The Vodka Masters 2021 resultsBy Melita Kiely
The vodka category is blossoming at the moment, with producers around the world using skill and care to make the most of their native ingredients, as Melita Kiely explains.
Vodka proved to be made of hardy stuff in the face of the Covid‐19 pandemic. According to The Brand Champions 2021 report, the category’s million‐case‐selling brands were among the most resilient of all spirits sectors. Multiple brands, particularly those from Eastern European countries, were able to sustain or substantially grow volumes last year in the face of never‐before‐seen adversity brought about by the pandemic.
The Vodka Masters annual tasting is an opportunity to sample the variety of bottlings that make vodka so popular all over the world. A panel of expert tasters assembled at the Ibis hotel in London Bridge, UK, eager to see what vodka has to offer.
This year’s entrants were carefully packed by Sensible to guarantee a true blind‐tasting experience for the judges. Due to the sheer volume of entrants, the tasting involved three panels. David T Smith, founder of the Craft Distilling Expo, chaired the first panel, which included: Sarah Miller, founder of the Gin A Ding Ding blog; and Bernadette Pamplin, founder of the Under the Ginfluence blog.
The second set of tasters comprised chair Bryan Rodriguez, wine and spirits buyer for Harvey Nichols. He was joined by Evan Prousaefs, bar manager at The Leaf and Cane in London; and Julia Nourney, independent spirits consultant.
Melita Kiely, editor of The Spirits Business, chaired the third and final team, which comprised: Ivan Dixon, independent spirits consultant; and Dimple Athavia, founder of All Things Drinks.
Value for money
To start with, The Vodka Masters looked at whether vodkas were worth their price tags, starting with a flight of Standard vodkas – all under £10 (US$14). Syabry Rye Bread was the epitome of ‘value for money’, securing the first Master medal of the day.
“I found this biscuity, savoury, round, soft, and it held the 40% ABV really well,” enthused Dixon. “It’s everything you want from a vodka.” Three Silvers and a Gold completed the opening round.
In the following flight of Premium vodkas, priced between £11 and £20, JJ Whitley Artisanal Russian Vodka joined the Master ranks. The judges enjoyed its “citrus nose, oily texture” and thought it would be “great to drink neat”. Eight Gold medals were also awarded in this flight. One Gold went to Moskovskaya Osobaya Vodka, with its “grassy nose” and “crisp, dry” palate that finished with a “little lingering black pepper”.
Konvodka also picked up a Gold medal for its “creamy texture and flavour”, while fellow Gold medallist North Sea Vodka offered a “slight minerality” and was thought to be a “good mixer and reasonable for the price”. Six Silvers concluded the flight. Smith noted: “It was nice to see that you don’t have to pay a lot of money to experience the nuances of vodka.”
Quality and price rose simultaneously as the judges proceeded to the Super Premium heat and discovered four entrants worthy of the Master title. The first award went to Penderyn’s Five Vodka. The vodka had a “simple and clean” nose, leading to tastes of “vanilla, lemon drop and almond” on the palate. The second Master of this round was given to 58 Distillery, which Rodriguez called a “clean and elegant vodka”. The spirit had “stone fruit and almond” aromas, leading to a “smooth” palate with a “touch of chilli heat, which adds a nice texture”.
Reyka Vodka was also found to deserve a Master medal, enjoyed for bringing a “touch of olive brine” and overall having “good Martini potential”. Kamo Original received the fourth Master of the flight. The judges found there was a slight “floral” quality to the vodka, with a “touch of vanilla and pepper heat towards the finish”. Six Gold medals gave the flight a boost. Koskenkorva Vodka Climate Action impressed the judges with its “savoury” palate, as did White Feather Vodka, said to be “an interesting” spirit. The medallist had a “touch of caramel”, which the judges said “gave it more character”.
High class of spirits
“Delightful to see such a high class of spirits at an affordable price point,” noted Miller. “There were some examples here that could stand up against some of the best vodkas on the market, whatever the price.”
In the highest price range, Ultra Premium, three more Masters were discovered. Tanzanite Vodka collected the top award for being “quite soft and smooth, but with a stony character, a touch of caramel and a malt‐like note”.
One True Maverick also blew the judges away and received a Master medal for being “quite a full‐bodied vodka”, with “lots of flavour – some citrus – and a good mouth feel”. Pur Vodka received the Master accolade for having a “touch of chocolate malt” on the palate. Rodriguez said it would be “brilliant in a Martini or Negroni”.
Five Gold medals were awarded to vodkas including “spicy, stony and fun” Chapel Down Chardonnay Vodka, with its “fruity nose, hints of floral and nice texture”. Four Silvers rounded off the flight.
