Is vodka shedding its chameleon character in favour of flavour? Becky Paskin finds that the focus on neutrality is dying out in The Vodka Masters 2014.
Quality was shown to be an integral factor the The Vodka Masters 2014
It’s never been more important for vodka brands to be on top of their game when it comes to spirit quality. With a never-ending stream of new products joining rank – mostly from the craft industry – the vodka category is somewhat overcrowded.
There was a time when promises of multiple distillation and fanciful filtration techniques were enough to draw the eye of the average consumer who was dazzled by rows of brands on supermarket shelves, but as the world becomes more discerning it’s the flavour that’s really starting to count.
And it seems producers have really taken note. The entries into this year’s Vodka Masters demonstrated a notable shift away from nondescript, chameleon-like qualities toward spirits with more flavour, body and character. “The Vodka Masters 2014 illustrates a growing trend for vodka to move beyond umpteen distillations and filtration through unicorn’s tears to a focus on the basics: good distilling methods and quality ingredients,” noted spirits writer David T. Smith, who assisted me in chairing the judging this year.
Joining Smith’s team at London’s Kensington Place restaurant were Logan Toguri, bar manager at One Canada Square; Matt Armitage, co-founder of Craft Cocktail Club and Imants Zusmanis, bar manager of Kensington Place. With me were Adam McCulloch, bar manager of The Cadogan Arms, and Sebastien Kasyna, assistant bar manager of Coq d’Argent.
As one of the largest Spirits Masters competitions in the series, we kicked the day off bright and early with the Standard entries, which pleasantly surprised the judges considering their low price points. Three Golds and a Silver medal were awarded to the selection, with some demonstrating “surprising complexity” and considered “good speed rack mixing spirits”.
Stepping up a price category the judges took on the Premium round, which with one of the largest and most varied selections of vodka, drew the highest number of awards. A remarkable 17 medals were presented here, seven of them Masters for Russian Diamond, Zubrowka, Standing Stones, Sobieski, Blackdown Sussex, Black and Consequent Vodka, representing a high level of quality from a number of countries, including England and Norway. “There were a lot of complex flavours in this round and most offered good if not outstanding value for money,” noted McCulloch.
Having begun on such a high note, our judges didn’t think the competition could get any better, but the standard continued climbing into the Super-Premium round, which demonstrated a notable leap in quality. “Evidently we have entered the elite of vodkas,” remarked Armitage. “There were some great, flavoursome examples and at least one outstanding example of vodka purity. This was a round of very interesting, unique spirits, and highlights a trend for more flavour.”
Overall the Super-Premium set drew 14 medals, including four Masters for Valt Single Malt Scottish Vodka, Legend of Kremlin, Belvedere Unfiltered and Stolichnaya Elit. “There was great complexity in these vodkas that are outstanding examples of the textbook balance between character and smoothness,” added Smith.
Judges David T. Smith and Logan Toguri were looking for good distilling methods and quality ingredients
The price bracket categories concluded, our panel moved on into rounds defined by geographical location, with regions divided into Russia, Eastern Europe, Europe, Scandinavia and Rest of World. First up was Russia, which despite being the birthplace of vodka elicited a weak reaction from the judges, who found little variation in style and deviation from traditionalism. “Russia seems to be living 20 years in the past where vodka still tastes of nothing,” McCulloch noted. “They are all good quality vodkas, but in representing the same style they don’t tend to stand out.”
The diversity improved in the Eastern Europe set which also included two flavoured vodkas: Zubrowka, flavoured with bison grass, and Babicka, which is flavoured with wormwood. The latter, the judges felt, was very well balanced despite its punchy flavour, and would work well as a rinse for a Martini or to replace absinthe in a Sazerac for a woodier result. This small selection drew just four medals, albeit a Master and three Golds.
Moving even further west still, the standard improved further. As the judges began analysing the vodkas from Europe, their faces lit up immediately. “What an impressive round,” remarked Smith. “Europe has proven they can make a pretty decent vodka outside of Russia and Poland. The flight showed the creativity of European distilleries and how they can encapsulate flavour in vodka.” A total of 14 medals were awarded here, with the highest accolades going to England’s Blackdown Sussex Vodka, Sweden’s Purity and Germany’s Consequent, although a decent performance was also given by Latvia-bottled Stolichnaya and the Spanish newcomer Santamanía.
Scandinavia performed equally well, eliciting four Gold medals and a positive response from the judges. McCulloch remarked: “There was a nice variety of flavours, which were very enjoyable all the way through. It’s nice to see Scandinavia coming through so far in vodka; they are doing quite a good job of it.”
When it came to assessing the entries from the rest of the world the judges felt Europe still holds the trump card. Vodkas from outside the continent were deemed to be well-made, balanced and demonstrating some interesting flavours, but just fell short of living up to their European counterparts. Four Gold medals and three Silvers were awarded nonetheless.
Judges from left to right: Adam McCulloch, Imants Zusmanis, Sebastian Kasyna, Becky Paskin, David T. Smith, Logan Toguri and Matt Armitage
The regional categories complete, it was time to assess vodkas demonstrating the niche USPs of organic and small-batch production, both of which use processes that can prove fiddly or awkward, either because of strict regulations or lack of space. However, the vodkas entered into both categories demonstrated both sectors’ ability to overcome such obstacles and provoked a positive response from the panel. “There was some amazing diversity in both rounds; all were extremely good products,” said Armitage. “The Microdistillery round shows the excellent and versatile products smaller distilleries are producing, while choosing organic does not necessarily mean a reduction in quality or flavour. In fact, the entries were indistinguishable from non-organic.”
One of the most popular rounds of The Vodka Masters competition is Smooth, in which entrants are specifically marked on their texture with those demonstrating a soft, even palate with little spiciness earning the highest medals. The idea with this category is that the vodka is recommended to be drunk on its own or over ice. Despite a strict stance from the judges, who ruled out vodkas demonstrating any harsh finish whatsoever, six Masters, six Golds and two Silvers were awarded. McCulloch remarked that the category was the most challenging round of the day, “because it’s not categorised on flavour, more so leaning toward this idea of an ideal vodka that’s very neutral, crowd pleasing and middle of the road”. While some flavour was still apparent among the set, it seemed smoothness in vodka comes at the cost of a decent nose.
The final round of the day however had no difficulty in the aroma department. For the first time in a couple of years, the Flavoured Vodka and Flavoured White Spirit categories drew the fewest entries, with those participating presenting some very traditional flavours such as lemon, grapefruit and strawberry.
The standout entries this year, all of which gained a Master medal, were Grasovka Premium Zubrovka, Mainstay Island Fusion (hazelnut and spice) and Czars Original Grapefruit. All three demonstrated a good balance of flavour with no artificial qualities and offered a palate that was a solid representation of the flavour printed on the bottle. A special mention has to be made to Mozart’s Chocolate Vodka, its dry, cocoa flavour and relative lightness on the palate earning it a Gold medal.
With the competition at an end for another year, it’s clear to see how the category has already evolved over the past 12 months. Vodka is no longer attempting to be a bland spirit, suitable for mixing in any kind of cocktail; brands seem to be taking their individual flavour more seriously. Whether designed to be sipped or mixed, vodka is upping its game in the quality stakes. With so much competition in the category, which is only set to grow in line with the craft spirits movement, the phrase “quality will out” has never been so apt.
Click through the following pages to see the results of The Vodka Masters 2014.