There were concerns The Vodka Masters 2016 would be a let-down after the battering the category has suffered, but our judges found winners aplenty.
Vodka producers have coped with a lot in recent years
Given it’s a category that has been hit by a perfect storm of geopolitical and economic headwinds, amplified by acute consumer fickleness, you would be forgiven for expecting the 2016 Vodka Masters to be something of a subdued affair.
In 2014/15, volume sales in the spirit’s key Russian and Eastern European markets fell 5.2%, according to Euromonitor, while value sales crashed 28.7%, largely due to the devaluation of the rouble and ongoing political tensions. The contagion hit other markets too, with volume sales dropping 0.1% and values 6% in Western Europe.
While some green shoots are now emerging and regions such as Latin America are putting in a more resilient performance, it would be fair to say that producers have coped with a lot in recent years. As such, a mood of uncertainty hung over the judges when they gathered at The Harcourt in North London to sample a record haul of entries – would market pressures have taken their toll on quality? And would competition from other white spirits – gin, especially – have dented enthusiasm?
The judges, hailing from the on-trade, communications and education sectors, were divided into three panels to best tackle the mammoth offering. First to get the ball rolling were Ben Lindsay, of Vodka Rocks; Rui Costa, head bartender at The Trading House; and Katie Rouse, brand ambassador for Crushed & Cubed, chaired by myself, Kristiane Sherry, diving into the first flight segmented by price: Standard.
These vodkas, very much the entry-level offering, often get a bad rep, despite holding a perfectly valid place in the market. The judges were certainly impressed, awarding four Silver medals, one each to “sweet” Green Mark Vodka, “refreshing” Moskovskaya, “crisp” Moskovskaya Silver and Tamova Vodka, which was deemed “perfect for cocktails and mixers”.
“This flight exceeded my expectations,” Lindsay said. “It’s the most popular category from a consumer point of view; more consumers would probably buy from this bracket that any other.”
Moving on up to a much bigger flight of Premium expressions, judges were again delighted with what they found, awarding the first two Master medals of the day alongside four Golds and six Silvers.
Judges praised the “earthy” qualities coupled with the sweetness of palate and “icing sugar” on the finish of Stalinskaya Blue Vodka. “How those opposing flavours combine on the finish is really impressive,” commented Rouse, with the panel awarding a Master. Żubrówka also delighted the jury with its much-adored Bison Grass release.
“It’s really interesting to taste something that is complex without being complicated. It could change people’s opinions of flavoured vodka,” Lindsay said.
While the judges felt there was some discrepancy in quality across the flight, on the whole the samples stood up to the challenge.
“There were loads of different styles and examples to try, and I think this is what the consumer wants,” Lindsay said. Costa agreed, although pointing out that vodka shoppers looking to purchase something inherently different might miss out: the expectation is often that more money needs to be spent to secure variety.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Super Premium category did not deliver highly on the diversity stakes, in one of the biggest surprises of the day. But what it lacked in variance it made up for in quality, with Gold medals awarded across the board without exception.
Leading the charge was Aylesbury Duck Vodka, a “sweet and buttery” proposition, followed by the “silky texture” of Five Vodka. Russian Standard’s Platinum expression combined “sweetness and a bit of earthiness with subtlety”, while its Gold sibling edition offered an enticing citrus note. Sash & Fritz’s The German Vodka was deemed “a classic example of the category”, with all five commended for their production values.
“I would be happy to pay money for any of these,” Costa said. Rouse agreed on their value for money, though adding: “It would be great to have a few different styles; they’re all very similar in how they’re made. But I like these vodkas – they are ideal for mixing in a cocktail or neat. I am impressed.”
Shaking up stagnation
Next up was an enormous Ultra Premium flight, tackled by the second panel, which was made up of Jaroslaw Zawadzki and Karol Terejlis from Baltic Bar, and Nick King, new product development manager at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), chaired by the deputy editor of The Spirits Business, Amy Hopkins.
The breadth of the category was indicative of the wider market. New entrants are trying to shake up the stagnation, but with smaller, “craft” producers often comes a higher production cost, hence the upswell of vodkas positioned in the ultra-premium bracket.
The range was as diverse as it was bountiful, the judges picked out two Master medallists: Slingsby Pure Grain Vodka and Purity Vodka 17. “Slingsby Gin is a superb example of an ultra-premium vodka,” King said. “It’s not overly flash or fancy, but gets the mouthfeel just right.”