Athavia particularly liked One True Maverick, and said: “This had a really nice toasty sweetness, maltiness in a good way, and lovely texture. There was no burn, it was lovely and smooth, with lots of character. For me, this was absolutely head and shoulders above the rest.” Dixon said about Cobalte: “I wouldn’t kick it out of a Martini glass.”
A little spice
From there, the judges turned their attention to the Organic flight. The standard continued to be very high, as two more Masters were uncovered. Sweet Grass Vodka was praised for its “sweetness and roundness on the finish”. Fellow Master medallist Koskenkorva Vodka Organic presented a “pleasant, clean, neutral nose” and “a little spice towards the finish”. “Solid” Nykur Premium Organic Vodka picked up a Gold medal and “rustic, interesting” Tovaritch! also received a Gold.
Pamplin said: “Organic tends to be a lovely expression of the purity of the base material. There was a lovely consistency of styles across the organic range; a good place for vodka traditionalists to find a tasty vodka.”
After Organic came a small flight of Microdistillery expressions, which produced a Master, a Gold and a Silver medal.
The top accolade was presented to Sweet Grass Vodka. The judges found a “touch of lemon zest and a little yuzu” on the nose, finishing with a “little chilli heat” on the palate.
Prousaefs said: “This showed a good industry standard, and a good average across the category, which is very promising.”
Nourney agreed, and added: “This was a positive flight – the microdistilleries do not mess around.”
The next flight sought to assess one particular characteristic of each vodka: smoothness. Collecting another Master medal was Sweet Grass Vodka for “ticking all the boxes” of what the judges expected from a smooth entry.
Five Gold medallists also impressed with their smooth qualities: Pur Vodka, Syabry Delicate, Avosh Australian Premium Vodka, Minke Irish Vodka and Greenline Pure.
In the Vodka – Rye flight, another three Masters were enjoyed. Belvedere took two Master medals, one for its spirit drink Heritage 176 and another for Single Estate Rye Smogóry Forest.
Belvedere Heritage 176 had “bold, strong rye notes” with “chocolatey, chewy” flavours. Smith said it was a “good example of a flavoursome rye”.
Belvedere Single Estate Rye Smogóry Forest delivered a “nice texture and mouthfeel, with some character and interesting finish”.
Roust also secured the top accolade for its Żubrówka Bison Grass vodka. Athavia described this expressions as an “aspirational vodka – it’s setting the standard”.
Four Gold medals were also awarded in this heat: “bold, punchy, balanced” Belvedere Organic Infusions Pear Ginger; “juicy, oily, lemon‐forward” Belvedere Organic Infusions Lemon Basil; “natural and slightly sweet” Belvedere Single Estate Rye Lake Bartężek; and Żubrówka Biala – “a lovely sipping vodka”.
Dixon noted: “There’s a definite move towards flavoured vodka being drier, more authentic and less synthetic. The flavours here were good, dry, fresh examples of flavoured expressions, so that’s pleasing. As a whole, it seems vodkas are becoming more characterful, and producers are looking to differentiate themselves from competitors by presenting themselves in more flavoursome form.”
Polar Ice Arctic Extreme flew the flag for grain‐based vodkas in the next flight, winning a Gold medal. The judges hailed its notes of “stone fruit and a touch of sweetness” on the palate, and said the alcohol was “well integrated”.
The Gold standard continued into the Vodka – Wheat round, with four such medals awarded.
Roust collected two Gold medals in this flight, one for Russian Standard Original with its “nice sweetness, good balance and a little warming spice”, and a second for Russian Standard Platinum, which had a “little peppery spice balanced with vanilla sweetness”. Gold‐winning Steeltown Home Wheat Vodka was “full‐bodied” with a “characterful, spicy” palate. Summum Vodka 2020 was a “solid vodka” with “good balance and a nice sweetness”.
“These were all super neutral, fresh and focused spirits that are kind of more old school,” said Dixon. “There’s no fault with any of them, they were all really classic.”
Polar Ice lived up to the expectations of a Gold medallist in the Vodka – Corn heat, enjoyed for its “wonderful complexities from the corn”.
Potato‐based Royal Mash Vintage Vodka 2020 took home a Master medal for its complex profile. The judges found the palate to be “creamy, smooth with a slight chilli heat” finishing with some “citrusy notes”.
Glory Mornin’ Super Vodka – Pure & Smooth won a Gold medal in the Vodka – Rice flight. The panellists found “fruity” flavours on the palate with a “touch of caramel” and a “slight sweet chilli” on the finish. For the following flights, the vodkas were separated by region, with a Master medal found among the Russian entrants. Balchug XXI had a “gorgeous palate – soft, creamy, luxurious”.
