On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe discuss the potential for expansion in the vodka category. The trio touch on the industry as a whole before diving into innovations in the craft vodka space. Plus, they debate whether or not these innovations can help vodka keep its streak.
For this Friday’s tasting, your hosts try Vestal Vodka Unfiltered for themselves. Tune in for more.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And it’s the Friday “VinePair Podcast.”
Z: It is.
A: What’s going on?
J: Hi guys.
A: I feel like it’s harder… We got to get into more of a rhythm with Friday, because I feel like I know we’re going to go right into like the banter of what we drank, but we’re not doing that for Friday. So like, I don’t know. What are you looking forward to this weekend?
Z: Ooh, good question.
A: Joanna doesn’t even know.
J: That really caught me off guard. Never had this question before.
A: What, what are you looking forward to over the weekend? Sleeping.
J: I don’t know, yeah. It’s just been so hot here.
A: We get a lot of comments that we talk about the weather too much. Thanks, Joanna.
A: We used to.
J: We do. I don’t know. Just exploring, maybe check out some new bars and restaurants. I don’t know.
A: Any one on your radar?
J: Well, oh no.
A: No. Well then…
Z: How about you? What’s your big weekend plans?
A: How about me? How about me… Well, I’m looking forward to, it’s not technically the weekend, but the VinePair summer party.
J: Yeah, I was going to say that as well.
A: VinePair summer party. VinePair summer party. Because we’re doing it at the Long Island Bar. It’s going to be awesome.
A: And then… Yeah, I would say that’s what I’m looking forward to this weekend.
Z: Fair enough.
A: It’s going to be hot, so I don’t f*cking know, no talking about the weather.
Z: It is not hot here. It is actually currently 70 degrees and rainy, which is nice.
A: And so what are you looking forward to then?
Z: I am looking forward to… It should be nicer over the weekend. I think I’m going to go blackberry picking with my son, which is always an adventure.
A: That’s fun.
Z: Yeah, he has kind of figured out how to do it without getting horribly scratched, but it’s always a little bit of an adventure. There’s nothing like picking, in particular blackberries, because there is the cost you pay. Picking other berries is fun, but blackberries, they’re maybe my favorite berry. But the thorns are real.
J: I’ve never gone blackberry picking.
A: Neither have I.
Z: You live in the wrong part of the country for blackberries.
A: I’ve gone strawberry picking, I’ve gone apple picking.
Z: Did you go blackberry picking in the Azores?
J: No, no blackberry picking in the Azores for me. They do have a really big pineapple industry, though.
J: And the pineapple there is amazing.
A: I like a pineapple every once in a while.
J: Very good.
Z: Tropical fruit where it’s actually grown is like a mind-blowing experience compared to the sh*t that gets cold shipped here.
A: Unrivaled. That’s very true. That’s very true. So, Joanna, you want to set us up for today’s conversation?
J: Yeah, sure. So I’ve had this conversation recently with the lovely Tim McKirdy, our managing editor and the host of the Cocktail College Podcast.
A: On the VinePair Podcast Network.
J: On the VinePair Podcast Network. You guys have heard of it. He says that vodka is the most exciting category right now.
A: I call bullsh*t, but I’d like to hear his case.
J: OK. But he made a very particular distinction, and it’s not just mass-market vodka like all the vodkas we know. It’s craft vodka. More so than ever before, vodka makers and distillers are really focusing on flavor in a way that we’ve never really… Obviously, we’ve never seen it before, right, that wasn’t a distinction.
A: I’m trying to roll my eyes back in my head as far back as I can.
Z: It’s somehow coming through just in the audio, I can assure you.
J: So I thought this could be an interesting conversation for us to have, because there was some recent IWSR data that we talked about that vodka would be surpassed by whiskey by the end of this year. As we know, obviously, vodka’s a very popular spirit. It always has been. People love their Tito’s. But I was just wondering: Can innovation in the craft vodka space be the thing that helps vodka keep its streak?
A: No. Next podcast?
