Thicker Than Water: Why Texture Matters in Vodka

In an era where aromatic spirits like mezcal, aged rum and whiskey rule, vodka is often dismissed for its neutrality. But perhaps we're going about evaluating vodka the wrong way. Kara Newman on what mineral water can teach us about the nuance present in great vodka.

vodka texture illustration natalie nelson

It looks like any other vodka Martini: cool, transparent in the glass, with just the faintest suggestion of shimmer across its surface. But the Silvertone, served at Dallas’s Midnight Rambler, is an exercise in willful deception: It’s oddly weighty—just enough to set the experience slightly off-kilter.

”It’s the water,” says proprietor Chad Solomon, noticing that I’d been looking at the drink cross-eyed since taking a sip. The odd viscosity of the drink comes from Crazy Water—specifically Crazy Water No. 4, a high-alkaline mineral water sourced from Mineral Wells, TX. Solomon adds just an ounce to the drink, giving it the effect of drinking something akin to the velvety richness of Evian, with a steely, mineral note one generally doesn’t expect from a vodka Martini.

In an age where even porridge is fetishized on restaurant menus, it may seem like overkill to analyze something as basic and seemingly simple as water. Yet, there’s no denying how different bottled waters can be—some are viscous and weighty like Evian and Crazy Water, where others feel feather-light and pleasingly sweet, like Fiji. Still others are aggressively salty, like the naturally carbonated Vichy Catalan. But it’s all still water, ostensibly the most neutral beverage in the world: no color, odor or flavor (mostly).

Sure, some vodkas are deliberately constructed to be paragons of absolute neutrality. And compared to, say, the bold vanilla-and-caramel strokes of the whiskey world, vodka is indeed a quieter breed. But it’s not completely silent. Just like mineral water, vodka is a nuance game.

That so happens to sum up vodka, too. It’s right there in the official TTB definition: “neutral spirits” distilled so as to be “without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” Except, that’s not exactly true. Sure, some vodkas are deliberately constructed to be paragons of absolute neutrality. And compared to, say, the bold vanilla-and-caramel strokes of the whiskey world, vodka is indeed a quieter breed. But it’s not completely silent. Just like mineral water, vodka is a nuance game.

Like most people, I rolled my eyes the first time I heard the phrase “water sommelier.” It sounded like an ideal way to fleece the fussy, restaurant-obsessed hordes. Yet, there’s historical precedent for a job that might require parsing through a wide range of waters: 19th-century menus often featured mineral waters that were often more pricey than white Burgundy.

Not surprisingly, Martin Riese, water sommelier at Ray’s and Stark Bar in Los Angeles, is a ninja of nuance. He’s even created a 40-page water menu that scores every bottle in a range from “salty” to “sweet” and “smooth” to “complex.” That latter scale speaks to texture and viscosity—and it might provide a useful model for how we talk about vodka, too.

“I’m always saying water is not just water,” Riese explained. From his point of view, it’s all about the difference that varying mineral levels can have on flavor and texture, but not aroma. (“My grandmother always said if it smells, don’t drink it, it’s bad.”) That translates into “mouthfeel,” a range of perceived textures that can translate as creamy, silky, etc. “Some have a texture like olive oil, others are acidic and bitter. Every water has a different mouthfeel. So does vodka.”

So, why don’t more people pay attention to texture in vodka? After all, one of the first things many people do with a bottle of vodka is to toss it in the freezer. With very few exceptions, no one does that with whiskey or other spirits.

That may be because in the liquor world, bigger is better right now. Bold, brawny aromatics dominate what’s in glasses, from intensely smoky mezcals and Islay Scotches to the confectionary caramel and vanilla flavors in bourbon and aged rum to bitter and herbaceous amaros. There’s even a movement to amp up the volume further, leading to the unfortunate trend toward flavored spirits, like Fireball and Tennessee Honey. 

We’re willing to add ice or a splash of water where needed to these spirits, but we’re wary of tamping down aromas or flavors by sticking a bottle in the freezer—which, I’d argue, does vodka a disservice. It muffles what’s left of the spirit’s aroma, and alters its natural texture by making it ever-so-slightly thicker as it approaches, but never quite reaches, the freezing point.

As the furor for flavored vodka seems to be (somewhat) fading, now may be the time to start paying closer attention to the vodka’s greatest asset (and perhaps its tragic flaw): textural nuance, which can span from so breezily light that feels like it will almost float right off your tongue to buttery to perceptibly weighty, as in that Silvertone cocktail. Even if we’re not actively registering it, it can make a surprising difference in your overall perception of a vodka and how you might choose to mix it in a drink. That TTB definition about how vodka ought to look, smell and taste says nothing about how vodka ought to “feel.” However, that may be the most interesting—and least neutral—aspect vodka has to offer.

Line It Up:

Try pouring these five vodkas side by side, which arranged along my own texture spectrum, from the most viscous and robust to the lightest and leanest. 

Karlsson’s Gold Vodka
Think of this as the truffle butter of vodkas:  rich, funky, earthy—and definitely not for everyone. Made in Sweden from virgin potatoes, this vodka is distilled once and deliberately left unfiltered. It’s just right for adding body and intrigue to a Bloody Mary or a savory drink like a Dirty Martini. [Buy]

Wheatley Vodka
From Kentucky bourbon maker Buffalo Trace, this small-batch vodka is remarkably soft, and almost feels creamy on the tongue, with subtle undertones of vanilla. That luxuriously rich profile is typical of wheat-based vodkas, and is even more exaggerated in wheated bourbons and other whiskies. [Buy]

St. George All Purpose Vodka
Made by a boundary-breaking California craft producer, this is a weirdo of a vodka: bold, fruity and markedly sweet. It’s made from corn and Bartlett pear, giving it a particularly fruit-forward taste. Then it’s distilled in a pot still, which yields a more robust, full-bodied spirit compared to a column still (which is usually preferred for making vodka, since it helps make a lighter, cleaner product). [Buy]

Ao Vodka
This vodka, distilled in Japan is incredibly silky, similar to Japanese whisky—a characteristic some producers attribute to Japan’s pristine water supply. Meanwhile, the flavor is relatively neutral, but two variables make this vodka different from most: the base ingredient is rice, which may account for the mild, almond-like sweetness; and it goes through a bamboo-based filtration process, which may account for the crisp, citrusy finish. [Buy]

Absolut Elyx
Sometimes a neutral canvas is what you want, and this delivers. Made in Sweden from wheat and distilled in a vintage copper column still, there’s still a perceptible marshmallow-y sweetness, but overall it’s light, clean and particularly Martini-worthy. [Buy]