In focus: Top trends in vodka

With the line between vodka and gin becoming increasingly blurred, some vodka producers are highlighting terroir and provenance to make their liquid stand out. Phoebe French finds out how they are getting their messages across.

For a spirit so transparent and straightforward, vodka is surprisingly murky. What can it – or should it – be made from? Can something that is described as ‘a neutral spirit’ have ‘character’? And where do you draw the line between flavoured vodka and gin?

Where producers are making vodka matters. After what was dubbed the ‘vodka war’, in reference to heated discussions over labelling, in 2007 the European Union voted in favour of allowing vodka made from “other agricultural raw materials”, as well as potatoes and cereals, to be called vodka. Brought about when Diageo began marketing Cîroc as a vodka made “exclusively from grapes,” the measure opened up a raft of possibilities for producers willing to experiment.

On the other hand, it was widely condemned by distillers in the so-called ‘vodka belt’, with Poland, Finland and Sweden voting against the measure, and Lithuania abstaining.

Arguing that vodka should only be made from potatoes and grains, Polish MEP Ryszard Czarnecki said at the time: “Would the French like Champagne made from plums, and would the British accept whisky distilled from apricots? That sounds like heresy. So please don’t be surprised that we are refusing to recognise vodka made from waste.”

Unlike the US, the EU also has a rather liberal definition of what constitutes ‘neutral’. In the US, vodka must be treated after distillation with “charcoal or other materials as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or colour”.

Flavoured vodka has a separate category. In the EU, vodka must be distilled and/or rectified “so that the organoleptic characteristics of the raw materials used and by-products formed in fermentation are selectively reduced. This process may be followed by re-distillation and/or treatment, including treatment with activated charcoal.”

In January this year, the Canadian government announced that it was proposing a series of changes to the country’s vodka regulations. These included expanding the list of permitted raw materials to include any agricultural material and permitting the use of other materials beyond charcoal to fully or partially remove any distinctive character, aroma or taste from the spirit.”

As such, unflavoured vodka can be broadly categorised into two genres: neutral and characterful.

With negotiations starting in December 2016 and agreed on in November 2018, the EU’s new Spirit Drink Regulations aim to provide added clarity in terms of production and labelling and enhance the production of Geographical Indicators (GIs). “It’s interesting to see the new EU Spirit Drink Regulations that have come into place with the intention of clarifying definition and descriptions for not only vodka and gin, but all 47 spirit categories,” says Henrik Ellström, global brand director at Absolut.

“Vodka producers will have to keep an ear to the ground to see the effectiveness of the guidelines on producers and consumers in the EU, and the global knock-on effect.”

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