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Trendiness and versatility are two of the main reasons for vodka being the fastest-growing spirit in the UK. Ben McFarland quizzes the 'vodka...

Trendiness and versatility are two of the main reasons for vodka being the fastest-growing spirit in the UK. Ben McFarland quizzes the 'vodka princess'.

Everyone loves vodka. Frankly, pub-goers can't get enough of the stuff. Between 1995 and 2002 the number of "heavy" vodka drinkers (those who drank more than two shots a week) rose by 114 per cent.

Sales of vodka in the same period dwarfed those of all other spirits and vodka has long been the fastest-growing category in the spirits sector. More than a quarter of all spirit sales across the globe can be attributed to this neutral white spirit and it currently accounts for 21 per cent of all spirits sold in the UK.

Its position as king prawn on the spirits BBQ can chiefly be attributed not just to its status as the trendiest of tipples found behind the bar but also its unrivalled versatility. Young pretty things consume it in premium packaged spirits, the cool drink it in cocktails at funky style bars, the hedonistic down it in one, clubbers combine it with Red Bull and when feeling fragile the next morning, they all mix it with tomato juice, Tabasco sauce and a big stick of celery in a vain attempt to feel part of the real world again. What other spirit can tick as many drinkers' boxes as that?

However, in a cruel twist of irony not seen since Houdini locked himself out of his own house, vodka's versatility is both its strength and its weakness. Its supreme mixability, while a major catalyst for its success, has merely added weight to the argument that all vodka tastes of nothing and, regardless of origin or ingredients, the same.

This perhaps explains why, while it is a fairly common sight to see a dozen different styles of whiskies behind the bar of a pub, it is rare for a licensee to stock more than a couple of brands of vodka despite the fact that it is the biggest-selling spirit.

However, in the style bar category at least, it seems things are changing. An increasingly eclectic range of vodkas sourced from around the world have established a foothold and sales of these imported brands, which accentuate ingredients as well as image as a point of differentiation, are on the up.

Miranda Dickson, of Revolution, the hugely successful chain of vodka bars, believes pubs are missing out on a trick. "In the UK market, slowly but surely bars are adopting a much more educated approach," she said. "Drinkers are now beginning to brand call rather than just asking for a vodka and Coke. People are much more fussy and aware of what they're drinking - not just with vodka but with all spirits.

"But there's still the opinion that all vodka tastes the same and as a result most pubs just have a house pour and a main brand."

Miranda cites the recent decision by JD Wetherspoon to expand its vodka range, with the addition of Stolichnaya and Absolut, as a sign that the high street is beginning to change.

As well as stocking 58 different imported premium brands and 30 flavoured vodkas, each Revolution bar boasts 150 different "vodka experiences" and every member of staff has to sit a vodka exam after eight weeks in the job.

Miranda, whose job title of "vodka princess" is more exotic than most, has also published a book Vodka: The Journey which proudly sits on each Revolution table.

Vodka style...

There are a number of different factors that influence the flavour, smell and texture of vodka, with the choice of raw material being the most influential.

Any grain containing a high starch content can be used to make vodka, with rye, barley, potatoes and wheat deemed the most sought after. Swedish and Danish vodka, for example, is made using wheat that results in distinct aniseed flavours. Vodka from Finland, such as Finlandia, uses barley while Polish vodkas such as Luksusowa, the Revolution pouring brand, can attribute their buttery taste to the use of potatoes, although Pernod Ricard's Polish vodka, Wyborowa, is rye-based. Skyy, made in San Franciso, is one of the most neutral vodkas, along with UK best-seller Smirnoff.

As around two-thirds of vodka is made up of the stuff, it is no surprise that the quality of water also plays a vital role. The finest vodkas, according to Miranda, use water from natural sources such as glacial water, spring water and water from a distillery's well. More industrial vodkas tend to use poor quality water that give drinkers the unwelcome "burn" sensation.

The type of distillation and filtration can also make a significant difference to the finished vodka.

For example, the Dutch Ketel One brand from Inspirit Brands prefers pot distillation rather than the widely used continuous distillation method, while the better vodkas are passed through either charcoal or quartz in order to remove impurities.

...and flavour

The idea of flavouring vodkas is by no means a new idea. The earliest styles of vodka were flavoured out of necessity to take the edge of the crude taste of the raw spirit and some of these historic styles such as Zubrowka, continue to be produced.

Zubrowka, a bison grass vodka currently blazing a trail in the style bar sector, was first created more than 400 years ago when a peasant in eastern Poland plucked a blade of grass from a forest where the local bison lived and dropped it in his vodka.

The idea was to fill the drinker with the strength of a bison and although this possible side effect remains a moot point, a blade of grass can still be found in every bottle of Zubrowka today.

More modern interpretations have appeared as manufacturers look at new ways of developing the vodka market.

Most of the leading brands such as Absolut, Finlandia, Smirnoff and Stolichnaya have gone down the flavoured route with the addition of mainly fruit-based varietals.

After a brief dalliance with the down-in-one sector, it is within cocktails and long drinks where these flavoured vodkas now reside and the recent explosion in vanilla vodkas is proof that both the boutique and big brands are becoming increasingly responsive to drinking trends.

However, if the range of flavoured vodkas available fails to meet the eclectic needs of pub-goers, licensees can always experiment with unique infusions of their own.

The Babushka bar chain boasts around 80 different flavoured vodkas ranging from chocolate and sweets to anchovy, garlic and coriander via mango, peach and strawberry.

Before embarking on a DIY maceration extravaganza, it is worth noting, however, that the ingredients will lend their colour to the vodka and that a vodka with an ABV of at least 40 per cent must be used. Anything lower will fail to cajole the flavour away from the ingredients.

Related topics Spirits & Cocktails

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