Vodka’s Next Act? No Longer Neutral

Vodka’s Next Act? No Longer Neutral

Vodka has long been a punchline in the craft cocktail world, since the first clear ice cube was introduced to a cut-glass Japanese mixing vessel. 

Much of the derision has stemmed from a clause buried in federal regulations—those who oversee spirits decreed some years ago that vodka must be “without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” Which put vodka lovers in the difficult position of defending the statement: “I enjoy the taste of nothing.”

Well, good news for the legions of vodka fans—and vodka is still the most popular spirit in the United States, accounting for nearly one out every three bottles of liquor sold. After a multi-year process of revisiting a wide array of cumbersome and outdated regulations governing the production and marketing of spirits, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), announced a series of changes, all of which went into effect on May 4.

For vodka, the TTB decided that the “without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color” clause “no longer reflects consumer expectations.” Especially, given that there are subtle differences between brands in terms of flavor and odor—none of them are actually truly neutral. And so this requirement was sent out to pasture. Vodka’s flavor profile and aroma will henceforth be largely determined by how it is produced—for instance, distilled at least 95 percent pure alcohol—a much higher proof than for whiskey, rum or other spirits. 

The change occurred with little fanfare or notice. Perhaps it was because people were distracted in April—do I remember reading something about a virus? Or because it’s the sort of bureaucratic rejiggering that happens from time to time, like the expunging of archaic criminal laws that prevent one from keeping oxen in one’s bedroom. 

“Generally, the consumer is not going to say, ‘Wow! my whole perception of vodka changed overnight,’” says Matthew Baris, co-founder of Altitude Spirits in Colorado. But the change does bring federal laws more in alignment with the practices of distillers—especially craft distillers—in recent years. “Our goal is to make something that tastes great, not something that tastes like nothing.”

The earlier wording tended to throw the public off because of the word “distinctive,” says Stephen Heilman at Charleston Distilling Co. in South Carolina. “We have had many people come through our tasting room saying that vodka is not supposed to have a taste.” 

Chas Marsh at Jackson Hole Still Works says that he and his fellow owner, Travis Goodman, focused from the start on making a vodka with character and flavor. They tried 29 yeast strains and 120 different mash bills, and learned that even a small amount of oats would lend their vodka a subtle, creamy flavor that survived even the high-proof distillation on their efficient 18-plate column still. “It gives it a bit of a brûlée nose, and carries a lot of flavor,” Marsh says. “It’s subtle, but it’s there.” 

Marsh says that others in the craft distilling world have also been quietly chasing after flavor in vodka since the get-go. “It’s not anything new and I don’t know if [the revised TTB definition] changes anything,” he says. “but it validates it.” 

At spirits competitions, judges have often debated how they should judge vodka. Because it’s distinctive? Or because it’s clean and pure? The change in definition may help clarify those questions.

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