Vodka? Yes. So why are these spirits so different in character?
Vodka for me is the most fascinating "category" - if we can call it that - of spirits, for one very simple reason: you can make it from absolutely anything.
A very simple and obvious response to this is "Sure, but that makes it anything but special, and vodka doesn't taste like anything so it doesn't really matter what it's made from anyway."
Technically, you'd be correct. For the last hundred years the conversation about vodka has been all about glitzy marketing of flavourless alcohol. But it wasn't always like this, and through extensive liquid research I've drawn a longitudinal view of the spirits we drink and this modern interpretation of vodka is a fair abomination of what the spirit was for the previous half-millenium.
Currently, the global consensus and what legally constitutes "vodka" is that it is a "flavourless, colourless spirit, produced from an agricultural product." There is no room to use "vodka" to describe any traditional white spirits/eaux de vie that are distilled to contain more flavour than "neutral," regardless of local heritage.
Bizarrely, "flavoured vodka," being artificial fruit flavours in ethanol, is permissable. No wonder vodka is going out of fashion as people start to move towards enjoying gin! (Everyone's favourite 'flavoured' spirit.)
But let's look at what vodka was in the preceding centuries. "Vodka" is a Russian word meaning "little water" - a reference to how during distillation a large amount of fermented or distilled liquid is reduced to a smaller amount of spirits with a higher concentration of alcohol. Vodka in this part of the world became a term synonymous with "spirits."
Distilling beverages is all about concentrating the essential 'spirit' of what goes into the still. So if we're distilling wine we get grape-spirit, beer becomes malt-spirit, cider becomes apple-spirit and so on and so forth (and bear with this simplification for now).
In Latin, spirit in this sense is synonymous with aqua vitae or water of life. Scandinavian aquavit/akvavit has obvious roots. In French eau de vie means the same, while the Gaelic uisge beatha - again meaning water of life - has been anglicised to whisky.
The crux of this is that as the understanding of distillation and spirits spread throughout Europe, every farmhouse or monastery simply made their eaux de vie, their 'vodka,' from what raw materials they had available. Obviously then, no two farmhouse distillers were using the same raw ingredients to make their eau de vie/whisky/vodka.
With the introduction of better technology, generations of young, rapidly urbanising Europeans were removed from agriculture-based community life, and farmhouse brewers and distillers began to disappear as mass-produced beverages became available.
Digging a little deeper, the new urbanites were living in modern cities as part of new nations, and apart from traditions of humble farmhouse origins. Needing means to unite people, leaders found or created national dishes and drinks, and soon local pride was born in Russian and Polish vodka, Scotch and Irish whiskies, American Bourbon, Italian grappa, and French brandy.
But why the great variations in flavour?
All of the eaux-de-vie - including those locally called 'whisky' - were originally consumed as white spirits - unaged in oak barrels except when necessary for transportation or storage. Spirits were initially consumed as medicine, but when distillates became recognised as a beverage they were generally enjoyed cold and neat.
Glass bottles were a luxury, so most spirits were stored in timber, and we had a lot of variation in how old or dark the spirits were. Frederik Plum of The Clumsy Bear describes how language is fluid and how definitions can be deceptive: "Francophile Russians began importing things like Cognac, which were transported in oak casks and took on the colour and flavour of an aged spirit. But they didn't call it Cognac or brandy, they simply called it 'French Vodka'."
The same happened with whisky as through customary storage in barrels the spirits became dark and rich in flavour.
Case in point: Bourbon whisky distillers must abide by the law that states that the whiskey must be aged in new oak barrels. This ensures consistency but also restricts producers to creating spirits within a very narrow range of flavours and aromas that the use of new oak dictates.
This was implemented not for the preservation of tradition, quality or flavour in the actual whisky-making, but for the protection of the timber and cooperage industry in America.
The follow-on effect is that skilled distilling of great ingredients gave way to mass production of cheap spirits, with the focus then brought to the ageing and blending processes, and of course, the marketing of the spirits. Interestingly, laws around ageing whisky are vastly different around the world - and so the actual meaning of a word that translates as 'water' is dictated to us by those laws.
Much like with Bourbon, Scotch, and indeed Roquefort, Camembert or Beaujoulais, many foods and drinks are now protected in history and regulated with respect to what they can be made from, and generally how they can taste. But vodka suffered a different fate, much worse.
So, what did go wrong?
Blame the economics of industrial production, and the political cheapening of an eastern European tradition. Vodka today is indeed designated by law in both the EU and the US to be a flavourless and colourless spirit. Vodka can legally be made anywhere in the world from any agricultural product (woodchips not discluded) as long as it tastes like nothing. What a travesty.
To put it simply, why should we be eating or drinking anything that has lost all character of what it was originally made from? Would you eat a piece of meat that tasted literally like nothing and was made in a factory from waste products? Would you eat a flavourless egg that was produced without regard to the greater environmental impact of its production? No. So why would you put an alcoholic equivalent into your mouth?
And yet this is what the laws dictate we are allowed to call "vodka".
Frederik Plum of The Clumsy Bear vodka is emphatic about the current situation:
"Vodka is ruled by an anti-apellation law. The traditional vodkas of Russia, made often at home, can not now be called vodka because they have not been distilled to a high-enough percentage. In other words they have too much flavour. These old styles are what we've modelled The Clumsy Bear on."
Spirit People is about the distillers, the makers of the eaux de vie, and whether they call it vodka, whisky or grappa is to some degree irrelevant compared to the importance we place on what the spirits were originally made from.
What we do judge is if good people are making great-tasting products with a respectable ethos that resonates with the memory of a time when we drank spirits made from whatever raw materials they had available.
What we don't stand for is following laws that were dictated by custom and wealth, which now regulate our customs, and our health.
Particularly, we don't stand for spirits that taste bad.
We are humbled to work with three producers of vodka who are using entirely different raw materials to produce entirely different spirits, that taste like what they are made from.
All of our vodkas are delicious served as simply as possible: solo, slightly chilled. Out of the fridge, or over ice. All we're suggesting are high quality spirits distilled from high quality natural ingredients.
The only additions you need to make with vodka this good are perhaps a small piece of citrus peel. Serve this 'up' or over ice - either way, it's essentially a martini.
These are spirits that are made to be appreciated for their quality - and then drunk. We're just so excited to make them available to you and hope that you enjoy drinking them and finding your favourite. These are not made to be exalted, they're made to be enjoyed.
These vodkas are exultations in themselves.