Appetite: The great vodka debate

Pub date September 20, 2010
SectionFood & Drink

Vodka — it’s a spirit that in sophisticated drink communities like San Francisco can sometimes elicit more scorn than love, even if most of the country drinks it well above other spirits. I’m not alone in saying it tends to be the last spirit I’d order at a bar. The SF chapter of the USBG (US Bartenders’ Guild) recently re-created their Great Vodka Debate for USBG members and industry folk, which was a popular seminar at 2010 Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans.

An all-star bartender, brand ambassador, and drink writer panel discussed vodka’s merits (rich history, a “blank slate” from which to create cocktails) and negatives (aggressive marketing, “blank slate”/lack of flavor, sometimes unchallenging ingredient to make cocktails with). The debate never got nasty but it was, by all accounts, lively. Brand ambassadors for more conscious brands, like H. Joseph Ehrmann with Square One Organic Vodka or Borys Saciuk with 42 Below, talked convincingly of quality vodka beyond heavily-marketed, celebrity-sponsored brands that overpower the market. (Case in point, a recent Sobieski Vodka event at the Fairmont Hotel where none other than Bruce Willis came out for about two seconds to give his stamp of approval – granted, it is better than most mainstream brands). Then I visit bars like the icy, cold Vodbox of Nic’s in Beverly Hills, tasting through a range of vodkas from around the globe, and it’s clear vodka has its place.

While I may never be a vodka fanatic, I appreciate those are who are doing vodka “right”… and readily admit there are times when a vodka martini satisfies (I like mine dry, thank you). Besides craft vodka kings (who also happen to be local), like Hangar One and Charbay, here are three more that stand out from the fray:

STILLWATER SPIRITS – In a side-by-side tasting, this is the most complex, full-bodied of the three, an under-the-radar, single malt vodka made locally in Petaluma. Consequentially, Stillwater is also the pricier and hardest to find of the three. It’s a stand-alone vodka you can sip neat, made from 100% barley malt and copper-distilled. K&L has it for special order at $49.99.

FAIR – Ethically produced, fair-trade-certified ingredients, the first fair trade vodka… what other reasons do you need? Oh, it tastes good, too. This vodka is made from Bolivian quinoa and French distillers, notes of white pepper and berries give way to a creamy finish. Retails around $35. Available at Cask.

42 BELOW – The most accessible, easiest to find of the three is New Zealand’s 42 Below, claiming the pristine qualities of Kiwi water in its pure taste. Made from winter wheat, it does go down smooth and easy with hints of anise and a lightly sweet finish… it is also the right price. Retails around $19.95. Available everywhere from The Jug Shop to Bev Mo.