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A Vodka with a Twist December 30, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Drinks & Beverages.

Isadora Duncan once said, “I would rather live in Russia on black bread and vodka than in the United States at the best hotels.”

However, times have changed. A few enterprising individuals in the United States are beginning to take vodka to a level that would lure even Ms. Duncan away from her beloved Russian classics.

Vodka, which many of us associate with burly chested men and college drinking games, is now being served in the U.S. alongside gourmet cuisine or sipped next to fine wines at holiday parties. This change in status can be attributed to a growing number of enlightened vodka connoisseurs, all of whom are helping to take the drink beyond its stark roots.

Swedish Roots > Although vodkas have been flavored for centuries, starting with monks in central Europe allegedly flavoring it for medicinal purposes, Sweden has been making its own niche product since the 1400s.

Hailing from the “vodka belt” (a crescent of northern European countries from Russia to Norway), Sweden native Hakan Swahn opened the revered Aquavit restaurant in 1987 in response to a dearth of world-class Scandinavian restaurants in Manhattan. Swahn soon found his patrons enjoying Sweden’s unique, aromatic vodkas or aquavits.

Aquavit is Latin for “water of life,” but to Swedes, an aquavit is any vodka naturally flavored with dill or cumin. To Swahn, however, any flavored vodka is an aquavit. “My background with aquavit is the same as every other Swede,” said Swahn. “You saw it when you were a kid and drank it with family at holidays.”

Swahn fondly remembers the Christmas buffets of his youth, where three or four flavors of aquavit, which nicely cut through the rich Swedish cuisine, were as essential to holiday cheer as a roaring fire. And don’t take out the cocktail shakers when drinking aquavit. According to Swahn, “You drink it neat, in a pointed glass, and cold.”

When first starting out as a restaurateur, Swahn noticed a lack of exceptional vodkas on the domestic market. The flavored vodkas being produced in the 1980s were unexceptional on their own because they often used artificial products to add flavor, explains Swahn. So Swahn set to work with the help of master Swedish blender Henrik Facile, who embraced the challenge and began concocting exciting new flavors au naturale. A completely natural product makes all the difference, insists Swahn.

And the ultimate test? “The key … is that we have to be really happy with the taste of the product,” Swahn says. “If it doesn’t stand on its own, we’re not going to do it.”

At Aquavit, which serves up 15 to 20 different aquavit flavors daily, customers order scintillating varieties such as lemon-pepper, dill, raspberry-lime, orange blossom, coriander and even horseradish, surprisingly, one of the top sellers. After some coaxing, I sampled the famous horseradish flavor. It was delightfully spicy, but smooth.

Raise a Glass > Vodka is the fastest-growing spirit in popularity in the U.S., and flavored vodkas have piggybacked off this growth. According to Swahn, Absolut’s Peppar vodka was one of the first flavored vodkas to appear in the U.S. in the mid-1980s, followed by Smirnoff in the late 1990s. Now, Aquavit and other brands such as Hangar One are beginning to offer naturally flavored, handmade boutique vodkas as part of this steadily growing trend.

Jamie Gordon, brand ambassador for Absolut vodka in New York, said Absolut’s release of its Citron flavor in 1988 helped to establish a trend. “Everybody has been releasing more and more flavored vodkas lately,” he says.

Aquavit restaurant has offered its own infusions of its signature spirit for years, but in 2005, Swahn spun off Aquavit’s primary new spirit, Aquavit New York. A Manhattan deli provided the inspiration for this metropolitan variety. Swahn wanted a clear product that would be better for mixing, and when he spotted a bottle of white cranberry juice on a bodega shelf, he knew he had found the perfect solution in a classic New York flavor.

Aquavit New York, produced by a small distiller in Sweden, retails for about $30 a bottle in stores, bars and restaurants in New York City, or online. Although Aquavit is not a big liquor presence so far, its white cranberry flavor is disappearing off the shelves. “They try it, and people are sold,” said Swahn.

West Coast Sips > Former software company owner Melkon Khosrovian’s fiance, Litty Mathews, a foodie with a classical French cooking education, equated drinking vodka with food with drinking gasoline. She had always avoided flavored vodkas because they tasted like kitchen cleaner. In response, Khosrovian began infusing flavors into his own vodkas so Mathews could participate in his Armenian family’s customs. Marital bliss ensued.

Soon, the pair were inundated with requests from family and friends. To meet growing demand, they started Modern Spirits in 2004 from their home in Southern California, and today their collection is sold across the country.

“If you look at almost everything we eat or drink, it’s gone through this transition from artificially made to handcrafted,” Khosrovian points out, citing trends in tea, cheese, chocolate, wineries such as Mondavi and even food retailer Whole Foods (WFMI).

“All categories of spirits are just starting to go through the same transition from industrial to handmade, and we are just one of the few companies in this trend,” says Khosrovian. “Almost everywhere you go now you see small distilleries and spirit makers recreating traditional spirits … with modern techniques.”

Further, American food is becoming bolder and spicier, another shift that is pushing demand for an accompaniment stronger than wine, but still gentle on the taste buds. “Vodka cuts through fat and protein and cleans the palate,” Khosrovian explains.

Like Swahn’s aquavits, Khosrovian makes his vodkas with natural ingredients to control their flavor. “We have to taste every ingredient that goes in at the beginning,” he says.

The lavender used in one of the top sellers, pear-lavender vodka, is grown on the premises. Khosrovian even receives overnight shipments of truffles from a forager in Oregon for his black truffle vodka, which he claims is the only one of its kind on the market. And Khosrovian and Mathews’ passion for flavor shines through, one sip of the candied ginger will fill your mouth with a lingering sweet and spicy taste.

Modern Spirits vodkas are also available in other flavors such as chocolate-orange and grapefruit-honey ($25 to $40 a bottle) at liquor stores, upscale bars and restaurants or online. Swanky gift packs featuring four of the most popular flavors displayed in a festive cigar box are also available at select retail stores at around $100 a perfect warming holiday gift. Drink up!

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