“Smooth, pleasant” Tovaritch!, “clean, slightly fruity” Onegin and “expressive” Derevenka all took home Gold medals in this flight.
In the Eastern Europe round, Dima’s Vodka won a Gold medal. Dixon said: “This had really nice cereal notes, and you can get the base flavour in there. It was a really tight product for me, harmonious, balanced, very well made – the alcohol integration was seamless.”
In the Western Europe heat, Voga Italia secured a Silver medal with a “clean, neutral nose” and a “touch of pepper” on the finish.
Koskenkorva won a Gold medal in the Scandinavia flight, which had a “silky texture”. The judges agreed it would make a “good Martini”.
Athavia said: “I liked the balanced sweetness and smoothness, not trying to be something it’s not. I would be very happy to buy this for a reasonable amount.”
In the Rest of the World contingent, two Masters made their presence known. Croc Vodka was one of the Master winners, with its “interesting, Aussie gin‐like nose” and “clean and crisp” flavour.
Baxter Vodka won the second Master in this flight, with “interesting little complexities on the palate”.
Pur Sang Select, Pur Sang Standard and Pur Vodka all won Silver awards.
In the final flight of the day – Flavoured/ Infused Vodka – three more Masters joined the top ranks. Balchug XVI won a Master for being “oily and earthy with some saltiness”. Smith said this was “a really good example – textbook liquorice vodka”. For Miller, the expression brought to mind “Black Jack sweets” and delivered a “lovely touch of sweetness to balance”.
Ukrainian brand Nemiroff received two Masters in this round, the first for Nemiroff The Inked Collection Wild Cranberry. With its “attractive colour”, Miller found this to be “sweet, sharp” and said it “would work well in cocktails”.
Nemiroff The Inked Collection Burning Pear also received a Master medal. The vodka delivered “pear drops” on the nose and “authentic pear flavour” on the palate”. “It delivered as promised,” said Pamplin.
The flight also produced 11 Gold medallists, including Koivu Vodka by the Pyynikin Distilling Company. Rodriguez said about the expression: “An aromatic fresh nose with some woodiness and earthiness to it.”
Summum Citron also received the Gold seal of approval, enjoyed for aromas of “lemon peel, yuzu and grapefruit”. The palate then brought a “lovely freshness” and “wonderful texture” with more “zingy citrus”.
Korpiklaani Vodka was also highly celebrated. Tasting notes included: “Earthy nose, white pepper and some dry notes with a slight woodiness. The palate is smooth, and feels a bit ‘ginny’. It finishes with a touch of chilli spice – a good vodka.”
Fellow Gold medal winner Koskenkorva Sauna Barrel had an “almost honey profile and texture”. Meanwhile, stablemate Koskenkorva Lemon Lime Yarrow also scooped a Gold medal for its “sharp, zesty and clean” aroma. Miller said this particular vodka “delivered as promised”, with a “nice length, and good authentic flavours”.
Making it a hat trick for Koskenkorva was the brand’s 7 Botanicals expression. This variant was described as having “sherbet, citrus notes that continue on the palate”.
Smith said it had a “great range of flavours – honey, cinnamon, citrus”, and the vodka was “well rounded and balanced”. Thunder Toffee Vodka also received a Gold award, described as “sweet and delicious – it does exactly what it says it will”.
Glory Mornin’ Super Vodka – Elderflower & Lemondrop was another crowd‐pleaser. The Gold medallist was “lightly perfumed, sweet” on the nose, and had a “jammy palate with hints of lemon”.
V‐One Vodka Peppermint (Mieta) also secured a coveted Gold award. The vodka, produced by Destylernia Kamien, reminded the judges of “sticks of rock from the seaside” with its “peppermint freshness”. On the palate, “vodka still comes through and cooling mint lingers”.
Greenline Citrus joined the Gold ranks in this flight, thanks to its aromas of “boiled lemon sweets, sherbet” and “zesty character on the palate – really lovely”.
The final Gold of this round went to Norwegian Wood Birch Vodka, produced by Oslo Håndverksdestilleri. This expression had a “vibrant, zesty aroma”, which led to “some savoury notes on the palate” and a “long finish”. Five Silver medals completed the flight: Idle Hour Kakadu Plum & Ginger; Moskovskaya Pink Vodka; Syabry Honey & Herbs; Koskenkorva Vodka Raspberry Pine; and Koskenkorva Vodka Blueberry Juniper.
