On this special episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” host Zach Geballe sits down with Luke Barr, master mixologist at NEFT Vodka. Not only did the relatively new company rank among VinePair’s best vodka brands of 2021, but it is also changing the way consumers think about vodka — marketing itself as a “sippable spirit.”
But what exactly does that mean? How does NEFT compare to other known vodka brands, and how might it differ in its approach to drinking? Geballe and Barr discuss all that and more on today’s episode.
Tune in to learn more.
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Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe, and this is the “VinePair Podcast.” In today’s special episode, we’re talking about vodka in its many forms. I have the privilege of being joined by Luke Barr, who’s the master mixologist for NEFT Vodka. Luke, thanks so much for your time.
Luke Barr: Thank you so much for having me. I’m looking forward to this.
Z: Yeah. Me, too. Let’s start with a little bit of background on you before we talk a little bit about vodka and about NEFT. What’s your story? How did you end up as the master mixologist for this vodka brand?
L: Oh my goodness. How long is this podcast again? I’ll give you the abridged version. Long story short, like most people, I found myself in a job for a long time and then kind of blinked and realized I’ve always liked this job and I love this career. My attitude towards it changed maybe about 10 years ago, and I really started to develop my skills and learn and take in as much knowledge as I could. Before, I was just kind of passing through the job. So when that changed, I got to train with some guys like Richard Swann, who was a fantastic master mixologist who really gave me my first leg into the industry, up through being a restaurant consultant and building menus and cocktails to now having the best job in the world. I’m getting to create cocktails for a brand new, not just vodka, but a new introduction of vodka into the spirits industry — especially when it comes to mixology. So that’s a little of the backstory of how I got here, and I have to be honest, I really do think I have the best job in the world.
Z: I’m not going to argue with you on that one because I’m here in my basement, and I’m pretty sure you’re in sunny Miami right now. Let’s start the conversation with just a little bit about your experience before this current role with vodka. In my days as a bartender, I was 100 percent guilty of the thing that a lot of bartenders and mixologists do, which is “ugh, vodka. Sure, fine.” It’s for people who don’t know what they want to drink. It’s for people who want to get drunk without tasting it. But I will also concede that over the last few years, through the opportunities I’ve had to try some higher-quality products, that those vodkas frankly were not designed with that use case in mind. Was it a similar journey for you, or have you always kind of been a vodka devotee?
L: No, I have a similar story as you, and I’m sure a lot of other bartenders or mixologists out there feel the same. History tells us that we’re supposed to drink it out of a freezer for whatever reason, which, as you know, it just kills aromatics, which is where we get a lot of our flavor and tasting profiles from. So right then we’ve already killed the No. 1 tasting profile with the product. Then we take it out of the freezer and shake it with ice — because apparently it wasn’t cold enough — and dilute it more. So we’re killing more flavor as we go through this. Then, we put it into the smallest glass possible because we know we’re not going to sit there and sip it. We’re going to shoot it as fast as we can, swallow it down, and then follow it up with something as delicate as fish eggs or caviar or something like that and go, “Hey, that’s good vodka.” I just don’t believe that that’s the case anymore because of products like NEFT. It’s not the only one out there, there are some good ones out there — most of them from Poland that I can’t pronounce. But they’re very difficult to get in the United States, and they’re very expensive. NEFT is the first one that’s offered us the foundation of that really good ingredient and distillation process to where we have a sippable vodka, which is something that we probably never said before. NEFT was one of the first ones that changed the game for me. I tasted it as a mixologist before I worked for them, and kind of thought, “Is this a trick?” There’s a trick, this is just tequila or something. After learning enough about it and getting into the product more, it absolutely is a game changer. And it’s not only a game changer in the way we’re going to enjoy vodka, but it’s going to change the way that people are now making their vodka because we’re going to have to have a different category. There’s going to be vodka, and there’s going to be ultra-premium vodka, and it’s going to be ultra-premium sipping vodka. Almost like your extra añejos when it comes to tequila or your single-cask Scotches, where it just has its own category. Of course, you’re the wine guy. So I’m sure you can give me a better comparison when it comes to the wine world. I definitely think that my mind changed about vodka in the last five years, for sure.
Z: You mentioned the serving temperature and dilution and glassware and all of that. We’ll get into that in a little bit. But I’m curious, with this category and with NEFT in particular, that whereas a lot of ultra-premium vodka had a selling point of, “We’ve filtered this so many times that it tastes like nothing” — which is an interesting proposition when you think about it — that is clearly not the direction that NEFT is going. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about why filtration is not something that we should be championing.
