I don’t have a lot of respect for vodka except in certain applications where a neutral spirit comes in handy (like cleaning windows or removing tree sap from the hood of my car, for example).
I am a total vodka snob and opt for other white spirits that haven’t had the flavor distilled right out of them. Any spirit that markets itself by claiming it has been distilled multiple times for “purity” probably has something to hide, like, “We made this cheaply and had to distill it over and over to remove the resulting offensive flavors.” Tequila should have notes of agave, gin of botanicals and rum of sugar cane. Those flavors are appealing and don’t need to be distilled away.
Since vodka usually has little flavor of its own to speak of, it’s easy to mix with anything. There are no nuances that have to be coordinated with or danced around. It also allows any added flavoring to take over, which is what has led to the rise of vanilla vodka, pomegranate vodka, pepper vodka, Cinnabon vodka, root beer float vodka and pecan pie vodka.
I wish I were making those up, but they are all real. Here’s how bad it is: A web site posted an April Fool’s joke that Pop-Tart-flavored vodkas were on the way and many people not only believed it, but were genuinely disappointed that it wasn’t real.
Flavored vodkas and pre-prepped drink mixes marched right alongside other time-saving marvels like TV dinners, cake mixes, canned vegetables and, yes, Pop-Tarts. An article titled “The Life, Death and Resurrection of the Craft Cocktail in St. Louis” from the Riverfront Times describes the culture sway succinctly:
In the '50s, vodka rose to prominence as an ideal base liquor, versatile because it's essentially flavorless. By the mid-'70s, vodka was America's best-selling booze. […] Cocktails became utilitarian — flavorless doses of alcohol to be taken as needed.
It took time for bartenders to rediscover the art of making cocktails from fresh ingredients — and for customers to actually want them. Of course, that has happened and quality cocktails can be found in every major city. These days, the Gin & Tonic is back in vogue, as are Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and Negronis.
Now the craft movement has come full circle and even vodka producers are taking notice. Absolut now makes Elyx, a “luxury vodka,” and while it has previously been available in New York and Chicago, it's now made it to Houston.
The still used is nearly all copper and entirely manually operated. According to Absolut’s web site, “Every handle, knob and level is adjusted manually.” The master distiller is Krister Asplund (who is also a vice president of operations at Absolut, according to his LinkedIn profile) and the wheat used comes solely from Råbelöf Castle Farm in Åhus, Sweden.
Does that make a difference? Well, this snob was quite surprised at how soft and round the mouth feel and flavor was. It’s similar to the roundness of Genever or Old Tom gin without the sweetness, and it does have some interesting nuances from both the wheat and the still.
Perhaps the reason we’ve never before cared about whether vodka had any personality or flavor notes is that it was associated with potatoes, which started being used in the 18th century. Potatoes aren’t sexy. No one is going to ask, “So, what kind of potato was this made from? Are all the potatoes sourced from the same farm? Are you keeping it local?” (No one except for the weirdos who write about spirits, that is.)
In fact, most vodka these days is made from grain, although other sources of starch and sugar can be used, from the attractive-sounding sugar beets to the less-appealing soybeans.
However, those nuances would be utterly lost in all but the most simple of cocktails. It might work in a martini or a vesper. I sipped some over the rocks and regretted even that because of the increased water content as the ice melted. Stirring until chilled and then straining to immediately remove the ice and prevent further dilution would have been best.
Overall, Elyx is a really great, interesting product (and I can’t believe I’m writing that about a vodka, of all things). Here’s the crucial question, though: Would I buy a bottle to have at home?
I’ll happily sip it again if someone hands it to me at a party. I might even beg a little if I see a bottle lingering on a friend’s countertop. Elyx retails at around $50 a bottle, and to be blunt, I can’t see me spending that kind of money on a vodka. I’d be far more inclined to put that toward a good silver tequila, rum or gin. Yet that might just be my own prejudices at play. Absolut Elyx won both Best Vodka and a double Gold Medal at the 2013 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and trust me, those judges know a whole lot more about what makes a good vodka than I do.