holland with wheat, corn and rye, the vodka is "married" with cracked coffee beans in a courtship that, according to Van Gogh president David Van de Velde, lasts six weeks. A shot of this vodka has about as much caffeine as three cups of espresso, he said. Van Gogh also has Espresso Vodka with about half as much caffeine - less jittery but still very appealing.

ALSO TASTED

Three Olives Chocolate Flavored Vodka:

70 proof, $18.

Best dessert vodka. The chocolate aroma is winning and is joined by distinct cocoa flavors in the vodka, which is imported from England. A silky finish to an evening meal.

Smirnoff Twist of Green Apple Vodka: 70 proof, $12. My favorite of the fruited vodkas. Sniffing it brings to mind an apple orchard. The flavor is close to real green apples, with a slightly medicinal aftertaste and an alcohol bite that reminds you that this is not merely apple juice.

Stolichnaya Vanilla Flavored Vodka: 70 proof, $22. A reach. I liked the vanilla nose and the smooth mouth feel, but my wife tasted only alcohol. This is the United Nations approach to beverage-making: The vodka is from Russia, the vanilla from Madagascar and Indonesia.

Absolut Pears Vodka: 80 proof, $22. Pear is the latest fruit flavor to rock the vodka world, and this one, imported from Sweden, arrives in an eye-catching green bottle. Terrific aroma followed by potent alcohol finish.

Rob Kasper

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