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.