Vodka has long been considered the poor cousin of gin, dubbed the flavourless spirit and something you would throw back on a disco night out or use in a sweet cocktail. On a balmy Wednesday evening, we embarked on a mission to debunk all the myths and misconceptions surrounding one of the biggest selling spirits in the world. The point of the operation? To prove that there was more to vodka than a bland, flavourless liquid. To help us on our mission, we roped in Amanda Beck, founder of Fire Drum Vodka and Angus Burton of Spirit People, the distributor of Vestal Vodka and Hartshorn Vodka, a couple of relative newcomers to the market intent on proving the same.
Styled as a secret mission for the brave, the troops gathered at the Downtown Bar at the Commons Local Eating House. What was once the larder of the 160 year old sandstone farmhouse, has now been transformed into a quaint speakeasy hosting blues and jazz bands on several nights of the week and serving modern twists on classic cocktails. As our agents bunkered in, they were greeted with a selection of cheese and cold meats to fortify themselves for the journey ahead and a little liquid courage in the form of the Pretty in Pink cocktail. A refreshing spin on the Russian Spring Punch, the cocktail was made with Vestal Blended Vodka, elderflower cordial, pink grapefruit sorbet, Oscar 697 Bianco Vermouth topped up with sparkling.
First up on the tasting platform was a control vodka, one we felt represented the populist perception of vodka - clean, crisp and neutral. Distilled 3 times and filtered for 10, Smirnoff Vodka was the biggest selling vodka brand in 2014 with approximately 22 million cases (that's a lot of Dutch courage!) and made for a great base from which to move on to try the challenger vodkas.
First up on the tasting block was the Vestal blended vodka and the Kaszebe 2014 vintage. Originally launched in 2010, Vestal is made using Polish potatoes with the key difference being that the potatoes are picked young to get the most of the flavour in the spud. Distilled once and unfiltered, the vodka has a distinct creaminess to it that wasn't present in the Smirnoff. The Blended non-vintage vodka was perhaps more reminiscent of a clean and crisp flavour but the Kaszebe had a distinct grassiness to the palate. The Kaszebe is also part of Vestal's range of "vintage" vodkas, where just like wine, the vintages are representative of the potatoes harvested that particular year - the belief being that the soil in which the potatoes grow and the seasonal elements all affect the final feel of the vodka.
We then moved on to try Fire Drum vodka, the love child of Amanda Beck who has a background in wine marketing but loved vodka so much that her friends asked her why she didn't make it. After convincing the same distillery that churns out Sullivans Cove whisky to distil her vodka, Fire Drum was born. Distilled from 100% Tasmanian barley and filtered once through charcoal, the vodka has a malty, chocolate-y nose with the dark chocolate notes continuing on the palate, which won a lot of fans in the room.
Finally, we went back to Angus for Hartshorn Vodka, distilled from sheep's whey in Tasmania and made in micro batches of 10 bottles a time (although production has now been increased to 60 bottles a batch). A true labour of love, the label on each bottle is hand etched and hand signed by distiller/owner Ryan himself. This vodka also drew a few fans in the room - it had a distinct vegetal nose not unlike tequila but on the palate, was full bodied with a spicy peppery finish.
Before concluding the mission, agents supped on a final cocktail made with the Fire Drum vodka. Billed as a riff on the Twentieth Century cocktail which was originally made with gin, the SCC version used vodka, white Creme de Cacao, Oscar 697 Extra Dry vermouth and lemon juice. The cocoa liqueur really brought out the chocolate notes of the Fire Drum and made for a dry chocolate martini.
Huge thanks to Angus Burton and Amanda Beck for their time. And of course to the Commons for churning out some pretty special cocktails and providing the perfect setting for our classified mission.