A shift out of neutral

The Alchemist’s tasting panel samples B.C. vodkas for a taste of the province’s most crowd-pleasing spirit

The lineup of vodkas tasted by the panel reflected a range of flavours from clean and neutral to surprisingly lush, fruity, bold and intense. Dan Toulgoet photo

Nazdarovya! With the FIFA World Cup kicking off this month in Russia, our thoughts have turned to vodka. (That and Neymar’s incredible comeback, of course.)

Vodka is often described as a “colourless, odourless, flavourless” spirit, but its clean subtlety is sometimes just what we crave. And so we asked our Alchemist tasting panel comprising some of Vancouver’s top bartenders—Olivia Povarchook of Vij’s Restaurant, Katie Ingram of Toptable Group and Josh Pape of Gooseneck Hospitality (Wildebeest, Bells and Whistles, Bufala, Lucky Taco)—to sample eight artisanal B.C. vodkas, share their thoughts and suggest cocktails to make with them.

Here’s what they had to say.

The tasting panel gathered at Vij’s Restaurant, from left: Olivia Povarchook, Katie Ingram and Josh Pape. Dan Toulgoet photo
Long Table Distillery
Texada Vodka

“We’ve started with a flavoured vodka!” said Pape. This Vancouver vodka is pot-distilled with a small amount of fresh lemongrass, which added noticeably citrusy flavours and aromas. Less noticeable, but definitely present, was the minerality of the Texada Island limestone that is also used in its production. “It’s got a sweet bright lemon flavour. It’s very gentle,” Povarchook said. “There’s a lot of lemongrass and Thai aromas,” added Ingram, who also noted the earthy, mineral character of the spirit. “You can smell the lemongrass and you can definitely taste it on the palate.”

Cocktail: “You could play off that lemongrass with coconut milk, chilies and basil,” Ingram suggested. Or, said Povarchook, “A vodka tonic would
be beautiful.”

Merridale Craft Spirits
Cowichan Vodka

This distinctive craft vodka from Vancouver Island is made from a fruit base and rested three years in stainless steel. “It smells like an eau de vie right off the bat,” Pape said. “It keeps a lot of character. It’s not a typical vodka.” Ingram, for one, really liked the unique profile of this craft vodka: “I like the sweetness of the apple. It makes you want more,” she said. Povarchook noted the rich body of the spirit and said, “There’s no question where this is from.”

Cocktail: “If that doesn’t make a great Apple Martini I don’t know what does,” Pape said. “It would cocktail quite well. It’s got a lot of presence. It would go well with sparkling wine in a Cowichan 75.” Or, Ingram added, “With ginger beer in a B.C. Mule.”

Tasters must seek subtle differences in a spirit
that is clean, clear, colourless and neutral by definition. Dan Toulgoet photo
Victoria Distillers

After starting with two atypical vodkas, this new corn-based spirit from the Sidney distillery was the first in the tasting to fit the traditional definition of a vodka. “It’s super neutral,” Ingram said. “Very clean.” All three bartenders noted a slight alcohol burn on the nose, but, as Povarchook said, “It drinks smoother than you would think from the nose.” Pape added, “It’s very well made. It’s clean and well made.”

Cocktail: “This would make a sweet martini,” Povarchook said, and Pape agreed. Ingram, on the other hand, had a different idea: “I can picture a vodka Stinger with Menthe Pastille.”

Truth Vodka Batch #003

The newest release from the Granville Island distillery has a base of organic oats, which gives it an interesting flavour and texture. “It smells very sweet,” Pape said. “It has a nice creamy feel to it. I like this.” Ingram, who has made liqueurs from oats in the past, agreed. “Oats add so much texture,” she said, and asked the panel, “Do you get that lactic yogurt flavour?” Meanwhile, Povarchook detected sake-like characteristics. All three found it had a good balance between a distinctive character and the clean neutrality expected of vodka.

Cocktail: The bartenders wanted to play on the creamy sweetness of this vodka; Ingram suggested a vodka-based Ramos Fizz, while Pape leaned toward stirred creamy drinks, such as a White Russian. Povarchook, on the other hand, insisted, “This is a Vesper with a fortified wine base like Lillet.”

G & W Distilling
Sid’s Handcrafted Vodka

Sid’s may not be overly familiar to many home bartenders, but the professionals know it well because it is a brand that has been cleverly designed, priced and marketed to them. “At that price point, it’s a great well vodka,” says Pape. “It’s
still interesting, though,” Povarchook adds. “It’s not just pour and don’t think about it.” She detected subtle fennel notes; all three noted its clean character and sturdy presence.

Cocktail: “A Caesar!” Ingram said. “Play off that fennel note. And it’s affordable, so you can still do those crazy garnishes and charge $12.”

Pouring Sons of Vancouver’s Vodka Vodka Vodka. Dan Toulgoet photo
Sons of Vancouver
Vodka Vodka Vodka

This craft vodka from North Vancouver is notable for 25 per cent of malt barley in its base (the rest is wheat), which all three bartenders liked for the subtly sweet cherry-like flavour it added. “There’s a bit of a red licorice aroma, like Nibs,” Pape said. “But it’s pretty clean.” “It still has a bit of bite, though,” Povarchook added. This is a solid, all-round and versatile vodka.

Cocktail: “Cosmo city,” Povarchook said. “With that underlying cherry note, I would 100 per cent put this in anything shaken, like a Cosmopolitan.”

Okanagan Spirits
Family Reserve Vodka

This was the second fruit-based vodka the group sampled, in this case made with 100 per cent Okanagan apples. “It’s got that eau de vie quality,” Povarchook noted. “But not as much as the Cowichan. That jumps off the palate right away,” Pape added. “It’s fruity, it’s floral. I don’t want to say it has feminine qualities, but it’s very delicate,” Ingram said. “When you think of what a vodka is supposed to be, this is exactly what a B.C. vodka is supposed to be.”

Cocktail: “I’d make a Godmother, vodka and amaretto,” Pape said.

Katie Ingram noses the vodka, seeking elusive aromas of grain, fruit,spice and flowers. Dan Toulgoet photo
G & W Distilling

“Its name is literally ‘neutral,’” Povarchook pointed out. And so is the aroma and flavour of this premium spirit. Povarchook detected a “light citrus and borderline floral quality,” and all three bartenders noted the strong note of alcohol on the nose. Like its brother Sid’s, Nütrl has a strong marketing campaign, although this one is targeted at consumers and the export market rather than bartenders—its bottle is beautiful but heavy, and a bit wide for a professional back bar. “You can’t give it that much space,” Pape said. “But it gives you a sense of value.”

Cocktail: “It’s a well-made spirit. Drink it on the rocks,” Pape said. “Don’t mess around with it. Keep it in the freezer.”

—by Joanne Sasvari

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