VODKA: THE RUSSIAN WORD FOR WHISKY
Vodka for me is the most fascinating category for one very simple reason, you can make it from absolutely anything.
You might say that this would make vodka anything but special, or you might point out that vodka doesn’t taste like anything. So who cares about what it's made from, right?. While technically you'd be correct, there is much more to this spirit.
Over the last few decades, conversations about vodka have focused on the glitzy marketing and brilliant packaging of a clear, somewhat boring, flavourless spirit. But it wasn't always like this. After conducting some quite serious and extensive liquid research, I've drawn a longitudinal view of the spirits we drink. I believe that this modern perception of vodka is an abomination of what the spirit once was.
Currently, the global consensus and what legally constitutes vodka is a "flavourless, colourless spirit, produced from an agricultural product." There is no room to use vodka to describe any traditional white spirit or eaux de vie that is distilled to contain more flavour than just being neutral, regardless of local heritage.
Bizarrely, flavoured vodka, artificial fruit flavours in ethanol, is permissible.
But let's not dwell and look instead at what vodka used to be like. Vodka is the Russian word meaning little water, in reference to how, during the distillation process, 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.
In Latin, spirit in this sense is synonymous with aqua vitae or water of life. In Scandinavian aquavit/akvavit has obvious roots, in French eau de vie means the same, while the Gaelic uisge beatha, again means water of life and 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. So no two farmhouse distillers were using the same raw ingredients to make their eau de vie/whisky/vodka.
New technology has encouraged generations of young, rapidly urbanised Europeans to move away from their agriculture-based community life, and farmhouse brewers and distillers began to disappear as mass-produced beverages became available. In an effort to unite these new urbanites, governments championed their national dishes and drinks. Soon, Russia and Poland became famous for their vodka, the Scotch and the Irish had their whiskies, Americans adopted Bourbon, the Italians made grappa, and the 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 beverages, they were generally enjoyed cold and neat.
Glass bottles were a luxury, so most spirits were stored in timber, and as a result there was great variation in how old or dark the spirits became. Frederik Plum of The Clumsy Bear Vodka, 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 that was stored in barrels, imparting rich and dark flavours.
Bourbon whisky distillers must also 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 a focus on the ageing and blending processes, and of course, the marketing of the spirits. Interestingly, laws around ageing whisky are vastly different around the world, to an extent where the actual meaning 'water' is dictated to us by those laws.
Much like with Bourbon and Scotch, and also like Roquefort, Camembert or Beaujolais, most food and drink is protected by appellation laws, where the integrity of the product is protected and regulated. Sadly, vodka suffered a different fate.
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 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? So why would you put an alcoholic equivalent into your mouth?
Frederik is emphatic about the current situation.
"Vodka is ruled by an anti-appellation law. The traditional vodkas of Russia, made often at home, cannot 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."
At Spirit People, we’re all 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 emphasise is if good people are making great-tasting products with a respectable ethos, with reverence to the spirit-making of old. What we don't stand for, are laws that squander tradition and our health. In particular, we don’t condone spirits that taste bad.
We are humbled to work with three vodka producers who are using entirely different raw materials to produce entirely different spirits, that taste just like what they’re made from. All of our vodkas are delicious and should be served as simply as possible, solo, slightly chilled from the fridge or over ice.
We would like to share with you our high quality spirits, distilled from high quality natural ingredients, to be appreciated before imbibing on the first sip. These vodkas are exultations in themselves.