With variations like salted caramel, fruit and chilli on the shelves, vodka is knocking it out of the park in the innovation stakes. Discover why you should give these flavour twists a go...
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Flavoured vodka isn't necessarily a term to bring joy to many people's hearts. Memories play of luminous jars of sweet-steeped booze lingering behind the bar to entrap unwary students, but this is seldom the case anymore. Possibly not as heralded as the craft gin and independent whisky revivals, but just as heartening, is the sight of vodka distillers experimenting with interesting ingredients and methods. Here are some of the best flavoured vodkas that take advantage of the drink's versatility and its ability to act as a canvas for flavours both bold and subtle.
Moorland Spirits Co Douglas fir flavoured vodka (41% ABV)
Moorland Spirit Co hails from a remote corner of Northumberland and counts noted foodie Valentine Warner among its founders. The distillery uses a copper pot still and the team draws upon vacuum distillation and supercritical CO² extraction in order to get the flavours they want, where they want them. Although Moorland Spirit Co is primarily a gin producer, this vodka flavoured by Douglas fir tips is a diamond in its own right.
It has a light, clean nose with lively pine notes and a softer citrus undercurrent. Drunk neat, it’s smooth and light-bodied with a big initial pine rush. Starting fresh and zingy, but without any harsh menthol edge, it then reveals a soft, sweet melon note as it finishes and has a final coolness when you exhale. Excellent simply as a sipping spirit, it has more than enough in it to lift a simple martini or sour and would happily present new aspects to most gin cocktails.
Mikkeller dry hop Simcoe vodka (44% ABV)
Mikkeller is better known in the beer world as the nomadic brewer of an endless profusion of unpredictable and intriguing beers made to founder Mikkel Borg Bjergsø’s peripatetic vision, often using the facilities at Belgium’s respected De Proef brewery. This vodka, then, is a sideways step. It uses dry-hopping, a technique where the aromatic hops are steeped in the liquid after the brewing process, which gives aroma and flavour, but no bitterness.
The modern American hop variety Simcoe is used here. Associated with stone fruit, citrus and pine when used in beer, it gives the clean, smooth vodka base a delightful lifting accent. Somewhat surprisingly, the essential element here is of blueberries, namely blueberry muffins, with a slightly cake-y edge on the fruit. There’s a little pine at the end, but this is a less-is-more introduction to the hop, delicate enough to lend itself to a wide range of drinking.
Bimber Distillery oak-aged vodka (42% ABV)
Having bottled its first vodka in 2016, Bimber Distillery is a relative newcomer to London’s nascent distilling revival. As well as trying to bring whisky-making back to the capital, Bimber Distillery also produces a range of flavoured vodkas – this oak-aged variety is the standout.
Aged in ex-bourbon oak barrels and finished with a few spices, this vodka takes on the nose of soft sweet vanilla, ripe banana and gentle ripples of clove, cinnamon and woodsmoke. It’s very light and gentle, with an easy sweet note and lots more oak and spice. It stands somewhere in a space between the whiskey whose barrels it ages in and a rich, spiced rum, but all without the body or sweetness. It shouldn’t work, but it does, and well.
Dà Mhìle cucumber vodka (40% ABV)
Based in the west of Wales, avowedly organic outfit Dà Mhìle first came to notice when it commissioned Springbank to make an organic whisky back in 1992 using the farm’s own barley. It then opened as a distillery in its own right in 2012. This is one of a range of drinks Dà Mhìle now produces, which also includes a seaweed gin.
As you might imagine from the name, this one is all cucumber. The spirit is light, clean and smooth, leaving you to take in the full, refreshing summery hit of cucumber. Both on the nose and to taste, it is redolent of both the flesh and the rind, juicy and refreshing with just a touch of the herbal creeping in at the edge. Demands to be taken in a long, cold drink in the embrace, or remembrance, of hot sunny days.
Anno Elderflower & Vodka (29% ABV)
Anno, based in Kent, is the labour of love of two scientists who decided to switch careers and set up Kent's first new gin distillery in 200 years. With a focus on ingredients from the garden of England, it’s perhaps no surprise that one of their selection is this elderflower infusion.
One of the less strong offerings in this list, at 29%, Anno's Elderflower & Vodka has an intense elderflower nose, with the attendant lychee, peach, honey and muscat grape notes you'd hope for. It is sweet, but the flavour comes through well, with a real intensity when drunk neat. It’s delightful and I’d look to add it to a glass of fizz or make use of that marvellous aroma in a cocktail to best enjoy it.