Dixon said: “It was nice seeing moderation and a more managed approach to handling sugar and flavour. Lots of producers are trying to create new flavour combinations and sometimes, the more simple the pairings, the better the vodka.
“For consumers, it can be a bit misleading when you see two flavours side by side, but one isn’t as prominent or another really dominates.
“So if producers are doing this and putting different flavours together, there should be more harmony and synergy. Those that did that well really stood out.”
Smith and his panel also had very high praise for the flavoured and infused vodkas. “Bravo to the flavoured round,” Smith enthused. “When you try a round of flavoured spirits it can be hit and miss, but here there were some real treasures and creative ideas. I was very impressed, the quality was fantastic.”
Favourite of the day
The final task of the day was to reassess all of the Master medallists to determine the favourite expression of the day, and the entrant deserving of the title Vodka Taste Master 2021. Impressing the judges the most was Nemiroff The Inked Collection Burning Pear. Ukrainian vodka brand Nemiroff unveiled its Inked Collection trio of flavoured vodkas in global travel retail in November 2019. Bottled at 40% ABV, the collection includes Blood Orange, Wild Cranberry, and the 2021 Vodka Taste Master winner Burning Pear. The vodka is made by combining Nemiroff Vodka with honey, local peppers and fresh pear. On each of the three panels, the judges all noted the variety of styles and flavours that can be found in the vodka category at present – and that by and large, quality was also abundant.
“I thought the variety was the most broad I’ve experienced, it’s very different from how it was five or six years ago – there’s a vodka out there for everyone,” noted Dixon.
“So when people say they don’t drink vodka, I thought there was a really interesting range of products that are worth exploring. Everything from the traditional styles to flavours are getting more experimental and imaginative – it’s quite pleasing.”
|Manufacturing company Syabry||Syabry Rye Bread||Master|
|Bulbash Zavod||Bulbash Original||Gold|
|Southern Spirits Co||Southern Spirits Co Vodka||Silver|
|Anora Group||Explorer Vodka||Silver|
|Symposium Spirits||Merchant’s Choice Vodka||Silver|
|Halewood Artisanal Spirits||JJ Whitley Artisanal Russian Vodka||Master|
|Skiclub Kampen||North Sea Vodka||Gold|
|Palirna U Zeleneho stromu
(Green Tree Distillery)
|Hanacka Vodka Silver 40,13%||Gold|
|Amber Beverage Group||Moskovskaya Osobaya Vodka||Gold|
|Halewood Artisanal Spirits||JJ Whitley Raspberry Vodka||Gold|
|Ladoga Group||Tsarskaya Originalnaya||Gold|
|Sweet Grass Vodka||Sweet Grass Vodka||Gold|
|Halewood Artisanal Spirits||JJ Whitley Gold Artisanal Russian Vodka||Silver|
|Halewood Artisanal Spirits||JJ Whitley Blood Orange Vodka||Silver|
|Nemiroff||Nemiroff De Luxe||Silver|
|Nemiroff||Nemiroff De Luxe Honey Pepper||Silver|
|Manufacturing company Syabry||Syabry De Luxe||Silver|
|The Absolut Company||Absolut Vodka||Silver|
|Penderyn Distillery||Five Vodka||Master|
|58 Distillery||58 Distillery||Master|
|William Grant & Sons||Reyka Vodka||Master|
|Kamo Premium Vodka||Kamo Original Premium Vodka||Master|
|Ladoga Group||Tsarskaya Zolotaya||Gold|
|Anora Group||Koskenkorva Vodka Climate Action||Gold|
|Els Magyar Gin Manufaktúra||Opera Vodka||Gold|
|Marussia Beverages||Mamont Vodka||Gold|
|Amber Beverage Group||Moskovskaya Osobaya Silver Vodka||Gold|
|Spirit of Wales||Steeltown Welsh Vodka||Gold|
|White Feather||White Feather Vodka||Silver|
|JL Drinks||Jatt Life Original Vodka||Silver|