Z: Here on Monday. Joanna, I want to interrogate this whole prompt really quickly. Because what I’m curious about is, in Tim’s eyes or in your eyes, are we talking more about some of the things that we’ve seen, like the botanical series from Kettle One, which, are those even technically vodkas? Kind of debatable. What are we talking about? Because I don’t think we’re talking about flavored vodka.
Z: Or maybe we are in this way we would think about it, like the various types of Absolut or whatever. So are we just talking about vodka that has more flavor than we are typically used to?
J: No, sorry. The distinction is vodka with distinctive character.
J: Versus the vodkas that I think a lot of people are used to that are meant to be neutral spirits. And so that’s what I’m talking about. Vodkas with a sense of place.
J: But come on, we’ve seen the rise of the Martini. Now people are going to be putting Martinis on their cocktail menus, and they’re going to use…
A: And they’re going to take the vodka and they’re going to douse it in olive brine, and…
J: But exactly, it’s going to be a craft vodka, right?
A: No, it’s not.
J: I think it is.
A: No. I mean, I just think vodka is what it is, and that’s fine. I think that vodka is a spirit that most people expect to be tasteless, very smooth, easy to shoot, easy to chill, good straight up in a Martini glass with either a twist or olive or brine or whatever. I don’t think the mass consumer is looking for nuanced vodka. I don’t think that’s what built the category and has given the category staying power. And I think that the position that that is what would do it is the same person that says that sherry’s going to ever happen.
A: Yes. It’s not going to happen that way. I think also, yes, there will be bartenders that will get excited about vodka. It’s nice that there will be vodkas with nuance for the craft cocktail bars, but the majority of the bars that do a lot of their serves in vodka, they’re not looking for this kind of vodka.
J: No, no, no, no.
A: But like, even when I see the reactions in sometimes the emails we get in from readers who will read the Ask Adam column. And they’ll have a comment on the way I approach advice around the bar. They will always love to remind me that not everywhere is New York. When they’re asking about a drink being made strong, it’s because they’re asking for another shot of whiskey in their Coke, right? It’s not that they’re looking for a stronger Old Fashioned or a stronger Manhattan. They’re looking for a stronger Whiskey Ginger or whatever. Those kinds of bars, even at the local steakhouse, etc., they drink mass-produced vodka.
A: And those places are interested in that, and that drinker’s interested in that. That person is not going to pick up Vestal Vodka Unfiltered, which we’re about to drink, and be like, “Oh, this is the future. Oh my God, it’s the future.”
J: OK. So fine. So it’s not them. Then what about spirits enthusiasts who have previously scoffed at vodka because it was whatever?
J: And now there are all these thoughtful vodkas out there?
Z: I’m going to… I want to give a half… I want to find a middle point between the two of you, because I do think there’s a kernel of something here. And I think it’s actually really interesting to think about what is putting vodka under pressure as a category. I actually don’t think it’s whiskey, despite the fact that whiskey is going to overtake it, perhaps, as the most popular spirit. It’s really tequila. Tequila has come for vodka at a place where vodka is most vulnerable, which is one of vodka’s big selling points, besides this sort of tastelessness or relatively neutral palate, is that it’s perceived as healthier than other spirits.
A: Yeah. No hangover, no hangover. That’s what you always used to hear.
Z: Exactly. Tequila has grabbed that identity with both hands, and is really pushing it forward and succeeding in doing so in a lot of ways. And so to me, what I find interesting is if the vodka audience that matters is only interested in it as a neutral spirit, then that audience will not really care. That audience is probably not shifting over to tequila, because that audience probably had bad experiences with tequila when they were young and don’t want tequila, which in general does have some flavor, even in its most kind of blasé forms. But what these kinds of craft vodkas might be concerned about is losing some share to the person who says, actually I kind of do like tequila, and it is a little more interesting, and I want a clear spirit, and I want something that I’m going to feel like is healthier and that I’m not going to have a hangover from, and positioning themselves as being able to produce vodkas that do have some nuance and do have some character for the person who drinks spirit and soda, right? That’s the kind of person that you might be going after, not a college student or someone in their early 20s who just wants well vodka and soda, or well tequila and soda. But someone who is an older person, who has a little more money and wants to drink a quality spirit, but they still want to cut it with soda, or they want to have it on the rocks, or they want something like that. They may have been a vodka drinker, and now they may be flirting with tequila, and this is a way to kind of maybe bring them back into the vodka camp. Now, is it going to be a big part of the market? Debatable. I think we need a lot more proof than we’ve gotten. But I do think that there’s something to that idea. The question that I have is, how far can vodka really go before it’s not really vodka anymore, right?
