Words by: Simon Difford
The Russian Revolution of 1917 caused many Russians to flee their homeland and these exiles spread their knowledge and enthusiasm for vodka to the new countries in which they settled. One such émigré, Vladimir Smirnov, ended up in France where he established a small distillery close to Paris and, giving his last name a French twist, created the brand we know today as 'Smirnoff'.
In 1934, Vladimir was obliged to sell his production to a fellow émigré, Rudolph Kunett, who, under his former name of Kukhesh, had supplied the Smirnov family with grain before the Revolution. Rudolph acquired the exclusive rights to sell Smirnoff vodka in the US and Canada and established a distillery to produce Smirnoff vodka in Connecticut, USA. The company changed hands again in the late 1930s when Kunett sold out to John Martin of Heublein Co, then a small liquor firm based in Connecticut. Heublein acquired the world rights to Smirnoff from Vladimir's widow in 1951 and on 15th August 1952, W&A Gilbey Ltd (now part of Diageo) agreed to manufacture and sell Smirnoff vodka in Britain.
It's pretty fair to say that the western vodka boom was kicked off by Smirnoff. The British and North American markets were, and, in volume terms, still are, dominated by Smirnoff. The strong identification that the market place held between Russia, vodka and the Smirnoff label meant that until the late 1980s, most Western vodka brands borrowed their imagery from the romantic notion of Tsarist Russia, used Russian sounding names and labels decorated with imposing crests. Little tended to be said about what the vodka was produced from - often molasses neutral spirit rather than the more expensive grain neutral spirit.
The launch of vodka brands such as Finlandia in the 1960s and 1970s in the US and UK coincided with the cultural revolution of the 'swinging sixties'. This saw a more affluent younger generation, the end of post war austerity and a generally more relaxed lifestyle. Vodka was perceived as a modern pure spirit, which did not cause hangovers and was odourless so could not be detected on a drinker's breath. By 1975, vodka sales in the US had overtaken those of bourbon.
Sweden and Finland, due to their close proximity to Russia, have a long-established vodka heritage and during the 1980s the Swedish product Absolut transformed the image of Western vodka thanks to canny marketing and iconic advertising.
Another turning point in the market came in early 1996 when Belvedere Vodka launched in the USA. This was followed by the launch of Sidney Frank's French-made Grey Goose in 1997 and Dutch-made Ketel One Vodka in 1998. These vodkas were priced at higher levels than the competition and marketed as luxury spirits, so creating the super-premium vodka category.
Today, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands and France all have well established reputations for quality vodka. These products tend to be marketed through modern imagery, thus the emphasising the purity of the product. While the Netherlands and France may be relatively new to the vodka market, these countries have been producing quality neutral spirits as the base for genever and liqueurs for centuries, so distillers were already positioned to benefit from vodka's growing popularity.
While Sidney Frank felt he had to go to France for the authentic luxury story behind Grey Goose, today's US distillers are proud to use their own country's grain and water - and even its grapes and potatoes - to produce an increasing number of boutique, small-batch vodkas, alongside a number of more mass market brands.
As a result of the scale and disparate spread of production (brands are produced from Canada to New Zealand via Austria and Italy) it is hard to give a precise description of the characteristics of Western vodkas. They were traditionally considered relatively neutral in style due to their originating through modern distillation methods and state-of-the-art distillation columns. However, in recent years, boutique and luxury producers have employed different types of still, particularly pot stills, to 'finish' rectified spirits and add a little of that character which vodka's detractors think it lacks. A trend for adding a barely discernible hint of flavour by redistilling with tiny amounts of secret, so unspecified, botanicals has also emerged.
As The Periodic Table inspired name might suggest, Au Vodka is packaged in a tall, shapely gold mirrored bottle with hand-applied pewter plaque labels. Au Vodka is made at Hayman Distillery from wheat neutral spirit. Clean and fairy neutral with cracked black pepper and faint cereal notes.
A French made vodka launched in June 2016 as part of a range of spirts designed to represent good value-for-money and branded to sit alongside NV Absinthe, established in 2007. Other products in the range include: Caribbean White Rhum, London Dry Gin, and Scottish Blended Whisky. Superbly clean. Black pepper spice with faint bread, dairy cream and aniseed.
The wheat based vodka is distilled at a purpose built micro distillery in two adjoining arches beneath Hackney Downs station in the east of London. This is one of many such “Our Vodka” distilleries operating around the world as part of a collaborative Pernod Ricard project. Superbly clean, fairly neutral minerally. Very faint charcoal, fennel and dairy cream.
Rutte vodka is made from the same high quality neutral grain spirit distilled from French winter wheat which is used as the base spirit in Rutte’s gins, jenevers and liqueurs. Clean, faintly brown bready, cracked black pepper.
Sauvelle vodka is made at Audemus Spirits in France’s Cognac region using French wheat spirit which is filtered using three types of wood, including charred oak. Crusty white bready notes with cracked black pepper. Faint vanilla, anise and oak.
Introduced in June 2014 and aimed a travel retail (duty free), Smirnoff White vodka is chilled to -6°C and filtered through charcoal. The distinctive bottle has a clear “cut-glass” base which turns milky white towards the top of the bottle. Very clean with very light peppery spirit. Faint notes reminiscent of dairy cream and sweet corn.
Staritsky & Levitsky Reserve is named after two Ukrainian cultural icons from the 19th century – at least that’s what we’re told. It is distilled in Ukraine from wheat grown in Ukrainian’s mountainous Carpathian region and hydrated using spring water which is “enriched by quartz”. Subdued nose with white pepper and faint coal dust-like notes.
The phrase “handpicked Shetland botanicals” appears three times on the front label and is repeated on the back label of Blackwoods Vodka where they are identified as being Sea pink, Angelica, Marsh marigold and Meadow sweet. Where Blackwoods is made is not disclosed. Charcoal, cream-of-soda vanilla, raw potatoes and cracked black pepper with faint hairspray-like notes.
Made in Germany from wheat neutral spirit and packaged in a bottle inspired by a diamonds facets with a diamond-shaped hologram foil on the bottle's shoulder. Very clean, neutral, mineral nose with very faint salt and aniseed notes.
Heroes is a contract distilled, wheat-based vodka, handled by Halewood International on behalf of Heroes Drinks Company, a company founded by UK Military Veteran, Chris Gillan, which “pledges twenty percent of its profits to Forces and Veterans Charities.” Beyond white peppery spirit notes lie subtle aniseed and notes reminiscent of rubber gym shoes.
First distilled in October 2012, this was the first spirit to flow from Ireland’s Dingle Distillery. Redistilled from Swedish grain neutral spirit using a pot still called Oisín. The vodka is distilled a second time and then charcoal filtered prior to bottling. Very clean with light white pepper and faint aniseed.
Launched in March 2013 and made from organic wheat by G&J Greenall in Warrington, England, Quintessentially Vodka takes its name from and is owned by Quintessentially, the concierge service company. Clean, fairly neutral, faint grain over wet flint minerality with white pepper.