|Kamo Premium Vodka||Kamo Blueberry Premium Vodka||Silver|
|One True Maverick||One True Maverick||Master|
|Pur Vodka||Pur Vodka||Master|
|Prevelon Rus||Kremlin Award Vintage||Gold|
|Chapel Down||Chapel Down Chardonnay Vodka||Gold|
|Illuminati Vodka||Illuminati Vodka||Gold|
|Ramsbury Brewing & Distilling Co||Ramsbury Single Estate Vodka||Gold|
|Union Brands||Thousand Trades||Silver|
|Prevelon Rus||Kremlin Award President||Silver|
|AU Vodka||AU Original Gold Filtered Vodka||Silver|
|Sweet Grass Vodka||Sweet Grass Vodka||Master|
|Anora Group||Koskenkorva Vodka Organic||Master|
|Nykur Spirits||Nykur Premium Organic Vodka||Gold|
|Saranskiy Distillers||Chisti Rosi||Silver|
|Prevelon Rus||Kremlin Award Organic||Silver|
|Sweet Grass Vodka||Sweet Grass Vodka||Master|
|Pur Vodka||Pur Vodka||Gold|
|Distillerie de Montréal||Rosemont Vodka de Montréal||Silver|
|Sweet Grass Vodka||Sweet Grass Vodka||Master|
|Pur Vodka||Pur Vodka||Gold|
|Manufacturing company Syabry||Syabry Delicate||Gold|
|The Tailor Made Spirits Company||Avosh Australian Premium Vodka||Gold|
|Clonakilty Distillery||Minke Irish Vodka||Gold|
|Bulbash Zavod||Greenline Pure||Gold|
Vodka – Rye
|Belvedere Vodka||Heritage 176||Master|
|Belvedere Vodka||Single Estate Rye Smogóry Forest||Master|
|Roust||Żubrówka Bison Grass||Master|
|Belvedere Vodka||Belvedere Organic Infusions Pear Ginger||Gold|
|Belvedere Vodka||Belvedere Organic Infusions Lemon Basil||Gold|
|Belvedere Vodka||Single Estate Rye Lake Bartężek||Gold|
|Idle Hour Spirits||Idle Hour Unfiltered||Silver|
|Idle Hour Spirits||Idle Hour Filtered||Silver|
|Belvedere Vodka||Belvedere Vodka||Silver|
|Belvedere Vodka||Belvedere Organic Infusions Blackberry Lemongrass||Silver|
Vodka – Grain
|Corby Spirit and Wine||Polar Ice Arctic Extreme||Gold|
Vodka – Wheat
|Roust||Russian Standard Original||Gold|
|Roust||Russian Standard Platinum||Gold|
|Spirit of Wales||Steeltown Home Wheat Vodka||Gold|
|Summum Vodka||Summum Vodka 2020||Gold|
|Roust||Russian Standard Gold||Silver|
Vodka – Corn
|Corby Spirit and Wine||Polar Ice||Gold|
Vodka – Potato
|Royal Mash||Royal Mash Vintage Vodka 2020||Master|
Vodka – Rice
|The Glory Mornin’ Company||Glory Mornin’ Super Vodka – Pure & Smooth||Gold|
|Saranskiy Distillers||Balchug XXI||Master|
|Dima’s Vodka UK||Dima’s Vodka||Gold|
|Enovation Brands||Voga Italia||Silver|
|Anora Group||Koskenkorva Vodka||Gold|
Rest of the World
|FNQ Spirits||Croc Vodka||Master|
|GX Spirits||Baxter Vodka||Master|
|Pur Sang Vodka||Pur Sang Select||Silver|
|Pur Sang Vodka||Pur Sang Standard||Silver|
|Pur Vodka||Pur Vodka||Silver|
|Nemiroff||Nemiroff The Inked Collection Burning Pear||Master & Taste Master|
|Nemiroff||Nemiroff The Inked Collection Wild Cranberry||Master|
|Saranskiy Distillers||Balchug XVI||Master|
|Pyynikin Distilling Company||Koivu Vodka||Gold|
|Summum Vodka||Summum Citron||Gold|
|Pyynikin Distilling Company||Korpiklaani Vodka||Gold|
|Anora Group||Koskenkorva Vodka Sauna Barrel||Gold|
|Anora Group||Koskenkorva Vodka Lemon Lime Yarrow||Gold|
|Anora Group||Koskenkorva Vodka 7 Botanicals||Gold|
|The Glory Mornin’ Company||Glory Mornin’ Super Vodka –
Elderflower & Lemondrop
|Thunder Drinks||Thunder Toffee Vodka||Gold|
|Destylernia Kamien||V‐One Vodka Peppermint (Mieta)||Gold|
|Bulbash Zavod||GreenLine Citrus||Gold|
|Oslo Håndverksdestilleri||Norwegian Wood Birch Vodka||Gold|
|Idle Hour Spirits||Idle Hour Kakadu Plum & Ginger||Silver|
|Amber Beverage Group||Moskovskaya Pink Vodka||Silver|
|Manufacturing company Syabry||Syabry Honey & Herbs||Silver|
|Anora Group||Koskenkorva Vodka Raspberry Pine||Silver|
|Anora Group||Koskenkorva Vodka Blueberry Juniper||Silver|