A: Well yeah, then it’s…
A: Yeah, it becomes gin.
Z: Not even necessarily gin. To come to what we’re tasting here, the Vestal Unfiltered, does it even technically count as vodka? It’s only distilled once in, I think, a pot still. I don’t know, it’s like potato-based eau de vie. It’s unclear what it is exactly in a technical sense, because it doesn’t really, to me, meet most of the criteria for vodka. I haven’t tasted it yet, but other than it being clear, it’s not multiple-times distilled, it’s not filtered, I don’t know what proof it’s distilled to initially. It could be very tasty, and maybe no one really cares because it’s functionally vodka. It’s clear and made from potatoes, and it’s made in Eastern Europe. So like, great, it’s vodka. But I do think that there’s this interesting space of what happens if your distillate isn’t scrubbed of everything that gives it flavor for the purposes of making vodka but you’re also not adding things in, à la that gin or other infused spirits.
A: I also think if you look at the tequila example, what’s driving the growth in the tequila category are big brands. The fastest-growing brand of those brands is Casamigos, a brand that is sweet. I wouldn’t say that it has nuanced flavors, right? It’s not like a lot of the craft tequilas people are actually obsessed with, like Fortaleza, El Tesoro, Patrón. More of those. It’s just a very sweet, rich tequila.
A: And you know, people like Tito’s because they claimed that it tasted like Belvedere and Grey Goose and Kettle One for half the price. That was its whole… The reason that Tito’s blew up is because you were smart if you drank it. If you were a vodka drinker and you drank Tito’s, you were smart. Because all they argued was like, this is the same for half the price. So that’s why the people who drink the vodka category are looking for a very specific type of vodka. It’s that flavorless, smooth, neutral drink.
A: So they’re not going to ever look for this. And then, the spirits consumer, like spirit people who are passionate, passionate about spirits, I think they’ll maybe buy one or two to have on their bar. Like, oh, this is the vodka I pull out for my geeky friends to say that I have a vodka, in the same way that those people also have a rhum agricole on their bar.
A: Right? But rhum agricole’s not anything.
Z: It’s delicious, but yes, I agree. It’s not blowing up.
A: It is. Right.
Z: At least not yet; you never know. Hard to say.
A: This is a sherry.
Z: The only other thing I’m going to say about this is that the one other possibility here is that when, again, you compare it to tequila, which I think has to be the comparison for this kind of thing, it’s a lot easier and quicker to produce vodka than to produce tequila — even vodka of character and nuance. And that may be, over time, if it becomes harder and harder to get some of these more thoughtful, nuanced expressions of tequila, because just agave takes a long time to grow and is not a thing that you can just produce more of. I think it’s a lot easier to get more potatoes or more wheat or more grapes. Not super easy, but easier. So there may be an ability to scale that some of these craft tequilas just don’t have.
A: Yeah. All right, should we taste this vodka?
Z: Yes. I think we should.
J: It says it’s meant to be enjoyed as you would your whiskey. Sipping neat over ice. Well, I didn’t give us any ice here.
Z: Wait, neat over ice? That is some interesting instructions, because those are not the same thing.
J: It does say neat over ice.
A: Guys, it’s made in Poland. It’s probably a translation. Everyone, just…
J: Fair enough.
A: Give them a little break.
Z: I have mine refrigerator temp in my glass, nothing else. What do you guys have?
J: Room temp.
A: Thanks, Joanna.
A: All right, let’s try this.
