Vodka — it's not just for screwdrivers and Soviets anymore.
During the past couple of years, a new and growing interest in microdistilled vodkas has entered the spirits market, with the same force as microbrewed beers.
Mom-and-pop vodka distillers have emerged from around the world, with the latest and most unique creations becoming all the rage for discerning drinkers who enjoy them at top bars, chichi hotels, trendy restaurants and upscale liquor stores.
From habanero vodka created in Texas to Vermont vodka infused with maple syrup, the variety for cocktail connoisseurs and mixologists is huge, says Jake Jamieson, the editor in chief of Liquorsnob.com, a popular Web site among discriminating cocktail enthusiasts.
"I call them boutique vodkas," said Mr. Jamieson, who reviews the beverages on his site. "In my experience, it's kind of like discovering a band before any of your friends — if you can wow them with your stellar taste and ability to find a hidden gem, you'll be a king."
Observes Kyrsta Scully, the director of food and beverage at the Four Seasons hotel in Philadelphia, of the runaway interest in vodka: "It's nuts now. Vodka far surpasses any beverage that we have. I think the power of vodka is that it's selling so well that everybody is trying to get a piece of the action by creating new and interesting varieties."
Despite the piqued interest, the nation's love affair with vodka is not new. The distilled beverage overtook whiskeys and scotches in the 1940s, said Mrs. Scully. In recent years, the vodka market has changed with the renewed interest in martinis and as more styles and flavors have been made available, particularly with the increasing entree of the micros.
Historically, Mr. Jamieson said, vodka was served chilled, in a shot glass. "The way it was introduced to the states, they called it a light whiskey and mixed it with ginger ale for a drink called the Moscow Mule."
Now, he adds, vodka has moved away from its roots in the Soviet Union, where it was created mainly from potatoes and served iced with caviar. Today, microdistilled vodka is made with everything from grain to grapes and sugar cane, said Mr. Jamieson.
"There are a bunch of new boutique vodkas coming out all the time," he said. "I think people are interested in these smaller, more unique brands because they have gotten sick of the high-end premium brands."
For example, a British distiller has created a boutique vodka for the Ozzy Osbourne-Marilyn Manson set. Vampire vodka is a spirit colored to look like blood and designed to stain the tongue.
Italian fashion designer Roberto Cavalli has a namesake vodka, as did former Guns N' Roses guitarist Saul "Slash" Hudson, who once endorsed a brand dubbed "Black Death."
In Europe, Mr. Jamieson added, there is a boutique variety called Babicka, made out of wormwood, which contains the active ingredient in absinthe. It's made by a Czech company, he said, and it can't be shipped to the U.S.
Zygo vodka, a recent microdistilled entree in the U.S. market, is peach-flavored and contains caffeine, eliminating the need for any mixers such as the energy drink Red Bull, which have been used to give drinkers an extra jolt.
There also are vodkas on the market, he said, that are made with glacier water, carbonated like champagne, filtered through lava rocks and brands that are infused not only with a wide variety of fruits — from pears to pomegranate — but also savory herbs.
For the environmentally conscious cocktail drinkers, there is 360 Vodka, dubbed the nation's first "green" vodka and made from grains grown in Kansas and Missouri.
About 36 million cases of vodka were sold in 2000, said Eric Schmidt, research director at the Adams Beverage Group, which tracks national liquor consumption. Last year, sales rose to 49.4 million cases, he says.
The most vodka gets consumed in California, 5.7 million cases last year, followed by Florida at 4.4 million and New York at 3.6 million.Drinkers aged 25 to 34 consume the most vodka, accounting for 21.5 percent of the total U.S. market.
What accounts for vodka's popularity?
"It's a really neutral spirit so you are starting off with a base," Mr. Jamieson said.
A distilling license also is easier to come by in recent years, he said, opening the market for small boutique distillers to create unusual varieties often indigenous to their region. There is Cold River potato vodka from Maine and Zodiac potato vodka from Idaho, both created by small companies who are capitalizing on the intense interest.
"Vodka has always been associated with places like Russia, Poland and Sweden," said Mr. Jamieson. "But things have gotten freer and looser, and there are little distilleries popping up all over the place."
Mrs. Scully said she gets samples of about 30 new varieties of vodka each year at her hotel. She does not taste them all, but her staff comes up with new ways to serve the vodkas. The hotel regularly keeps about 25 varieties available for their guests.
"We are seeing it much more made into a martini-style cocktail that isn't a straight martini," she said. "There are key lime martinis, chocolate martinis, pomegranate martinis."
Last summer, the hotel's most popular drink was an "Icy Pink Lemonade," made from Ketel One Citroen vodka, cranberry juice and sour mix, strained over ice into a martini glass. This fall, the hotel will debut a chai martini, which contains Stolichnaya Vanilla Vodka, Licor 43 and Voyant Chai Cream Liqueur.
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