L: Two folds on this question: distillation versus filtration. You have to have both to make any spirit, especially when we’re talking about grain spirits. The amount of distillation that we do versus the amount of filtrations is astronomically smaller than any other products that are on the market that we’re competing with. What I mean by that is, we pretty much make our product much closer to a Scotch or Cognac in the distillation process. Obviously, there is no barrel aging afterwards, which is where you’re getting color and sometimes richness. But the low distillation, and the fantastic, artisanal water that we use (Austrian natural spring water from the Alps and comes out of the Rhine River). It really does make a difference when we’re talking about the viscosity afterwards, so low distillation yields a thicker viscosity. We’re getting more of that creamy, silky, smooth flavoring. Which lends itself in my mind to being a more enjoyable sipping alcohol. Scotch has a thickness to it; it has a little scrappiness to it. So do the best bourbons and Scotches and Cognacs. Of course, the barrel-aged tequilas carry some of this as well. That baseline is all the same for sipping alcohols, just like NEFT is now carrying. We have these caramel and vanilla notes, which only come from really good rye grains. Once again, the best bourbons and Scotches in the world use the same ingredients and distillation process. And of course, when it comes to the distillation, we do not use column still distillation. We’re based on a copper pot distillation. With all of these factors, when I really break it down, we’re much closer to a Cognac or a Scotch, minus the barrel aging, than we are other vodkas in the world. To circle back to your question again, you’ll never hear me say anything bad about another product. There are products I don’t enjoy personally, but it doesn’t mean they’re not good. And I truly believe that every company out there has twofold in mind when they’re trying to create a product. One is to turn a profit. There’s no one out there that’s trying to lose money. Secondly, is trying to make the most enjoyable product to turn a profit. The latter end is really what we talk about when we talk about the ultra premium and the finest alcohols in the world. They take time. They’re more expensive for a reason, you know what I mean? That is what separates NEFT from a lot of other vodkas out there. Tradition tells us people want it clean; they want it to taste like nothing. The international definition of vodka for a long time, which I hope is changing now, was odorless, colorless, clear grain spirit, pretty much flavorless. That is no longer the correct description for a lot of vodkas out there.
Z: It makes total sense to me that there would be space in the category for something that is really saying, “We understand that there are reasons why you might prefer this flavor profile, but you don’t want to sacrifice the texture of your alcohol. You don’t want to sacrifice the aromatics or the experience.” One of the fascinating points of comparison is a blanco tequila in terms of a clear spirit that, without any barrel aging, shows a lot of the characteristics of the material from which it was made. In the case of tequila, it’s agave, and here with NEFT and some of these other sipping vodkas, it’s rye. Most people think about a rye-based spirit and think about rye whiskey. We encounter that mostly as a barrel-finished product. It’s always hard to know when you’re tasting a rye. Are there other flavors that people should expect to get in after they come from these ryes that are grown in Austria?
L: Absolutely. We use a lot of these Old World ryes that have this mild and soft undertone. So we get things like caramel and vanilla. We get a hint of lemongrass on the top of the register, kind of on the third sip because our body assimilates to it. We experience alcohol much more than we actually taste it. In most of my time of talking with people about booze, they don’t use descriptive terminology of flavor as much as they do feeling. It’s usually, “It warmed me up on the inside or it kind of burns or made my hair stand up” before they ever go, “Oh, there’s a blueberry undertone to this.” It usually just comes off as a feeling for us because we’re experiencing it. When it comes to understanding the differences in why, it really comes down to ingredients like you spoke about with the agave and the plant that goes into it. It’s going to have aromatics, it’s going to have a flavor profile, it’s going to have higher viscosity just because of the actual ingredients. NEFT is no different. The better the ingredients that go into it, the better the distillation process and filtering, the better the end result will be. It sounds very simple. It’s just amazing how a lot of people in the past haven’t wanted to do it that way. It’s not wrong or incorrect. They’ve just chosen to make it differently.
Z: So I want to talk a little bit more about enjoying NEFT. You kind of alluded to this, but it’s interesting to think about for many of our listeners, what is the best temperature to enjoy a glass of NEFT?
L: For me, everything has always been somewhat around cellar temperature, which is an old-school British thing that they used to do. It’s about 52 degrees there, so just below room temperature. It comes from a terminology where they used to keep the beer in the cellar because there was no refrigeration, and that was the way to keep it a little colder or to keep it from getting warm and spoiling. So I always like to use cellar temperature, and that might mean a little bit of a different thing for each and every person. Room temperature, in my mind, is kind of the easiest way to go about and judge that. This is because of the flavor, because of the way that we use the distillation. We need to enjoy it in the same way that you would other spirits made in that realm. You would never, ever put your Scotch in the freezer. It would just be blasphemous. So in my mind, why would you ever put your best vodka in the freezer? It doesn’t mean it’s wrong to do with other ones. I’m not trying to tell people how to drink. But for NEFT, specifically, room temperature neat is the best way to actually enjoy and understand all the flavor profiles. And a lot of people like to drop a cube in there because it cuts it a little bit or takes apart a little bit of that sweet bite on the back end, which some people like. It’s all going to be personal preference. But I think for your first time, try it neat at room temperature or just below.