Z: I mean, I think it tastes good. I’m not a huge vodka drinker. It definitely has more potatoey, in a good way, character. It’s pretty smooth.
A: Yeah, much more vegetal.
J: Yeah. It’s very vegetal.
A: I mean, it’s interesting. Again, I don’t think this is what people are looking for when they’re looking for vodka.
Z: I think this is the kind of thing where if you wanted to say, “Hey, this is our house vodka Martini, and we’re putting this in a glass with a little vermouth or a little bit of olive brine or something,” I’m sure it would taste good.
Z: Maybe in the right kind of bar, people are looking for a vodka that even if they’re a vodka drinker, they probably are OK with something that’s going to have a little bit of nuance if they’re going for that kind of drink.
Z: But I agree that I don’t think this is necessarily going to be something where any of these kinds of more flavor- forward vodkas are going to suddenly supplant Tito’s or whatever. Because I agree, I think the fundamental use case for vodka is smooth, essentially flavorless alcohol. And there’s a time and place for that for sure, and lots of people love it, and there are lots of drinks that rely on it, and that’s great. But it’s not necessarily something where if you’re someone who wants a lot of flavor in your spirit, you’re just likely to go somewhere else where there’s more flavor than a vodka that has more flavor than most vodka, but still is relatively subtle when compared to other kinds of spirits.
J: Yeah. But I do think we’re going to continue to see the category grow.
A: I think vodka will continue to grow as a category, thanks to the Martini especially. I mean, look at the amount of people who are…
J: That’s what I think. Yep.
A: Look at the amount of brands that are now circling around the Martini very quickly. That’s a position that Grey Goose has held for a long time, but you’re seeing a lot of other of the big brands go after the Martini. Fair, right?
J: It’s a cocktail that’s capturing the younger generation.
A: And look, there is a time and a place for a vodka Martini. Like really cold, dude at an airport lounge? Usually I find, especially if you’re at the airport lounge or airport, the well vodka, I think, is going to always be better than the well gin.
Z: I think that’s a safe bet, yes.
A: Yeah. So if I want a Martini before the flight, it’s going to be a vodka Martini.
Z: Well, also, do you trust the airport bar vermouth? I sure don’t.
A: Yeah, no. Basically I want a cold vodka, lemon twist.
Z: That’s when you get your Dirty Martini, Adam.
J: Your Dirty Martini.
A: Exactly. That is actually when I do get my Dirty Martini, don’t f*cking tell anybody, but that is when I do it. So again, you can make vodka at much higher quality, I think, easier in a lot of ways. Because we’ve said, it’s very quick to make, distillation, etc. So again, I just don’t know if there’s going to be a huge amount of people out there in the world being like,”Let’s collect all of the super-weird vodkas with nuance.” If you like vodka, you’re going to have a handle of Grey Goose in your freezer, or Tito’s, or whatever it is. We used to buy Grey Goose in college and call it Mother Goose.
J: That’s so funny.
Z: I want to hear from our listeners, especially those who run bar programs and stuff like this. Do you find these craft sort of nuanced vodkas at all appealing? Do your customers look for them? Do you stock them? We are a little bit here, not in the dark, but we could use your insight as listeners.
Z: So [email protected], let us know.
A: All right guys. See you Monday.
J: Have a great weekend.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast,” the flagship podcast of the VinePair Podcast Network. If you love listening to this show, or even if you don’t, but I really hope that you do, as much as we really do love making it, then please drop us a review or a rating wherever it is that you get your podcast, whether that be iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, anywhere. If you are listening to this on a device right now, through an app, however you got this audio, please drop a review. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
And now for some totally awesome credits. So the VinePair Podcast is recorded in our New York City headquarters, and in Seattle, Wash., in Zach Geballe’s basement. It is recorded by Zach, mastered and produced by Zach. He loves all the credit. Keep giving it to him. Drop his name in the reviews. He’s going to love hearing how much you love him. It is also recorded in New York City by our tastings director, Keith Beavers, who is the managing director of the entire VinePair Podcast Network.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.