What’s the alternative to Russian vodka?
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Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, bars and retailers have been delisting Russian brands in protest and, in some cases, theatrically pouring the liquor down the drain.
At the last count, UK sales of Russian vodka were down seven per cent according to NielsenIQ. Bestseller Russian Standard, which is distilled in St Petersburg, leaves a gap in the market worth £111mn. The second-biggest-selling Russian brand, JJ Whitley, is now moving production from Russia to the UK.
Other vodka brands, meanwhile, have been scrambling to distance themselves from their once-heralded Russian heritage: Stolichnaya – which is made in Latvia by exiled Russian billionaire Yuri Shefler – swiftly rebranded itself Stoli to distinguish itself from a Russian vodka of the same name. Smirnoff has been at pains to point out that it hasn’t been made in Russia since the early 1900s. And there has been a sudden surge of interest in vodkas made in the Ukraine. Dima’s Vodka – formerly a little-known brand from just outside Kyiv – has seen UK sales quadruple since January. Founder Dima Deinega says he’s been “overwhelmed” by the support, but that the success has been bittersweet. Production is currently suspended, but a stockpile of this very good triple-grain vodka is still on sale, with £5 from every bottle sold through dimasvodka.com going to withukraine.org, a charity raising funds to provide humanitarian support to Ukraine and its people.
The true origins of vodka remain obscure. The name itself is a diminutive of the Russian word “voda”, meaning water, but was originally used to describe herbal tinctures rather than a spirit distilled from wheat or rye. The first written mention of a drink called vodka is found in a Polish court document dated 1405; Soviet historians claimed it was being made by monks in the Kremlin by the 15th century. In Ukrainian and Polish a drink equating to what we now think of as vodka was named using those languages’ word for “to burn”; in Swedish it was “burn-wine”. Industrial production across the Slavic and Baltic region only kicked off in the late 18th and 19th centuries.
Vodka boomed in the west in the ’90s and ’00s, but it’s lost a lot of airtime to gin in the past decade. Could it be due a renaissance? Many people I know admit to finding the choice of gins these days bewildering; the flavour profiles too complex or strange. I can see a growing desire for a return to white spirits with a simpler, more focused flavour. Polish rye vodkas, for me, tend to hit the sweet spot between character and finesse. Belvedere’s Single Estate range contrasts rye grown in different terrains – Belvedere Lake Bartezek is more delicate and floral, Belvedere Smogory Forest more savoury and robust. Also good for a martini is Konik’s Tail, which is distilled from a blend of Polish rye, spelt and wheat. It’s clean and beautifully balanced, with a slight nuttiness.
The rise of grain-to-glass vodkas, which are grown and distilled on the same estate, has helped to highlight the impact that raw materials have on taste. Scottish distiller Arbikie makes three very different vodkas from crops grown on the family farm in Arbroath: a full-bodied potato vodka, a single-variety wheat vodka and a “climate-positive” vodka made from eco-friendly peas.
One of my favourite sipping vodkas is Black Cow “milk vodka” from west Dorset. Distilled by dairy farmer Jason Barber from the whey that remains after cheesemaking, it’s silky and pure – excellent as a frozen shot with a hunk of salty cheese.
Spearhead is a new black-owned distillery that champions African ingredients. Its zesty Vusa vodka is distilled from sugar cane grown in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal, and filtered through charcoal made from macadamia and baobab shells.
The founders of Edinburgh’s Jupiter Artland sculpture park recently launched an ultra-luxe vodka called X Muse (pronounced tenth muse). Distilled from heritage barley varieties, and blended, rather whimsically, with water rested on amethysts, it is so high-toned and fruity it tastes almost like an eau-de-vie.