|Where wine coolers captivated the 80s and microbrews burgeoned in the 90s, vodka is bringing verve and variety to drinking in the new millennium. Strawberry vodka, chocolate vodka, orange, cinnamon and key lime vodkas… Sidle up to any bar in any city and you'll see a sick display of distinct new tastes nestled on the shelf among the Ketel and Grey Goose, ready to splash into an updated Cosmo, Betelgeuse or Tootsie Roll Martini.
Trendy as these specialty vodkas may seem, spice- and herb-infused vodkas have been sating drinkers since the spirit first cracked the ice on frozen Russian and Polish faces several hundred years ago. Back then, flavoring wasn't intended for variety. It was necessary to take the edge off the primitive mash, the intense, harsh taste of which could make even the swarthiest drinker breathe fire.
Later, the ability to craft flavored concoctions became the mark of a skillful distiller. Among those who elevated the practice to an art were the Russians and Poles, who've long marketed dozens of flavored vodkas. Among the most unusual brands in Russia are Okhotnichya or "Hunter's" vodka (flavored with a mix of ginger, cloves, lemon peel, coffee, anise and other herbs and spices, then blended with sugar and a touch of a wine similar to white port) and Zubrovka (vodka flavored with bison grass, an aromatic grass which is the cud of choice for herds of the rare European bison).
Flavored vodkas were slow to reach the mass U.S. market, however. Americans first became hooked on "the white spirit" after World War II, lured by the convenient fact that it had "no taste and no smell" (and could therefore be consumed on the sly). And for decades the classic vodka martini or vodka-tonic suited drinkers just fine. It wasn't until the cocktail craze of the late 90s that the current frenzy for vodka variety took off. Luckily, there are plenty of quality distillers out there to satisfy demand.
Among the first to tempt our palates with readily available flavored vodkas were Absolut and Stolichnaya. Absolut entered this niche market in 1986 with its Peppar, an aromatic, complex and spicy vodka that gets its kick from the spicy components in the capsicum pepper family and from fresh green jalapeño pepper. They later added Absolut Citron, Kurant and Mandarin. The newest twist to the Absolut line? Absolut Vanilia, which has a rich, robust and complex taste of vanilla, with notes of butterscotch and hints of dark chocolate. Its scheduled release is this spring.
Stoli was also an early marketer of laced libations, luring many drinkers to the pleasures of flavored vodkas with its Vodka Razberi (made with ripe raspberries), Vodka Vanilla (with the pure essence of Madagascan and Indonesian vanilla beans) and Vodka Zinamon (infused with the zip of cinnamon).
The success of the Absolut and Stoli creations gave rise to a new generation of cocktail concoctions and inspired other distillers to create fresh and unexpected varieties. Among those most likely to turn up at your local watering hole are the infusions of Charbay, which uses fresh fruit to create blood orange, ruby red grapefruit and key lime vodkas; Burnett's, which offers sour apple (great in an Appletini), coconut, raspberry, orange, citrus and vanilla; the artistically designed Vincent Van Gogh Vodkas, whose varieties include Chocolate, Oranje, Vanilla, Raspberry, Wild Appel and Citroen; and OP, a 70- proof Swedish vodka flavored with ginger, orange and peach, and spiced with anise, fennel and caraway.
A newcomer to the flavored vodka scene is Hangar One, a small, quality distiller that uses real fruit and "rare and expensive" ingredients to produce its Buddha's Hand Citron, Kaffir Lime and Mandarin Blossom vodkas. Luscious straight up, these fruit-laced spirits can also be the inspiration for cocktails to die for.
Should a Cosmo with Burnett's Blood Orange Vodka or a Sunflower Martini with Vincent Van Gogh's Raspberry seem too traditional, frighten your drinking companions by ordering up a shot of Blavod, a smooth-tasting vodka colored black by the catcchu herb. While it looks like The Dark Prince's drink of choice, Blavod is surprisingly refreshing in a Black Bull (ice, Red Bull and Blavod) or a Sundance (ice, blue curacoa, soda water and Blavod).
Another far-out blend is Feigling, a fig-infused vodka that comes in a little bottle from Germany. Served straight or with a little tonic and a twist, Feigling is a unique taste and sure to throw a little variety into your drinking repertoire.
If you’re lucky enough to find them, don't pass up a chance to try the Polish Wisent, flavored with a species of bison grass that grows only in the Bialowieska Forest (acknowledged to be the last primeval forest left in Europe), or the Ukrainian Soomska Horobynova (flavored with ashberry) and Soomska Horilka Pryhodko (flavored with St. John's Wort, Buffalo Grass, coriander and lemon).
So your local bar thinks Absolut Kurant is the cutting-edge of flavors? You can still experiment with new ventures in vodka. Roll up your sleeves and concoct your own unique libations. Begin with a quality vodka. While "quality" is in the taste buds of the drinker, general wisdom holds that you’ll get better results and suffer fewer day-after side effects if you stick to a bottle in the $20-and-up range. Purchase anything under seven bucks to use in your infusion and you'll waste culinary effort as well as brain cells.
Recipe for Infusion
The process by which vodkas are flavored is called infusion. This is a fancy word for mixing stuff with vodka and letting it soak. Unless otherwise directed by a recipe, infuse your vodkas at room temperature. Freezing the flavored vodkas after infusion, however, will ensure the best taste.
The easiest way to flavor vodka is with fresh fruit, which both soaks up and flavors the spirit. Just mix vodka in equal portions with ripe, washed and coarsely chopped fruit (peaches, pineapples or strawberries are common favorites). Place the mixture in a glass canning jar, and let the concoction sit for several days. Strain before serving, or leave in a few fruit chunks for munching. This method will work with any fruit, including fresh and sun-dried tomatoes as well as chili peppers. In short, if you can dream it and drink it, you can infuse it.
If you want to venture beyond fruit, give these traditional and not-so-traditional infusion recipes a try. Vodka lovers will find these concoctions delectable on their own (plain or with a garnish), but they can also be used to breathe new life into a favorite old cocktail.
(Note: For all recipes use 1 pint of plain vodka and infuse at room temperature for 24 hours. Then strain.)
Anise Vodka: Licorice-laced vodka was a favorite of Peter the Great, so it's got to be good enough for us. Soak 2 t whole anise seed. Serve chilled.
Apricot Vodka: Infuse 12 apricot kernels. Serve chilled.
Cherry Vodka: Crush 36 cherry pits (or thereabouts).
Coriander Vodka: Use 2 t coriander seed, slightly crushed.
Garlic-and-Dill Vodka: Infuse 1 clove garlic, slightly crushed, 1 sprig fresh dill and 3 white peppercorns. Leave a little dill in the vodka, if you're so inclined.
Herb Vodka: Infuse a few sprigs of a favorite herb, such as tarragon or basil. Leave a small bit of herb in the vodka, if you choose.
Saffron Vodka: Use 1/4 t saffron threads.
Tea Vodka: Infuse 4 t black tea leaves (fruit-scented is a nice touch).
Buffalo Grass Vodka/Zubrovka: Use 8 blades of buffalo grass. One blade of grass may be left in the vodka after straining for a little woodland feel.
So next time you order a cocktail, check out the new flavors lining up behind the bar. Flavored vodkas may just be a trend, but they're bound to snare some converts. Bison grass and anise seed aside, 145 million vodka-loving Russians can't be wrong.