Vodka’s Next Act? No Longer Neutral
The federal regulations defining vodka get a makeover. But will this change what’s in the bottle?
Vodka has long been a punchline in the craft cocktail world, since the first clear ice cube was introduced to a cut-glass Japanese mixing vessel.
Much of the derision has stemmed from a clause buried in federal regulations—those who oversee spirits decreed some years ago that vodka must be “without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” Which put vodka lovers in the difficult position of defending the statement: “I enjoy the taste of nothing.”
Well, good news for the legions of vodka fans—and vodka is still the most popular spirit in the United States, accounting for nearly one out every three bottles of liquor sold. After a multi-year process of revisiting a wide array of cumbersome and outdated regulations governing the production and marketing of spirits, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), announced a series of changes, all of which went into effect on May 4.
For vodka, the TTB decided that the “without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color” clause “no longer reflects consumer expectations.” Especially, given that there are subtle differences between brands in terms of flavor and odor—none of them are actually truly neutral. And so this requirement was sent out to pasture. Vodka’s flavor profile and aroma will henceforth be largely determined by how it is produced—for instance, distilled at least 95 percent pure alcohol—a much higher proof than for whiskey, rum or other spirits.
The change occurred with little fanfare or notice. Perhaps it was because people were distracted in April—do I remember reading something about a virus? Or because it’s the sort of bureaucratic rejiggering that happens from time to time, like the expunging of archaic criminal laws that prevent one from keeping oxen in one’s bedroom.
“Generally, the consumer is not going to say, ‘Wow! my whole perception of vodka changed overnight,’” says Matthew Baris, co-founder of Altitude Spirits in Colorado. But the change does bring federal laws more in alignment with the practices of distillers—especially craft distillers—in recent years. “Our goal is to make something that tastes great, not something that tastes like nothing.”
The earlier wording tended to throw the public off because of the word “distinctive,” says Stephen Heilman at Charleston Distilling Co. in South Carolina. “We have had many people come through our tasting room saying that vodka is not supposed to have a taste.”
Chas Marsh at Jackson Hole Still Works says that he and his fellow owner, Travis Goodman, focused from the start on making a vodka with character and flavor. They tried 29 yeast strains and 120 different mash bills, and learned that even a small amount of oats would lend their vodka a subtle, creamy flavor that survived even the high-proof distillation on their efficient 18-plate column still. “It gives it a bit of a brûlée nose, and carries a lot of flavor,” Marsh says. “It’s subtle, but it’s there.”
Marsh says that others in the craft distilling world have also been quietly chasing after flavor in vodka since the get-go. “It’s not anything new and I don’t know if [the revised TTB definition] changes anything,” he says. “but it validates it.”
At spirits competitions, judges have often debated how they should judge vodka. Because it’s distinctive? Or because it’s clean and pure? The change in definition may help clarify those questions.
Maggie Campbell, distiller and CEO at Privateer Rum in Massachusetts, oversees the annual spirits judging for the American Craft Spirits Association. She welcomes the clarification, but doesn’t foresee any major changes in how vodka is ranked. “We are still interested in identifying spirits that do not have flaws, have good alcohol integration, texture, don’t have any off flavors from poor production choices, such as poor proofing methods, and the like,” she says.
The American Distilling Institute (ADI), which also judges hundreds of spirits in its annual competition, supported the change in TTB definition and voiced its approval during the public comment period, largely because it brings the definition in line with how they’ve judged vodka in recent years. Starting in 2014, ADI started looking at ways to recognize the varying character of craft vodka, and since 2017 has issued separate awards for “Vodka - Neutral Character” and “Vodka - Residual Base Character.”
Eric Zandona, director of spirits information at ADI, says this was done “to better recognize the good work and innovation that distillers were doing, and to help communicate that production difference to consumers.” Judging protocols will remain unchanged.
Not all vodka producers have been interested in making the definition of vodka less restrictive. Paradise Brands—a spirits company launched earlier this year by former executives at international liquor companies (including William Grant & Sons and Sidney Frank), recently released their Monkey in Paradise Vodka.
Paradise CEO Patrick McGeeney fears that the dropped clause may open the door to vodka that verges on the unrecognizable—citric acid and sugar have long been allowed in trace amounts—and may dilute and confuse the image of vodka. “The impetus for doing it, in my opinion, is to allow certain vodka distillers to add aromatics to vodka, similar to how they are added to gin,” he says. “Before this recent change, these brands had to classify these offerings as a ‘distilled spirit specialty,’ now these brands can just produce the variations and still call it vodka. It may be confusing to consumers.”
In truth, fans of vodka are unlikely to notice much change in the near future with the possible exception of some creative wording in vodka marketing. But producers for the most part seem pleased that the federal regulators have at last caught up to an industry that had been innovating out of sight.
“This is an opportunity to dispel the myth that all vodkas are the same,” says Chas Marsh at Jackson Hole.
Matthew Baris at Altitude Spirits agrees. “It could change the way producers have talked about vodka,” he says. “And it removes the punchline.”