Exploring natural flavours in vodka

5th June, 2018 by Melita Kiely

Vodka is often accused of being boring and artificial. The Spirits Business discovers how some producers combine distillation, raw ingredients and water to bring out distinctive characteristics, as opposed to using synthetic flavours.

There are ways of highlighting unique flavours in vodka, without resorting to artificial means

Vodka and flavour, it’s always challenging reconciling these two,” replies Lone Wolf’s Steven Kersley when I ask him how he gives his vodka flavour. It’s a seemingly simple question to answer – but, in reality, vodka’s relationship to flavour is hugely complex.

The category has had something of an identity crisis over the past decade when it comes to flavour. Rewind five or six years ago and all manner of weird and wonderful taste experiences were sought after by spirits enthusiasts: whipped cream, birthday cake, salted caramel, habanero, double espresso – even bacon and smoked salmon. But as quickly as the flavour bubble blew up, it burst almost overnight, and before producers knew it wacky flavours were out and gin was in.

Once the flavour fad came to an end, the majority of producers turned their attention back to more classic, traditional styles of the spirit. But this still brings another struggle to the category, as vodka is often dubbed “neutral” and “flavourless”. Many distillers are working to shake off this prejudice and prove there is flavour to be found in the world’s best-selling spirit – it just comes in a more nuanced guise compared to other categories.

Flavour in the stills

Among the masses keen to elevate vodka’s standing with consumers is Kersley and his Lone Wolf Spirits team. The head distiller is focused on creating flavour in the stills, rather than relying on filtration. The group’s vodka begins with a 50/50 blend of malted wheat and malted barley – specifically chosen to give an “icing sugar sweetness and subtle vanilla note” to the end product. Once it has been milled, mashed and fermented, the wash is put through the distillery’s triple-bubble still.

“When distilling vodka in our still house we focus on two things: refining the positive flavour that our ingredients have created and removing unwanted flavour compounds,” explains Kersley. “The still does both but it’s the triple bubble that really helps with the latter.” The spirit is then put through the distillery’s lamp glass still, before being fed through the 18.5m-tall, 60-plate rectification column. Lone Wolf’s vodka is five-times distilled to reach the legal 96% abv required by EU law for a spirit to be labelled ‘vodka’.

The final stage of production sees the spirit run through a small home-made carbon filter, made by incinerating coconut shells, to “polish” the spirit. Kersley is keen for the industry to distance itself from the notion that extensive filtration is a signifier of quality when it comes to vodka. “Some brands are clever and will have you believe that filtering is what makes their vodka unique,” he says. “That six-, 10-times filtered through diamonds is somehow assurance and the pinnacle of quality – they speak nonsense, and I wholeheartedly disagree.

“These brands are trying to tell you that they haven’t bothered to do all of the steps before this properly. Just buy in some neutral grain spirit from somewhere; filter the hell out of it through some enormous tanks of carbon to remove any character; stick a posh label on it; sell it to you for an enormous premium. Job done. Over-filtering kills flavour. We want the icing sugar and vanilla signature of Lone Wolf to remain.”

Japan’s Nikka, meanwhile, is legally obligated to filter its vodka through birch charcoal – but maintains it is only a light filtration. “The reason we use white birch charcoal for filtration is that it is required by Japanese regulation,” explains Emiko Kaji, Nikka Whisky international business development manager. “However, the filtration is conducted at minimum level [so as] not to lose the creaminess and silkiness.” The Japanese whisky producer entered the vodka category in June 2017 with the launch of Nikka Coffey Vodka.

To create the expression, corn and malted barley are distilled separately in the continuous-style Coffey stills. Several batches of the resulting corn-based and malt-based spirits are then blended together “like a blended whisky” to deliver a “creamy and floral” flavour – which is attributed to the use of Nikka’s Coffey stills.

“Coffey vodka is more about the mouthfeel,” says Kaji. “All the base distillate coming through the Coffey stills gives this vodka incredible creaminess and delicate silkiness. And the sweetness also comes from the main ingredient, corn.”

