Stand on the banks of Schiedam’s canals, in the shadow of the world’s largest windmills and you’ll be served up a proper sense of drinks history. This small Dutch town was once a hub for global distilling, with more than 400 companies toiling and boiling to produce gin or genever (the spirit from which gin evolved), before shipping the popular potable across the entire planet. That was in the 18th century, and only a handful remain, but any serious drinks enthusiast should make the pilgrimage.
One survivor of this era is the impressive Nolet Distillery, opened in 1691 and a globally renowned genever distiller. But, despite the incessant clink of newly-launched gin bottles, the Nolet family no longer relies entirely on the national botanical beverage to drive business forward. In fact, rather surprisingly, today the Nolets earns plaudits for Ketel One Vodka.
Surprising because while gin grabs drink headlines, vodka is moderately maligned. A case in point: we recently ordered vodka martinis in a mid-tier bar and had to endure a scoff from a slightly supercilious bartender serving us – he insisted we should be having gin. He was wrong, we wanted vodka, but why the hostility?
Vodka is owed a huge debt of gratitude at the bar. It was pioneering in the 20th century and arguably revived cocktail culture in the US. It restored faith in spirits during the 50s and 60s after the abomination that was Prohibition, and then found itself at the base of the 1980s and 1990s cocktails that kick started this new golden age for mixed drinks. During the late 90s, when ‘startender’ Dale de Groff was dragging discerning drinking back into the limelight at New York’s Rainbow Rooms, he was invariably serving Cosmopolitans – a vodka drink. And yet today some drinkers complain about a lack of character in the spirit.
To be fair a foundation for flavourless vodka was established centuries ago. The 17th century Russian Tsar Peter the Great was a pioneer in his day and used his engineering nous to knock up a triple distillation device to clean the heavy alcohols from his beloved vodka. Peter was an interesting cat, he ran amok across Europe, hosting extraordinary parties with trained bears handing (or pawing) out vodka. In 1698 English author John Evelyn hosted The Great at his estate for three months and the Zany Tsar wrecked the joint, using family portraits for target practice and ruining hedges by ramming mates through them in wheelbarrows. We digress, the point is, the resulting hangover from Peter’s purity charge led to a still apparent insistence on numerous distillations and excessive filtration methods, techniques which have admittedly resulted in some insipid spirits.
But actually, prior to Peter’s push for purity, a more rustic vodka in Poland was fashionable, and while some was inevitably poisonous, these early endeavours were locally produced, small batch and championed on the strength of terroir. In a bid to get back to the soul of vodka, today’s distillers are returning to this philosophy minus the poisons, and so terroir has become terminology de rigueur amongst the new vodka elite.
Which brings us back to Ketel One. This was a brand launched after Carolus Nolet visited San Francisco in the 1980s and heard how bartenders were frustrated with the bland vodkas available. Carolus righted the wrong when he created a spirit that gave martinis a bit of bite, and to this day it remains a bartender favourite.
So, while the contempt or fatigue we encountered when ordering our martini exists, it’s not universal. The terroir conversation buzzes at the top of the drinks chain and many inventive bar professionals now report that vodka cocktails are attracting discerning drinkers. Vodkas like Ketel One are reminding drinkers that character is key to a quality vodka, and a raft of others are following suit. Here are three that prove the point.
Have this in the drinks cabinet so you can mix an exceptional martini, and very useful Bloody Mary, but also so you can share the history of Dutch distillation. The Nolet distillery really is a remarkable place, complete with recorded documents of trade deals with the founding fathers of America. The vodka meanwhile, is wheat based, approachable and smooth but has a discernible bite of character thanks to the final distillation. This comes courtesy of an additional run on the company’s historic Distilleerketel No.1, a wood fired pot still that imparts mouthfeel and crisp citrus and pepper finish.
Terroir is so integral to these distillers (English-based using Polish potato) they have created a series of vintages to reflect the subtle flavour variations delivered by different potato crops. Potatoes are carefully selected from different fields and always early enough to pack plenty of flavour, meanwhile a single distillation aims to capture as much character as possible. The Vestel Pomorze 2013 uses Asterix potatoes grown near the Baltic coast and has warm spice, rich mouthfeel and a subtle smoke about it.
Another potato vodka, this spirit benefits from quality produce grown in Cape Bjäre, Sweden, and includes the ‘Farmer’s Gold’ Heirloom variety. Around seven kilograms of Virgin New Potatoes are needed to make just one bottle and they deliver a sweet, almost vanilla quality to the taste, as well as a creamy mouthfeel. There’s a little heat on the finish but it’s subtle when compared to that full, rich flavour.
Tom Sandham and Ben McFarland are the Thinking Drinkers and will be performing their new show, the Thinking Drinkers’ Pub Crawl, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The show celebrates the history of bar and pub and serves up five free drinks during the performance. For show dates and ticket details head to www.thinkingdrinkers.com