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Sip & Savor: Flavored Vodka

Apr 05, 2011 09:47PM ● By Anonymous

It was odorless, flavorless, and mixed with orange juice to become a Screwdriver, tomato juice to become a Bloody Mary, or cranberry juice to make a Cape Cod (among other cocktails, of course).


But, oh, how things have changed—these days, both international and regional liquor brands are developing and selling flavors that no one ever dreamed would exist, let alone be popular. Some of these vodkas mimic the taste of other beverages, such as sweet tea, pink lemonade, root beer, and coffee. Others take every day ingredients, such as tomato, chocolate, or whipped cream, and infuse their flavors into its clear liquid.

Take, for example, Bakon Vodka—that’s the brand name, not a misspelling. Once reserved for breakfast, bacon has now infiltrated the spirits industry, popping up in Bloody Marys and martinis. Or perhaps even stranger is Bison Grass vodka, sold under the brand name Żubrówka, which is flavored with a wild grass grazed upon by European bison in Russia. At one time, the vodka was illegal in the United States because bison grass naturally contains coumarin, forbidden by the Food and Drug Administration because it can act as a blood thinner and might be mildly toxic to the liver and kidneys. It was just recently that producers managed to cook up a version without the chemical, which is legal in the U.S. Regionally, you can get a smoked salmon vodka in Alaska and a prickly pear—that’s cactus, in case you were wondering—vodka in Arizona.

Vodka is traditionally odorless and flavorless because of the filtration process it goes through prior to bottling. After distillation, vodka is filtered through activated charcoal, which absorbs any molecules that could alter or give an off-flavor to the spirit. This filtration process is what makes vodka mingle so well with a variety of mixers—and what might make fans question why one might want to taint it with flavors, which are mostly added with extracts.

“(Flavored vodka’s) appeal is not hard to see in that everybody loves different fruit flavors,” says Stuart Walton, author of Vodka Classified, published by Pavilion Books. “They add a sense of fun to the serious business of spirit mixing. They also became an indispensable part of the cocktail repertoire because they added fruit flavors to mixed drinks without having either the sweetness of liqueurs or their color.”

The appeal of fruit flavors might not be hard to see, but launching the more unique flavors is a risk. “Not all ideas are a homerun,” says Marguerite Allolding, marketing director for White Rock Distilleries, which produces Pinnacle Vodka, among other brands. “But you have to take chances in order to be successful.”

The flavor category for any spirit is extremely crowded, she says—and she’s right; approximately 14 new vodka flavors were introduced in 2009, according to data from Beverage Information Group’s 2010 liquor handbook. To stand out from the crowd, Pinnacle looks to be innovative and inspired by non-alcoholic food and drink categories. Some flavors the company has been successful with include kiwi strawberry, cherry lemonade, whipped cream, and cotton candy—flavors that no other company has tried to market.

The flavored vodka craze began in 1986 when Absolut introduced its Peppar vodka, a spicy flavor combination of roasted jalapenos, green tomatoes, and dried herbs, meant to go into Bloody Marys. The turn of the century really saw the explosion in the industry though, according to Danielle Eddy, spokesperson for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.“There was a point where the increase was dramatic,” she says. “However, it has slowed down a bit recently. Highly versatile flavors make mixing easy,” especially when those flavors can be substituted for another ingredient. For example, if you’re out of lime juice for your Bloody Mary, Eddy suggests using lime vodka in its place. The next big flavor is always around the corner—“bartenders are making their own infusions,” she says. “They’re always looking for the next flavor that will blow people away.”

You could be the one to figure out the next big flavor, too. It’s easy to infuse your own vodka at home with fruits, herbs, or any flavor you can dream up. Get instructions and more details here.

How long will the flavored vodka trend last? Bison grass may have been the tipping point. “Not indefinitely,” Walton says. “I think there may well be a return to the old traditional flavored vodkas of Russia and Poland, and even to the finer grades of neutral vodka.”