In the kooky world of booze factionalism and barroom connoisseurship, vodka is a weapon best left at home. Despite vodka's easy mixability and widespread popularity – it's still one of the world's most widely consumed spirits – bartenders and drink aesthetes love to hate on vodka.
An influential definition from one of vodka's biggest markets provides a clue as to where this disdain might stem from. While vodka originally hails from the grain growing regions of Eastern Europe, United States legislation defines vodka as a 'neutral spirits product without distinctive character, aroma or taste'.
Considering the booze revival of the last two decades has revolved around drinks with flavour and provenance – antithetical concepts to most big vodka brands – enthusiasts on the hunt for the hoppiest beer, the richest whisky, and the wildest gin have understandably relegated vodka to the doldrums.
That said, a vodka revival has been quietly gathering steam in the last few years, spearheaded by small, 'artisan' vodka producers. These producers, intent on injecting some character back into vodka, have thrown out the rulebook and are now utilising some uncommon base ingredients and distillation techniques to create vodkas with serious flavour and intrigue.
A new whey
One local producer in particular is gearing up to challenge the preconception that vodka should be neutral and flavourless.
Distiller Ryan Hartshorn is embedded in whisky territory. His distillery can be found at the family cheesery, Grandvewe Cheeses, about an hour south of the many Tassie whisky distilleries sprinkled around Hobart.
The cheesery is in fact central to the distillery's operation. Hartshorn has taken whey from the cheesery, a common byproduct leftover from cheese production, found a yeast that can ferment that whey into a mild base alcohol, and then distilled it.
The result is Hartshorn's Sheep Whey Vodka, one of the most amazingly textural spirits I've come across.
But when I recently caught up with Hartshorn, he told me that there's still a lot of work to do to bring people around to vodka's complexities.
"It's a huge educational thing," he says. "A lot of people don't know that there are different styles of vodka. They expect the spirit to be neutral, and the more times you distil it, the better. So trying to change that thinking to get people to appreciate vodka both mixed and neat, more like they would a whisky, is the challenge."
This hints at one of the dilemmas inherent in creating a vodka: should the spirit be neutral in flavour, full of flavour or float somewhere in between?
Some brands will talk up the purity of their spirit, which they achieve through multiple distillations and extensive filtration. But Hartshorn advocates a different approach.
"I don't filter my Sheep Whey Vodka at all to leave as much flavour in final spirit as possible. Whereas most vodkas on the market are filtered extensively, which makes them quite neutral in flavour," he says.
Hartshorn isn't alone here. The Hippocampus Vodka from Perth and the Sheerwater Vodka from Mornington Peninsula adopt a similar philosophy. Neither filter their vodkas, such is their trust in the quality of the spirit.
To get the most out of these spirits, Hartshorn even recommends drinking them neat, just like you would a whisky.
"I find that the advance level folks are getting to that point where they really enjoy learning and understanding the intricacies of the spirit itself, aged or unaged."
"I try to tell people that every spirit, if it's good enough, should be treated exactly like a whisky. Any spirit that's good enough should be enjoyable straight."
Hartshorn also believes that as far as the distiller's art is concerned, vodka is one of the ultimate tests.
"If you make a bad spirit, you will taste that. There's no oak or botanicals to help improve its flavour. The thing I love about vodka is that, from a distillers point of view, there's nowhere to hide."
To get a taste of some of the more flavourful vodkas around, click through the gallery above.
A professional barman in one of Australia's most revered whisky establishments, Luke McCarthy has also travelled the world to learn more about the spirits he serves. The result is two parts drinks culture and one part global trends, served with a dash of critical assessment. His book, The Australian Spirits Guide, will be released in October.
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