Beyond Neat: How Bartenders Are Embracing Vodka’s Terroir

Though they might have been originally designed to be sipped neat or on the rocks, the mixology world is learning to use Belvedere Single Estate Rye Smogóry Forest and Lake Bartężek vodkas in distinctly different cocktails, citing their unusual taste profiles and unique sense of place.

“It’s literally an exercise in terroir from Belvedere,” says Bobby Hiddleston of Bar Swift, one of the World’s 50 Best Bars and a star on GQ’s list of the best bars in London. “They’re made in the exact same way; they’re just from different parts of Poland. The Lake Bartężek is really clean and crisp, and the Smogóry Forest is earthier and woodier.”

According to Belvedere National Brand Ambassador Brian Stewart, the difference in taste is entirely due to where the same rye for the two vodkas is grown, which indicates a big difference in climate and geography from one region of Poland to the next.

“I think [most people think of Poland as just] one thing,” Stewart says. “The reality is that you go to the top of Poland, to Lake Bartężek, and it’s covered by snow 80 days a year. It’s very cold up there on the Baltic coast. And then, 310 miles to the southwest, you have the Smogóry Forest where spring and summer are really drawn out. They’re completely different terrains.”

This variation in terroir is what makes the vodkas so singular. Stewart describes the Lake Bartężek vodka as very light in texture, offering notes of lemongrass and mint, with a botanical nature not unlike gin. By contrast, the flavors of the Smogóry Forest include bolder notes of caramel, star anise, and toasted bread.

Hiddleston has employed both vodkas in drinks at Swift. “I lean toward more delicate flavors with the Lake Bartężek and heavier, earthier flavors with the Smogóry Forest,” he says.

Case in point: Swift’s Ice Maiden cocktail features Belvedere’s Lake Bartężek vodka paired with Lillet Blanc, crème de poire, pear eau de vie, and Champagne. “It’s very, very loosely based on a Twinkle,” says Hiddleston, referring to a drink that combines vodka and Champagne with elderflower-scented St. Germain. For the Ice Maiden, the bar opted for the Lake Bartężek, which is nice with fruit-based liqueurs, particularly the eau de vie, a pear brandy he sources from California’s St. George Distiller.

Swift’s Ice Maiden cocktail features Belvedere Single Estate Rye Lake Bartężek vodka paired with Lillet Blanc, crème de poire, pear eau de vie and Champagne.
Photo credit: Jason Bailey Photography

Hiddleston’s not the only bartender who prefers the Lake Bartężek with fruity, citrusy flavors. At Valley Smoke, just outside Jacksonville, Fla., the Rye Not pairs Belvedere’s Lake Bartężek vodka with grapefruit juice, lime juice, and lavender simple syrup to create a warm-weather refresher. And at Tigerlily in Edinburgh, Lake Bartężek appears alongside Star of Bombay gin and Lillet Blanc in the house Vesper.

With its bolder flavors, Hiddleston says, the Smogóry Forest expression lends itself to stronger modifiers, citing nutty sherries, herbal liqueurs, and heftier fruit juices. With the Smogóry Forest, Swift created a cocktail called the Carrot Top.

“With the Carrot Top, we had gentian, carrot, and Champagne,” Hiddleston says. “The honey gave it a little bit of florality, which works really well.” Earthiness and florality, he notes, can provide a desired contrast in drinks.

Of the two, Stewart says the Smogóry Forest expression can even stand in for whiskey in some classic cocktails. Hiddleston agrees.

“I can imagine that a Smogóry Old Fashioned would go down very well,” he says. But to best identify the differences between the two expressions, Hiddleston advises mixing a couple of Martinis.

The cocktail menu at Boisdale on London’s Canary Wharf has an entire menu of Martinis. There, guests can taste the classic Belvedere Vodka against the Smogóry Forest and Lake Bartężek versions, with Dolin vermouth as a constant in each. Boisdale bar manager Paul Hogg notes that the expressions even respond well to different garnishes.

At Boisdale on London’s Canary Wharf, guests can taste the classic Belvedere Vodka in comparison to Smogóry Forest and Lake Bartężek versions.

“The Lake Bartężek is more medium-bodied. We found a noticeable spearmint flavor in it, which we think goes well with citrus,” Hogg says. Thus, he recommends that Martini with a twist. “The Smogóry is a bit more salty, more savory, and sweeter on the finish. That works well with an olive or with capers,” he says.

In an age of constant travel, 310 miles from one side of Poland to the other might not seem that far. But that difference in terroir can provide a giant launch point for unusual flavors and innovative experiments, which can mean a lot of fun for mixologists — and drinkers as well.

This article is sponsored by Belvedere Vodka.