Vodkas with flavour: raw materials and botanicals
It’s a myth that vodkas are neutral and flavourless. Like just about any spirit, the raw material used to produce vodka has an influence on the final flavour.
Nowadays, many vodka producers highlight the raw materials they’re using, aiming to bring out this character in the final product. Some are going a step further, exploring ways to enhance these flavours through distillation with botanicals.
Wheat in vodka
One of the most common raw materials for vodka production, and used by a number of major brands, wheat is generally considered to produce a spirit that is bright and light, with some sweetness.
Ireland’s Boatyard Distillery takes the wheat it uses as a base for its Boatyard Vodka seriously, able to trace the grain used in each bottle back to the field in which it was grown, with 1kg of the organic grain going into each bottle. For even more flavour, the resulting spirit is bottled without any filtration.
Acknowledging the quality of the wheat in France’s Champagne region, Wanderlust Spirits sources the base spirit for its Helix 7 Vodka from there, shipping it to Iceland, where the local water is said to have low mineral content and a high alkaline level.
Making the most of the ancient wheat varieties found in Italy’s Altamura region is Altamura Vodka. Its founders discovered the traditional bread of the region, Pane di Altamura, which is protected by a Protected Designation of Origin, and sought to reimagine this through distillation.
Not content with the characteristics of wheat alone, Konik's Tail Vodka is among those using a blend of grains, adding spelt and rye to the mix. The result showcases the influence of various grains on vodka’s flavour, with each contributing their own characteristics.
Barley in vodka
Most commonly associated with whisky and beer, barley brings some of those same characteristics to vodka. It’s fitting that Scottish vodka X Muse makes use of this raw material, given the country’s whisky-producing tradition. To create this characterful spirit, two heritage varieties of barley, namely Plumage Archer and Marris Otter, are used here, each distilled separately before being blended together and diluted with water from an ancient aquifer.
A champion of barley as a raw material is New Zealand’s Cardrona, who produce The Reid Single Malt Vodka alongside single malt whisky, gin and more. Using what it calls “the king of grains”, the malted barley is milled on site at the distillery. The result is anything but neutral, described by Cardrona as “decadently rich”, with notes of “pear drops, lemon, toffee and malt biscuits”.
Rye in vodka
With characteristic spicy notes, rye is often associated with Polish vodka, although it is used by distillers far and wide. Among the best known rye vodkas is Belvedere, which produces a pair of single-estate rye vodkas that are a masterclass in the flavours that this grain bring to a spirit. The two are made with Dankowskie Diamond rye grown on the shores of Lake Bartężek and within Smogóry Forest, each aiming to reflect these distinctive environments. The former is said to have notes of spearmint, toasted nuts and black pepper, while the latter features salted caramel, white pepper and honey.
In England, rye specialist Oxford Artisan Distillery makes use of heritage grains to produce its Oxford Rye Vodka. Unfiltered and double distilled in a bespoke still, the spirit is said to have subtle hints of spice and warm caramel.
Potato in vodka
Polish brand Vestal is a champion of potato-based vodkas, with its raw material grown in two specific regions of Poland, harvested young to preserve their flavour, and distilled only a single time. Its vintage releases really celebrate the flavour that this raw material provides. Take the 2015, for example, made with Miranda potatoes – the brand describes notes of pear, plum, macadamia nut, earthy spice and more.
Meanwhile, the team at Tiptree, producer of premium marmalades, conserves and more, have chosen East Anglian potatoes for their Tiptree English Vodka, distilled just once.
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Grape in vodka
While less common than grain or potato, there are a number of vodkas produced from grapes, such as Cîroc. English winery Chapel Down puts the grape front and centre with its Chardonnay Vodka, resulting in a spirit said to have peach and pepper notes.
Discarded, meanwhile, brings sustainability into the picture with its Grape Skin Vodka, using grape stems, seeds and skins – otherwise known as pomace – that are by-products of wine production. It also makes use of the spirit removed from dealcoholised wine, blending this with the pomace spirit.
Dairy in vodka
Proving that vodka can be made from anything with sugars to ferment, there are those who make use of dairy to produce their spirits. Among the best known is Black Cow in Dorset, which takes a zero-waste approach to distillation by using waste products from cheese production. This whey from cow’s milk is used to create Black Cow Vodka.
Another UK distillery making use of dairy by-products to produce vodka is Cotswold Blacklion, which uses milk from its sheep into a spirit that it claims has notes of local mountain flower Edelweiss. Like Black Cow, the vodka is produced from the whey produced when making cheese, which is fermented and triple distilled.
New-wave flavoured vodka
Beyond the raw material, and without going so far as overtly flavoured vodkas, there are those who subtly incorporate various ingredients into their vodkas. Among those using botanicals is Gattertop Drinks in England’s Herefordshire. Their Botanic No 7 vodka draws on the family farm’s ancient orchards, hedgerows, woodlands and garden to source a variety of ingredients such as apple blossom, elderflower, rosemary, nettle and damson blossom. These are small-batch distilled in copper stills.
On England’s Lindisfarne – otherwise known as Holy Island – 793 Distillery is paying tribute to its local Viking history with a mead-inspired take on vodka. Mjødka, a play on the old Norse word for mead, mjød, is distilled with local wildflower honey.
Over in Ireland, Sliabh Liag Distillers is incorporating two local botanicals into the final distillation of its Assaranca Vodka. Rowan berries and gorse flowers are both found in a gorge near the distillery, with these added to the copper pot still for the vodka’s third distillation.
For an example of a distiller adding something to only subtly alter the flavour of their vodka, there’s Mallorca Distillery, located in the capital city of Palma. Made with a base of organic wheat, Palma Vodka contains salt from the Flor de Sal pans in Es Trenc, said to give it a mineral component, evoking the Mediterranean.
Another vodka making use of innovative techniques to subtly add flavour is Kavka, which uses a blend of rye and wheat to produce a base spirit, but adds a small amount of aged pot-still apple and plum spirits to the mix. The apple is said to add acidity, while the plum provides a touch of sweetness.
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