The Good, The Bad, and the Smooth: Blind tasting 21 local vodkas in search of the finest

In theory, vodka is an odorless, flavorless spirit. In practice, it is anything but.

According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) vodka is “neutral spirits distilled or treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials so as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.”

Has that been your experience with vodka? Without distinctive taste?

Certainly not back in our college days, when a handle from the bottom shelf was the fire that fueled the Saturday morning tailgate. We’ve tried to repress the memory of that taste, but it remains in our nightmares: chemical, acetone, bitter, ashen, gripping the throat as it burns all the way down.

After graduating, with a few paychecks under our belts, we began to eye the premium vodka shelves, full of Russian lettering, flashy marketing, and tall slim bottles with frosted glass. These vodkas made for cleaner martinis and were less biting on the finish. Did they taste good? Well, they didn’t taste bad.

But then, small distilleries began to pop up across the country, and the first thing they did was make a vodka. They could turn one around in weeks, even days. They might take that vodka, add some juniper, and make it a gin. They’d sell those to keep the lights on while their whiskey sat in a barrel waiting for its day in the sun.

And those vodkas tasted like, well, something again. Their grain-to-glass ethos, combined with smaller, less-efficient distilling equipment, produced vodka with character. They tasted like cereal grain, with the sweetness of corn or the grassiness of wheat. Vegetal, lactic, spicy flavors crept in on the finish.

While we spirits writers would rather dote on the nuances of a fine bourbon, a great vodka, in truth, can be awfully pleasant: rich and creamy, smooth and balanced, crisp and clean. It evokes The North—blistering winds, hunched shoulders, a platter of smoked fish with pickles and rye bread. Drinking a great vodka should feel like ice skating the length of a perfectly smooth lake.

So, we wondered, who makes that kind of vodka around here?

THE FIELD

(listed in alphabetical order)

11 Wells Borlaug Vodka

BET Vodka

Copperwing Distillery Vodka

Du Nord Craft Spirits L’Etoile Vodka

Far North Spirits Syvä Vodka

Flying Dutchman Nas-Drov-Via Vodka

Gray Duck Vodka

Harmony Spirits Vodka

Her Spirit Vodka

Ida Graves Distillery Vodka

J. Carver Distillery Lake House Ultra Premium Vodka

Lawless Distillery Vodka

Loon Liquors Wheaton Barley Vodka

Modest Vodka (by Lawless Distillery)

Norseman Distillery Vodka

Prairie Organic Vodka (by Phillips Distilling)

Skaalvenn Distillery Vodka

Tattersall Distillery Organic Vodka

Twin Spirits Distillery M Vodka

Vikre Distillery Lake Superior Vodka

Woody’s Fairly Reliable Reel Good Vodka (by Cantilever Distillery)

The Judging

We gathered 21 different local vodkas from all over Minnesota—as far North as Hallock and as far south as Harmony (though one is contract-distilled for a Minnesota company just over the border in New Richmond). Then we assembled an all-star crew to taste them: our editorial team was joined by Ian Lowther (Red Cow), Michael Lindgren (P.S. Steak), Sean Cooke (fmrly. Happy Gnome), and Mike Augustyniak (Mike’s Mix on WCCO). We served the vodkas in flights and ranked them until our favorites emerged.

How to Drink Vodka

Vodka is made by rigorously distilling an alcoholic solution until little but pure ethanol remains. It’s diluted back down to drinking strength and filtered through charcoal or another medium. To make things even easier, a distillery can purchase already-made ethanol, called neutral grain spirit, from a large plant. Several discount brands take that route.

You might be in the habit of stashing your vodka in the freezer, and that’s probably the best way to drink your standard Smirnoff and the like. That amount of chilling suppresses any volatile aromas and severely mutes any flavor, good or bad (especially bad), the vodka might have.

We wanted to fully taste the vodka in this experiment, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to drink craft vodka at room temperature. The spirit is meant to be either chilled or diluted a bit. We gave our samples a stint in the fridge before our tasters got their flight—enough to approach the proper texture of cold vodka, but not enough to suppress the flavors we’re looking for. To be exact, we served our samples near the standard cellar temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Our tasters were looking for a grainy, starchy, even mildly sweet aroma, a creamy or viscous mouthfeel, nuanced flavors, and no burn on the finish. Anything caustic, bitter, medicinal, or chemical would be marked down.

What We Learned

Vodka // Photo by Tj Turner

Vodka // Photo by Tj Turner

Through our tastings, we came to realize that vodkas in Minnesota are generally skating on one of two tracks.

The first is the neutral track. These vodkas follow the spirit of the spirit and aim for something odorless, flavorless, and able to disappear into any mixed drink. This is not a bad thing, far from it in fact. These are the vodkas most drinkers expect—alcohol and little else.

The second track are the vodkas that hope to impart a distinct vapor of personality. They feature interesting esters and complex flavors. They aspire to terroir. They’ll make your martinis taste like something more than ethanol and vermouth.

We have five of each to recommend.

Results: The Mixers

These vodkas are ideal candidates for your vodka-tonics

BĒT Vodka

It’s priced a little higher than the rest of our mixers, but BET is a ghost of a spirit. Made from sugar beets (that’s how you pronounce BET), it has no aroma, very little taste, and a little sweetness on the finish.

Her Spirit Vodka

This is one of those vodkas made on a contract from neutral grain spirit by a huge distillery. It says “6x distilled” on the label (that’s meaningless), but with a splash of tonic, you’ll barely taste it at all.

Modest Vodka

Notice on the back of this vodka label the term “Produced by” as opposed to “Distilled by”, and you’ll know how it came together. This one starts with neutral grain spirit that’s further refined in a pot still by Lawless Distilling, before being proofed and bottled.

Prairie Organic Vodka

This one has a little more character than the rest of our mixers—a corn sweetness that can buoy the austere combination of vodka and club soda.

Woody’s Fairly Reliable Reel Good Vodka

We love the labeling of this neutral spirit vodka and it stays pretty characterless throughout the sip. Stash a bottle of this in your tackle box.

Results: The Sippers

Reserve these vodkas for spirit-forward cocktails.

Honorable Mentions: Norseman Vodka, Harmony Vodka 

Du Nord Craft Spirits L’Etoile Vodka

Very little on the aroma, but a well-balanced, full-bodied texture with faint fruity notes, like apple skins, and a creaminess to the finish. Soft-spoken and harmonious.

Lawless Distillery Vodka

A fruity aroma that recalls cider or apple brandy, leads into a similarly fruity sip with a palate-coating fuller texture that turns mellow and just a bit spicy by the finish. Complex and delicious.

Skaalvenn Distillery Vodka

This vodka starts off with an overt creaminess, like butterscotch without the sweetness, with some mild banana/bubble gum esters floating about. Clean finish. Well-made.

Twin Spirits Distilling M Vodka

The only vodka in our tasting distilled from cane sugar, it only features a mild sweetness, with a robust texture and a creamy, lactic note on the finish.

The Grand Champion

 

J. Carver Lake House Ultra Premium Vodka

Aromatics of vanilla and marshmallow, full of character with a lovely, creamy texture. That light grainy sweetness extends to a very mild finish. Just beautiful.

 
John Garland About John Garland

John Garland is the Deputy Editor at the Growler Magazine. Find him on twitter (@johnpgarland) or in every coffee shop on West 7th Street.