Mouthfeel was also a top characteristic for Purity Vodka 17, deemed a “model of a neutral vodka with a totally honest grain- based style”.
The merit continued with a swathe of gold medal winners. “Warming, smooth and round” Au Vodka kicked off proceedings, followed by the “luxuriously textured” Imperial Collection Gold Vodka.
Hot on their heels were Black Cow Vodka, assessed as “soft and smooth”, Lux Vodka Black Label, a “really well integrated” spirit, and the “solid” Pur Vodka. Completing the Gold line-up were the “well-done” Vodrock Vodka, the “interesting” Legend of Kremlin, and the “crisp” Veuve Capet.
But despite the excellence found in places, the panel still felt the ultra-premium segment should deliver more. “They were all solid, but very few of them really sang,” King said. “Vodka is sold by brand and if that brand makes you happy, chances are you will like the liquid inside. But this is a very different exercise – we have been stripped of the brand. This is a very natural assessment of the liquid.”
“It shows that price doesn’t always reflect the quality of the vodka,” Zawadzki agreed.
It was time to move on to vodkas categorised by production style, with micro- distillery vodkas, organic vodkas and vodkas marketed as “smooth” all put to a panel chaired by Antony Moss, director of strategic planning at WSET, who was joined by Veronika Karlova, founder of GirlsDrinkVodka.com, and Tess Pettersson, bar manager at The Harcourt.
First up was the Microdistillery flight, deemed an “interesting round” by Pettersson. While the quality varied, as one might expect from smaller producers, there were some standout expressions, chiefly Cirka Vodka Terrior, rewarded with a Gold for its “buttery” palate, Graceful Vodka, a “well-crafted” spirit, and Pur Vodka, recognised for its “finesse and flavour”, Moss said. In addition, the panel also found five silver-worthy expressions.
“There were quite a few different styles, some quite challenging,” Pettersson said, adding that overall there was a “very sweet” prevailing style.
“The category actually surprised me,” said Moss. “Last year it was one of the most disappointing and confusing. But this year it went the other way – I wouldn’t say they were stylishly distinguishable, they were correct – they were safe.”
The panel then moved on to the Organic category, which proved similarly successful. Last year the category provoked debate over quality – organic raw ingredients should not dictate a lesser finished product. But for 2016 the judges were impressed by the progress made by the sector, again awarding two Golds and five Silvers.
Tovaritch! was the first to hit Gold, described as “very sweet and smooth”, while Bulbash’s #1 Cranberry was described as “creamy” with a “lovely flavour”. “It was an impressive round,” Pettersson said, adding that the quality, with the organic certification, was finally catching up with that of the mainstream vodka offering.
Round and firm
Moss’s panel then pressed on to explore the Smooth category, designed for vodka brands that produce and market their products’ “smooth” credentials across the pricing ladder. Another successful flight saw Gold medals awarded for “round and firm” Pur Vodka, “clean, warming” Tovarich!, and Purity Vodka 51, which was described as “impressive”. In addition, the panel also found five Silver-worthy expressions, all praised for their silk-like qualities.
After the flights split by production method, it was time to move on to categories segmented by geography, with traditional regions such as Russia and ‘new world’ territories including the US all putting forward their wares. First up to be tasted was a strong European contingent, with the flight split between Hopkins’s panel and my own.
Quality was immediately apparent, with six Gold medals awarded alongside three Silvers. Leading the Gold was Altia’s Mestaritislaajan No. 1 Single Estate Spirit, deemed “very well balanced” with “a lovely fresh, light crispness to it”. VP Brands International’s Flirt Vodka followed, assessed as “very soft and elegant and smooth” while still managing to preserve distillery character.
Newcomer Ovin Pion, described as “a well-made vodka” with a “non-artificial sweetness”, continued the Gold theme, followed by Purity Vodka Organic, the dry mouthfeel of which the judges found “worked really well with the citrus notes”, and Graceful Vodka, a “delightfully silken” expression.
Rounding off the Gold medallists was Purity Vodka 34. “There’s so much going on here, I thought it was great,” Lindsay said, with Costa adding that he would opt for it as a sipping vodka.
All in all, “my instant thought is that it was a traditional flight, but then you got all this sweetness, fruit, and smokiness,” Rouse said. “I wasn’t expecting so much diversity from European producers; I’m pleasantly surprised.”
