Serious Eats: Drinks
Cocktail 101: Flavored Vodka
Last week, we looked at vodka, but mainly at clear, or unflavored, vodka. Today we'll follow up with the other type of vodka on the market: flavored vodka. We'll look at its history, some production methods, and a controversy or two.
History and Tradition
Although today when you think of flavored vodkas, you normally think of mass-market products such as Absolut Citron, flavored vodkas actually date back a very long time, perhaps centuries. The first flavored vodkas weren't marketed products at all, but infusions made at home and in bars and taverns, in Russia, Poland, and other vodka-belt nations.
Infusions then were made in exactly the same way they are now: a flavoring agent is added to a container of vodka; the container is sealed up; and the agent is left in it to steep for a period of time lasting from hours to months. The flavoring agent can be left in the vodka when it's ready, or the agent may be removed and the vodka filtered to remove any particulates.
In vodka-belt nations, traditional flavoring agents include fruits, roots, flowers, herbs, and spices. Specifically, flavors may include pepper, ginger, cinnamon, unsweetened chocolate, vanilla, bison grass, black currant, cherry, apple, and lemon.
Modern Commercial Practices
Commercial flavored vodkas are today made in a more industrial manner. Methods vary, depending on the distiller. Charbay, in California, for example, starts with whole fruits, such as Meyer lemon or blood orange. Charbay crushes the fruit, skin and all, and extracts the flavors using a proprietary process. The infused flavors are then blended into the clear vodka.
Hangar One, also in California, has a similar process. Flavoring agents, such as mandarin orange blossoms, are steeped in high-proof vodka (typically 190 proof, or 95% alcohol by volume). There's no set limit for this maceration; it's done when the distiller thinks it smells and tastes right. The orangey vodka is then redistilled, filtered, diluted, and bottled.
Some flavored vodkas, though, do not draw their flavorings from actual fruits, vegetables, or spices. Flavor labs create flavors and fragrances which are sold to distillers and added to vodka during the production process. If the added flavors are originally derived from natural ingredients, producers can label them "naturally flavored," while those built from synthesized chemicals must label them as "artificially flavored," even if the "natural" or "artificial" flavoring added to the bottle are chemically identical. In either case, it's likely no actual lemon passed anywhere close to a bottle of "lemon vodka."
Vodkas that taste of grapefruit, green tea, cucumber, honey, tomato, bison grass, ginger, vanilla, and even chocolate all make sense. It's easy to imagine flavors that exist in nature being infused into vodka.
What do we make, then, of vodkas that taste of marshmallow, whipped cream, bubble gum, cake, fruit cereal, or cola? Who are these products trying to attract? The cynic in me sees them as an attempt to appeal to teenagers, and I think any product that's marketed to minors only hurts the liquor industry in the long term, by propping up the arguments of neo-Prohibitionists and other anti-booze moralists.
I'm sure the manufacturers, however, would say they're aiming for the club scene—for 20-somethings who want something light and sweet and fruity and fun while listening to dance music and flirting. And to tell the truth, I frankly can see such products appealing to drinkers who are younger but nevertheless still of legal age.
What do you think? Sound in below. Next week, we'll discuss what is arguably the most famous flavored vodka of all: gin.