Z: For people who enjoy vodka but don’t always want to have it just as a spirit neat, I know you’ve put a lot of work into designing a whole range of cocktails that really showcase NEFT. Can you talk about a couple of them? Let’s start with the first vodka drink that most people think of, which is a Vodka Martini.
L: A Vodka Martini was a delivery system. We think about Martinis today versus when that cocktail was created there, they are probably about 5 ounces larger than they used to be. They used to be about 3 to 4 ounces, and you’d get it in a little Nick and Nora. You would sip on it for a few minutes and then get another one if you wanted to. Now, we’re putting them in these 8- or 10-ounce cups or these giant Martini glasses, which are the most devilish things that were ever invented by man for servers. As far as just a classic Martini goes, I call mine the Amelia Martini. It’s one of my favorites. I rinse the glass with a little bit of dry vermouth, and then I just do a light shake. Very, very light because a lot of people stir. I just like a light shake because I like mine to be a little chilled. Then, I just garnish it with a small lemon twist, serve it straight up, and I take mine in a Nick and Nora. It’s a pretty classic old-school mixology Martini. But realistically, it’s pretty much two steps. So that’s something that people might be able to enjoy at home.
Z: Gotcha. And what about some other cocktails that people could consider that might highlight the vodka.
L: This is actually a great question, because I love to talk to people about the gateway use of NEFT. It’s the bourbon drinker’s vodka. And what I mean by that is, because we have those same vanilla and caramel undertones, one of the things that I love to do is take cocktails and create the exact same build and just use NEFT and highlight those accents of the product in the actual cocktail. So we do a NEFTarita, super clever on the naming, but I haven’t changed anything in the build. I still use either a little bit of Cointreau or you can do a little orange bitters and simple syrup if you’re trying to keep it easy on yourself. And then lime juice and NEFT; nothing else. You shake it, dump it over fresh ice, and off you go. Most people can’t tell that I’ve used vodka instead of tequila. So it’s a very unique thing. Another one is our New Fashioned because, obviously, we’re new. It’s the same build, same ingredients. I’m switching out bourbon for NEFT, and I use a little bit of orange bitters and whiskey- barrel-aged bitters with one sugar cube. I just muddle it down, stir it up, and off it goes. Most people truly believe, because of the color in the flavor profile and aromatics, that they’re drinking a version of a bourbon Old Fashioned. It’s as simple as that, a really versatile spirit mainly because of the distillation process that we use in the ingredients. There’s no other product in the world, and I’ve done a lot of research to be able to say this on the vodka market, that uses four Old World grains and especially rye. It’s just a choice that everyone has to make. We’ve chosen to stay very true to our roots, and we don’t want the product to change at all.
Z: So there’s an elephant in the room here when we talk about NEFT and I’ve been saving it because I find it fascinating. We have to talk about the packaging. For anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, the vodka comes in either your standard 750-milliliter size but packaged in essentially what looks like an oil drum. You also have a 100-milliliter double airline bottle size. That’s the same shape, just much smaller. Why the barrel? Then, I have more questions.
L: Absolutely. NEFT means “oil” in Russian, and one of the co-owners who started the company really was the one to bring it to the forefront and make it in Austria. She wanted that because Austria has the best water, but she wanted to pay homage to where her family had raised her. They were oil barons and worked in the oil fields as a lot of people there do, and that’s the baseline of a lot of the backbone of that country. So for NEFT, meaning oil in Russian, she wanted to pay homage to that tradition and made it look like an oil barrel. But, here’s the fun part. It’s not a gimmick. I thought it was the first time I saw it. It’s a proprietary blend of tin and aluminum, so it has a great, eco-friendly green footprint. Also, if you put it in your fridge for about 60 minutes, it stays cold for up to six hours. So it’s not just gimmicky or kitschy-cool; it actually serves utilitarian purposes. It’s also unbreakable and re-sealable, so you can take this thing anywhere. My buddies and I, when we go camping, I take the thing with me. We drink the vodka by the campfire, pop the top off, and save our cooking grease for the morning. I’ve taken it to Mexico and we dropped it out of the back of a van one time by accident. We went back and picked it up. It was a little dented, but everything on the inside was just the same.
Z: That is an unconventional way to shake your Martini, by dropping it out of the van.
L: That was a good one, Zach.
Z: I understand the homage element of the barrel and the utilitarian side of it. As someone who was a bartender for years, I was always dubious of any bottle or container shape that didn’t neatly fit into a slot at the bar. Has that been an issue that you face when you’re trying to pitch this to bartenders? Like, it’s a little wider; it doesn’t fit neatly among your standard bottle shapes.