Hopkins’s panel then honed in on Scandinavia for a medium-sized but medal- heavy flight, which secured two Golds and four Silvers.
“I thought this flight was very consistent,” King said. “They were all quite nicely put together – I was actually quite surprised.”
The first to scoop a Gold was Purity Vodka 34: “It was well-rounded but not over- powering,” Terejlis said. Sibling spirit Purity Vodka 17 also succeeded in pulling in a Gold medal, with Zawadzki describing the sample as “very unexpected”, adding: “I like that it’s very different. It could be amazing in a cocktail.”
“Scandinavia has some of the best waters in the world, which could help them create really good vodkas,” Terejlis said. “It’s a region to really watch in the future.”
The next flight required the panel to look East and consider entrants from the Russian market. The country’s industry might be emerging from one of the most difficult periods in its history, but the vodkas on show on the day rose above such tensions, securing three Silvers and a Gold.
Tovaritch! once more settled at the top of the pack. “It has a roundness and a bite to it, showing that it’s well executed,” said King, with Terejlis describing the spirit as “expressive, well-rounded” with “great balance”.
“What we can see here is a completely different style and that’s good,” said Zawadzki, noting how the Russian style had developed. “It’s sharper and more aggressive.”
However he cautioned that the category could be something of a Marmite proposition: “It’s the style of vodka and that can be good, but it’s not necessarily going to appeal to a mass audience.”
While Hopkins’s group assessed Russia, my panel shifted perspectives, taking in a pair of medallists from the US.
Securing a coveted Master medal was Death’s Door Vodka, celebrated by Rouse for its “multiple taste elements” and delightful mouthfeel: “It starts sweet on the nose, and then blends together on the palate – it has almost rum-like qualities.”
Also ranking well with the judges was Gold medal-winning XIII King’s Vodka. “I got the really silky palate, but it was also peppery with a nice, long finish,” said Costa, with Lindsay picking out a “forest” character.
While the panel felt the overall quality was varied and they were not sure what to expect, they praised US producers for “not relying on heritage”, adding: “they’re being modern in their own right.”
The final geographic flight took in vodkas from the Rest of the World, with Moss’s panel adjudicating the medals. Pur Vodka scooped another Gold, described as “very well-crafted”, while three Silvers followed, one each for New Amsterdam Vodka, CanadaOne Vodka and Spiritual Vodka.
Two flights remained: a tiny Vodka-based Spirit Drink” flight, where the Finnish brand Mestaritislaajan No. 1 Single Estate Spirit secured a Silver, and a Flavoured Vodka flight which drew in two Golds alongside four Silvers.
“Koskenkorva Vodka Sauna Barrel is very interesting – I love the notes of fresh wood,” said Pettersson of the Gold-winning expression, while Moss praised its “round texture”. Meanwhile Davna Cherry was deemed a “wholesome and rich” flavoured vodka expression with “authentic” notes throughout.
All in all, it was the more natural products which prevailed – keeping it simple an important take-away for suppliers playing in the flavoured segment.
Overall, judges felt encouraged by the spirits sampled as part of the Vodka Masters. “I know we’re not there yet, we don’t talk about vodka like other categories, but in terms of diversity, the standard is good and proves that vodka is an interesting drink – even if consumers don’t see it like that right now,” Lindsay said.
Moss, however, questioned the use of post-distillation techniques: “One thing I’ve been very aware of is the tinkering at the edge of flavour – I don’t know how much that fits in with or contradicts consumer expectation.
“I think it’s necessary in order for diversity, but how do you indicate to a consumer when that occurs? And when that occurs it was often accompanied with a harsh texture, so it was very difficult to achieve aromatic complexity with the smooth flavour. I have no idea why producers haven’t managed to achieve that yet.”
Rouse contrasted the fortunes of vodka to gin: “Gins have been allowed to get as crazy as possible because of the boom. Hopefully vodka will be next. There’s a real chance to educate consumers in a bar. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.”
While vodka has faced an incredibly tough raft of challenges, the medal count alone is testament to the resilience of the category. While others might have captured the consumer mindset – gin, anyone? – quality still shines through. Will 2017 mark vodka’s resurgence? Let us hope so – and raise a glass to that.
Click through to the following page for the complete list of medal winners from The Vodka Masters 2016.