For Purity Vodka, distillation is a key component in flavour manipulation for vodka

Maintaining aromas

For Purity Vodka, taste comes from its slow and lengthy distillation process. Master blender Thomas Kuuttanen starts with a blend of organic winter wheat and malted barley, which is distilled in a 600-litre copper still. The vodka is put through 34 distillations to deliver small batches of spirit. “Our distillation process is designed to maintain as much flavour and aromas from the ingredients as possible,” he says. “Instead of doing a few very aggressive distillations, we do many very slow distillations.”

The first stage of the process takes Kuuttanen up to 17 distillations. The first cut removes methanol, fusel oils and other unwanted compounds to “keep only the characteristics of the ingredients in our distillate”. The second lot of 17 distillations aims to preserve the profile. “My goal is that the second part of the distillation should alter the flavour of the spirit as little as possible as I want to maintain the character while reaching the requested alcohol strength,” adds Kuuttanen.

Once distillation is complete, the strength is brought down with “mineral-rich” water, which Kuuttanen says enhances the flavour of Purity Vodka. “I spent more than 12 months perfecting our water recipe,” he recalls. “For practical reasons, most vodka producers use distilled water when they are diluting their vodka. For me, that is like making mashed potatoes with water instead of milk and cream. A mineral-rich water adds flavour, body and mouthfeel to the final product.”

Many vodka producers say they derive most of their flavour from the base ingredient. Diageo’s Ketel One Vodka uses 100% GMO-free winter wheat, grown in Europe, which the company says gives its vodka flavour qualities such as pepper, sweetness and citrus. The distillation process enhances these profiles that come from the initial grain product.

“Our production techniques and base ingredient work in harmony,” says David Beatty, Ketel One Vodka brand ambassador at Diageo Reserve. “The flavour comes primarily from the base ingredient – wheat – and is accentuated by crisp, fresh qualities from the column stills and by the copper pot distillation, making for an exceptionally smooth and long finish.”

Single-estate Chase Distillery also attributes the majority of its vodka’s flavour to its base ingredient: potatoes, which are grown on the family-owned farm in Hereford, UK. “Ultimately, our end unique flavour comes from the fact we use potatoes, which is still a very rare base ingredient to use in the spirits world,” says director James Chase. He says fermenting potatoes produces much more methanol than grains. Therefore, at the start of the rectification run there is a period of “maximum reflux” in the column, which concentrates the methanol at the top of the column, making it easier for the distilling team to remove the heads cut.

However, Chase adds: “Much of the taste is still-refined and our spirit given its flavour attributes at the rectification stage. Fat Betty, our copper pot, and Maximus, our tall rectification column, which are both unique to us, also affect the flavour profile.” It’s a time-consuming process; from farm to bottle takes up to two weeks – and the costs of not only running the estate but distilling with potatoes is significantly higher compared with grains. The energy density in a tonne of potatoes is one-fifth of that in a tonne of grains, explains Chase, but the cost of growing, harvesting, mashing, and so on is the same. “This means there is five times less alcohol per tonne,” he adds. “It is the potatoes, however, that give Chase Vodka its unique creamy, smooth taste, so it certainly makes it worth it.”

Some vodka distillers choose to highlight the inherent flavours of their base ingredients

Discerning approach

Great attention to detail in the craftsmanship of vodka is evident behind the scenes, but do consumers appreciate these efforts? Chase believes that consumers’ discerning approach to other spirits is spilling over into the vodka category and that interest in origin and production is on the rise. “Consumers increasingly want to know about the provenance of their food and this is certainly filtering down to the spirits industry,” he says. “We have also seen a huge surge in our distillery tours over the past two years, so there is definitely a thirst for knowledge.”

However, Kuuttanen laments that there is still a lot of educating to do in the vodka category. “There is a very limited knowledge about distillation among vodka consumers,” he says. “I would love to have the future generation of vodka drinkers be as educated as malt whisky drinkers.

“We do have a long way to go and it requires co-operation within the vodka industry in a similar way as Scotch producers work with Keepers of the Quaich.”

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