Vodka, the industry saying goes, pays the bills. It can do so much more, though.
The American definition of vodka hasn’t helped the spirits’ perception as little more than a boozy base for basic cocktails:
A “neutral spirit without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.”
Of course, even spirit neophytes know the current definition is outdated and inaccurate. Technical nuances notwithstanding, one need only look at the array of flavored expressions available to know vodka can certainly have a distinctive character and taste.
But a vodka needn’t be flavored with artificial additives to exhibit “distinctive character, aroma, [or] taste.” In fact, some brands absolutely can’t have anything added to them to legally label products as certain spirits.
Take, for instance, Polish vodka. Like Cognac and officially formed and recognized wine appellations, Polish vodka—Polska wódka—is a protected designation. A liquid can’t be legally recognized under the Polish denomination for vodka unless it’s A) made from specific Polish potatoes or grains, B) with Polish water, C) and free of artificial additives. Belvedere Vodka takes things a step further—the brand doesn’t manipulate their super-premium vodkas by adding sugar.
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This legal dedication to Polish vodka denomination and creating the purest vodka possibly can work against the brand, as Global Belvedere Ambassador Mike Foster pointed out recently during a tasting in Las Vegas at Scotch 80 inside The Palms. How does a 100-percent natural, unmanipulated spirit brand expand their lineup without adding flavors?
One answer is blending Belvedere with natural fruits, herbs or spices via the brand’s unique maceration process. But another answer is even more innovative—yet simple—and can be used by bar operators and bartenders to teach guests that vodka doesn’t fit within the current definition.
Belvedere sources varietals of Dankowskie rye from seven farms throughout Poland with which they have relationships. One farm, located in northern Poland, offered to grow rare Diamond Dankowskie rye on a parcel of farmland just for Belvedere. As an experiment, Belvedere took the farm up on the offer.
This farm is situated in a region known for mild winters lush and pristine forests. The single-estate Diamond Dankowskie rye was grown and harvested, and the mash was distilled on-site agriculturally before being sent to Belvedere’s Polmos Żyrardów distillery to be distilled three more times.
The special grains and Polish water were treated the same as Belvedere Unfiltered, a robust vodka that is, as the name indicates, not filtered after undergoing four distillations (one on-site, three at the Belvedere distillery). A big, bold vodka was the result of Belvedere’s experiment: Single Estate Rye Smogóry Forest.
When compared to Belvedere Pure—as the classic, standard expression is known—Smogóry Forest is richer on the palate, with notes of sea salt, caramel and spice.
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But what if, Belvedere asked themselves, the same rye varietal was grown in another region? Would the resulting liquid’s character, flavors and aromas be different from those of Smogóry Forest?
Another farm that grows grains for Belvedere is located in northeastern Poland. Called the Masurian Lake District, the climate is harsh, with long, freezing cold winters. There are more than 2,000 lakes in this district.
As Foster pointed out, there’s not much to do in the area besides grow grains and distill spirits. As such, visitors to many Masurian Lake District farms will find stills on them.
Belvedere used the same process from seed to service as Smogóry Forest. The result was a completely different vodka. Single Estate Rye Lake Bartężek is light, with green notes of fresh-cut grass, apple, and mint.
The only difference between the production of Single Estate Rye Smogóry Forest and Lake Bartężek is the region in which the farms are located. Both farms grow the same rye varietal and undergo the same production process. The flavors, aromas and mouthfeels are truly terroir-driven—nothing artificial is added.
Terroir is important to Belvedere. In fact, the entire planet is important to Belvedere and its LVMH portfolio mates. LVMH has committed to reduce its carbon footprint and environmental impact. In short order, the portfolio has reduced its carbon footprint by 30 percent, including its supply chains.
Operators and bartenders can utilize both Single Estate Rye expressions, along with Belvedere Pure, to educate guests on vodka. The next time a guest is asked what vodka they want for their Martini and they say, “It doesn’t matter,” show them—in a condescension- and pretention-free way—that it does matter.
Start with a taste of Belvedere Pure, then move to Lake Bartężek since it’s lighter than Smogóry Forest. The character, notes and aromas are more subtle than those or whiskey or rum, but guided tasting can help guests pick them out. Foster suggests having guests smell the back of their hands to “reset” their palates—try it, it works.
Both Single Estate Rye expressions are also ideal for bars that currently offer educational promotions. Smogóry Forest and Lake Bartężek can be used to show vodkas from different brands, regions and countries do, in fact, have their own unique characters, tastes and aromas.
A whiskey, rum or Cognac drinker may not become a fully transformed vodka fan, but they may be encouraged to sip through a bar’s vodkas and vodka-based cocktails, expanding a revenue stream.
The first expressions of Belvedere’s Single Estate Rye series make the case for officially redefining vodka in the United States.