L: Yes and no. We definitely run into some people that are a little uncertain about it at first. In order to solve that problem, there are two things we’ve been working on and one we already have in effect right now, which is a speed pour adapter. The whole top of the barrel comes off and fits this little piece of plastic, and we supply a cylinder that clips in. And then, you put a normal speed pour adapter right into it. Now, you can put a speed pour adapter right into the barrel, but sometimes, it just is a little looser. So we made one that’s very crisp. You don’t lose any product, and it actually makes for a much easier pouring now. It still is a little shorter. So what we have is for on-premise only, and this is something that we don’t really talk about too often, but we do have a glass 750-milliliter bottle.
Z: You mentioned the shape and fitting speed pour and stuff like, and those are obviously considerations for bartenders. As far as giving them the tools to also explain the significance and what makes NEFT special, how do you interact with the bar community in terms of education on that side?
L: I deal a lot with the mixologists and the bartenders of the world. It’s a twofold approach. One is to help them just understand, as any really good bartender and server will do. If you understand the product, it’s much easier to sell and you also will be giving better recommendations. Sommeliers around the world will tell you, if you don’t know the product, don’t talk about it. We’ve won the best vodka in the world at the San Francisco World’s Spirits Competition, and we’ve actually been recognized at a couple of different cigar and spirits competitions as “best in show” or the popular favorite. Which I always think is hilarious for a vodka clear grain spirit to not only be recognized but to win the popular vote at a cigar and practically bourbon and Scotch festivals. But once again, I use the term “gateway.” I think a lot of people are going to be able to link this to something that they already know and then enjoy it in their own way. You are able to sell someone the best product, and it has the awards to back it up and you have the support. But then, you have a company like ours that is very tech-forward in the sense of how we want to be interactive and innovative with our consumers and our customers. I think that helps as well. Case in point, if you look at the front of our barrel, it has a QR code on there. You can scan it, go right to the website, and you can do everything from purchase the product shipped to your house, find videos and cocktail recipes online where you can literally learn how to do it step-by-step. You can even link up with me and some of our other executives and employees. If you wanted to plan an event or whatnot, it’s just very simple and easy for everyone to use, and I think that also is an attractive quality — even if you’re in a restaurant.
Z: I’m sure that any person who sees that barrel on a back bar is going to want to ask a question about it.
L: It catches the eye. You want people that you know really want to have a cocktail, but they’re not really into the bourbon or the heavy spirits, they want something cleaner. Tell them to try it with NEFT. More than likely, it’ll probably fit and balance really well.
Z: Yeah, I can see that. One last question for you, because it’s the other elephant in the room. When we talk about the vodka category — and that’s kind of where you and I started and where I kind of want to finish — there’s this tradition of super-cold vodka shots. Not really sipping it. But the other thing that we’ve seen in the vodka category is an ever-evolving brand category leader. When I started bartending, every other call for me was Grey Goose, and then Ketel One stepped in there. I would say the behemoth, at least in this country, is Tito’s. To some extent, whether it’s with bartenders, consumers, people who have a brand loyalty, it can be very difficult to convince someone to try something different. How do you convince someone, “Hey, consider this other product.” It’s in the category; you don’t have to convince them to try vodka to like vodka. But how do you get them to move from a brand that they know and are familiar with to something new?
L: Absolutely. As you mentioned, people are creatures of habit. They like what they like, and they don’t necessarily need to change. I think it’s introducing them to NEFT in a different way — as a sipping vodka. That’s what we say we are; we have the purest taste of any vodka in the world. To introduce someone to that is the best way to get them to understand the product. Subconsciously, what they may do next time they go and order a drink is go, “Hey, I normally ordered Tito’s or whatever, but I tried that sipping vodka NEFT. Maybe I’ll do that with my cocktail this time.” So I want to introduce them to the product in its simplest form, neat, and they can taste it. I always do the same thing after someone tastes it and seems to like it. They say, “This is sweet; I really like this.” Now, I get to tell you you’re drinking room-temperature vodka, and they recognize it’s different. Once they think that way about the product in its infancy, they’re going to start implementing that into their cocktails when they go out. Hopefully, in our mind, they’re getting a better drink out of it.
Z: Luke, this has been fascinating. I’ve had a chance to try the product. It is delicious, and I’m not normally a big vodka drinker. I guess I’m one of those people who gravitated towards brown spirits when they were younger and have never quite moved away. But I’ve given it a try as suggested and requested. It is very tasty, and I certainly have people in my life who have tried it and enjoy it who are more vodka drinkers. So I appreciate the opportunity to try it and, of course, the opportunity to chat with you as well. Thanks so much for your time and your insight.
L: The pleasure’s all mine, Zach. Thank you.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.