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Dunnet Bay Distillery Holy Grass Scottish vodka (41.5% ABV)
Dunnet Bay Distillery resides about as far north as you can get on the Scotland mainland, but this vodka is kin to the open plains of eastern Europe, using as it does Hierochloe borealis (better known as bison grass). The grass imparts a gentle character, which is accentuated by the addition of apple juice in the distillation.
The aromas are of creamy vanilla with light hints of cinnamon and jasmine, which carry through to the drinking on a lightly sweet base with murmurs of crisp apple and camomile. An obvious, and excellent, partner to a good apple juice, or simply enjoyed as a chilled shot straight from the freezer.
Chase marmalade vodka (40% ABV)
Herefordshire potato farmer William Chase set up Chase Distillery after enjoying the success of his earlier venture, Tyrrells crisps. A complex methodology, involving marmalade and Seville and Valencia oranges going through maceration, redistillation, further maceration and final filtering, leaves you with a spirit bursting with the flavour and intensity of good marmalade.
There's orange with undertone of lemon on the nose, all marmalade richness and zesty spritz, before a sip doubles down on all of that. Orange marmalade, orange zest, a bit of juice and more sweet marmalade assail you in the most glorious manner. The depth of flavour is hefty, but noticeably moreish when drunk cold and neat. It happily sits astride a good tonic, and does great things to a sour.
Arbikie chilli vodka (43% ABV)
Arbikie is the second Scottish appearance on this list and another producer aspiring to be a self-contained single-estate outfit. As with Dà Mhìle and Chase, everything that can be grown on the farm is – including the chillies in this vodka, which are also smoked by Arbikie in whisky casks.
A potato vodka base with a smooth, soft body, it has a smokey nose with a disarmingly light chilli prickle behind it. On the tongue again there’s smoke, a pause and then the heat, paired with a fruity sweetness. The finish is long, slow and hot, with a smoke warmth and ham sweetness. Not painfully spicy, but definitely warming – and an obvious contender for bloody marys or bull shots.
Two Birds salted caramel English vodka (37.5% ABV)
Since opening its doors in 2013, Leicestershire-based Two Birds has quickly built up a wide array of gins, vodkas, spiced rum and even an absinthe for its range. Its fruit-flavoured vodkas tend to be straightforward, joyful juice bombs, best exemplified by the passion fruit vodka.
Here, however, I want to draw attention to Two Birds' salted caramel offering. Leading with butterscotch on the nose and soft caramel underneath, it's all fairly restrained. A sip shows the caramel up well, still soft and creamy and, while sweet, avoiding the pitfalls of sickliness that's often associated with toffee- or caramel-flavoured spirits. The flavour stretches out gently, ending with a very subtle salt edging. At 37.5%, it carries the flavour of the caramel without turning it into a pouring sauce.
Buy from Master of Malt (£32) and Ice and a Slice (£29)
Jelley's pomegranate and rosemary vodka (40% ABV)
Hailing from the quiet county of Northamptonshire, Jelley's vodka launched in 2015 and is accredited as organic by the Soil Association. The nose is lightly fruity, with hints of the sharp-sweet juiciness of pomegranate, but the rosemary is more prevalent, with clean, aromatic, refreshing top notes. To drink, it's a similar story. With a very smooth, slightly creamy vodka base as a platform, it’s fully flavoured but not too sweet. Rather than lean towards the syrupy grenadine side of things, the pomegranate offers a light touch, restraining the rosemary and adding structure without dominating.
Vestal appellation Pomorze vodka 2014 (40% ABV)
Rather than a flavoured vodka, this is a vodka made to have flavour. A father-son outfit spanning rural Poland and metropolitan London, Vestal approaches vodka as a drink worthy of respect. The idea is that the right potato variety, picked at the right time and used with care, can reflect the ingredients and their source as keenly as wine grapes. There may even be mention of terroir in the brand's marketing materials. Of particular note is that this outing is only distilled once, with the aim being to keep more of the character of the spirit, rather than refine it out of existence.
A quick sniff will tell you that this is not like other vodkas. Earthy, slightly smoky notes predominate with the intensity of a good mezcal, while a softer smooth pear aroma filters in afterwards. To drink, it’s a world apart, with deeply earthy, savoury, smoky, peppery notes. Balancing this, it has a smooth, creamy mouthfeel, and that pear note also comes in on the palate with a touch of blueberry. Particularly at the finish, there's a definite, although certainly not unpleasant, potato note marrying it all together.
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