Seemingly every week, a new vodka flavor comes out that both horrifies and intrigues drinkers: peanut butter and jelly, glazed donut, marshmallow, bacon, smoked salmon. When did vodkas evolve beyond the classic dirty martini and vodka tonics?
But long before whipped-cream vodka ruled the bars, flavored vodkas were the norm in the 14th and 15th centuries. Surprising? It was quite common, says Claire Smith of Belvedere Vodka. Smith is the head of spirit creation and mixology, especially for Belvedere’s line of flavored vodkas, the Maceration line. (Smith was personally in charge of heading up the black raspberry, pink grapefruit, bloody mary, and lemon tea flavors over the years.)
"We flavor our vodkas in respect to our Polish heritage," Smith says, referring to when the Polish would add their own herbs and spices to their creations. Polish distillers "would add whatever they had around — grass, honey, spices, or roots — to a base spirit," she says. But the vodkas created back then would taste nothing like the flavored vodkas today: not only were the base spirits used a lower proof (between 18 percent and 22 percent ABV), they would have been pretty pungent. "The flavoring was necessary to mask an unpleasant base spirit," Smith says. Plus, the roots and herbs used in vodkas weren’t added to make the spirit tasty — they were used to make them medicinal. Vodkas were even used as cleaning agents, Smith says. "Vodka back then was far more than a social lubricant," she adds.
From then on, flavoring vodkas was largely ignored — until Absolut hit the market by storm with its first flavored vodka, Absolut Peppar. Peppar came out in 1986, when big cities were filling up with bloody mary bars, according to the Absolut website. The Peppar flavor has hints of jalapeños, green bell peppers, and chile peppers. "That vodka really reignited the interest in flavored vodkas again," says Smith.
But those insane flavors you see on the market today? They’re nothing like their Polish forefathers. The main reason, says Smith, is the ingredients — most of the flavored vodkas today use synthetic ingredients made in a lab to recreate flavors. "Up until a few years ago, we were uncomfortable with products that were too far away from nature," says Smith. The flavors were very true to the fruit — lemon, grapefruit, orange.
Now, says Smith, the public opinion has relaxed on synthetic flavors. Belvedere, on the other hand, uses only fresh and real ingredients in the Macerations line — a rarity, Smith says, in the market. "We take our responsibility very seriously, and try to set high standards," she says. "Hopefully other premium vodkas will follow suit. Our ingredients don’t come in bottles from a lab, they’re coming in batches that we can smell, feel, and taste."
Still, the trend has headed toward the unusual flavors that get big attention. One such example: Bakon Vodka. When the bacon-flavored vodka hit the market in 2009, the first batch was only 144 cases. Founder Sven Liden says he thought the batch would last about three months in stores, if they were lucky. ("Otherwise, we would have been bringing bacon vodka to parties for the rest of our lives," he says.) Instead, with the help of mentions on Jay Leno and Conan O’Brian's shows, the cases sold out in three weeks. "I think it’s one of those flavors that really catches people’s interest," he says.
Liden says he understands the appeal of flavored vodkas, both at the bar and at home. According to Liden, flavored vodkas fill the void left behind by the wave of schnapps in the '80s and '90s. People can get behind a more potent spirit that still has bright, sweet flavors. Plus, it’s easier to use: a special flavor profile in a spirit can inspire lots of new cocktail ideas.
So will cupcake-flavored vodka rule the shelves for years to come? It’s possible, both Liden and Smith say. Fruity-flavored vodkas, like Belvedere’s pink grapefruit may never go out of style. Plus, as Smith noted, spirits follow culinary trends as well; take Belvedere’s Lemon Tea vodka made with green, black, and chamomile teas, and lemon and honey. Replicating a summer favorite, the Arnold Palmer, the vodka uses a simple and iconic ingredient and is selling big, says Smith.
And while many of the flavored vodkas out there are sweet, Liden says he sees the savory market getting bigger. Flavors like pickle are becoming more popular (Bakon was thinking about adding a pickle flavor to the lineup); more recently, the San Francisco Spirits Competition this year awarded the best flavored vodka award to EFFEN Cucumber Vodka.
But note: those crazy flavors aren’t exactly coming from the direct food source. (How one can infuse real whipped cream in vodka would be a true scientific experiment.) While Belvedere uses real and fresh ingredients, and Bakon uses a bacon-like (and surprisingly, vegan and all-natural) product for distilling, the ingredients others use aren’t always fresh. "Anyone drinking Absolut Raspberry likely knows that there’re no real raspberries in there," says Liden.
Guess which vodka flavors are fakes — and which ones actually sit on the shelves — in the 15 Real (and Fake) Vodka Flavors Slideshow.