The Realest: Flavored Spirits Find Life Outside the Lab

For most, flavored spirits are a shudder-inducing category associated with laboratory witchcraft and bad decisions. But even the bodega's bottom shelf isn't immune to the craft boom. Lauren Sloss on the distillers who are bringing the real flavor.

flavored vodka st george

It’s the stuff of early drinking nightmares, relegated to the dusty backs of liquor cabinets and bad hangover memories. Flavored alcohol—those marshmallow– and Pop Tart-flavored travesties that manage to simultaneously taste like both sugar and rubbing alcohol.

But even the most shudder-inducing category is finding new life in the form of thoughtful, often locally sourced products courtesy of the country’s top distillers. Meant to vividly capture the essence of fresh fruits, herbs and spices, these flavored spirits are more closely related to housemade infusions that have been populating bartenders’ arsenals for the past few years than they are to the lab-generated products we associate with the category.

A good indicator of the serious intent of these spirits was an announcement from Alameda-based St. George Spirits of the national release of three new vodkas this March: California Citrus, flavored with Seville and Valencia oranges and bergamot; Green Chile, using jalapeño, Serrano, habanero, red and yellow bell peppers, cilantro and lime; and All-Purpose Vodka which, while not explicitly flavored, is distilled using their pear brandy, lending floral notes and a fuller body.

St. George isn’t a lone wolf in the flavored game, either. A small but respectable group of distillers are flavoring vodka, primarily; but examples can be found of flavored brandies, rums and even whiskies. Unsurprisingly, considering the emphasis on fresh produce, a number of these distilleries are found in California, with a strong contingent in the Napa and Sonoma areas. Sonoma-based Hanson is producing all flavored vodkas (flavors range from ginger to boysenberry), with a particular emphasis on their California-bred origins. Napa Valley Distillery has a large slate of fruit flavored brandies, along with Meyer lemon vodka and bottled cocktails, while Napa-based Charbay’s products run the gamut from flavored vodka (blood orange, ruby red grapefruit, green tea), to vanilla bean rum and hop-flavored whiskey.

Of course, creative flavored products aren’t limited to California alone: Colorado distillery Leopold Bros. and Nashville-based Corsair have both tackled the flavored whiskey game (the former is using fruits like New York apples and Rocky Mountain blackberries; the latter, less traditional flavoring agents including smoked, malted barley and quinoa as a base grain).

“The question of whether flavored spirits are reputable is more about what is delivered—a false promise of ‘orange’ (formulated like a perfume with a top, middle and base note) or the full flavor-fragrance spectrum of a real fruit, which contains hundreds of fragrance molecules,” says Karakasevic. “To this day, almost all flavored vodkas are made from flavors manufactured at factories, such as the IFF, which also make everything from hot dog to perfume essences.”

This focus on real flavor, rooted in products found in nature, is coming on the tail-end of a major boom in anything-goes flavored vodka over the past 10 to 15 years. According to this 2014 Quartz article, according to data from Euromonitor flavored vodka made up more than a quarter of vodka sales in the mid-2000s and on through the following decade; and in 2012, 122 of 171 new vodka releases were flavored. This was followed by a significant decline in 2013, due less to the sheer grossness of, say, cookie dough flavored vodka, and more to the skyrocketing popularity of whiskey in the U.S. (which, in turn, has led to the creation of too-sweet honey and spicy cinnamon-flavored aberrations). That hasn’t stopped the craft crew from stepping in and putting forth their own ideas of what flavored vodka (and beyond) can, and should be.

It’s tempting to connect the increase in craft flavored spirits to the general rise of craft cocktails—after all, if bartenders are infusing spirits themselves for complex cocktail programs, there must be a market for larger batches of similar infusions, available at a commercial level. But flavored booze has roots in traditional fruit brandies and anise liquors like arak, raki and ouzo. Even botanical spirits like absinthe and gin are technically flavored spirits. For distillers, this history is as much of an inspiration as the current thirst for multi-dimensional cocktails. And generally, they’re aiming to reach both bartenders and general consumers—anyone with an appreciation for “real” flavor.

“In a sense, it’s where we started when St. George Spirits was founded in 1982,” says Lance Winters, master distiller at the Alameda-based St. George. “Eau de vie, our flagship spirit, is, by its very nature, flavored in that it carries the flavor of the fruit from which it’s made.”

The next step, experimenting with flavored vodka, was born from a desire to use ingredients that weren’t suited to eau de vie. “[Producing a flavored vodka] is actually a much more painstaking process than making eau de vie,” says Winters, in reference to the multi-step process involved in the production of his Green Chile vodka. “But in the long run it’s worth it.”

Charbay has been in the craft flavored vodka game since 1996, which has allowed them to see the ups and downs of demand for vodka—both flavored and not. Their continued dedication to flavored spirits stems from a desire, similar to Winters and team, to showcase quality raw materials. In 1996, Karakasevic wanted to create a spirit using Napa-grown Meyer lemons that showed, “how stunning using real fruit could be—not like using melted popsicles,” Karakasevic says.

Then and now, it’s the origin of this flavor that separates craft iterations from terrible ones of memory.

“The question of whether flavored spirits are reputable is more about what is delivered—a false promise of ‘orange’ (formulated like a perfume with a top, middle and base note) or the full flavor-fragrance spectrum of a real fruit, which contains hundreds of fragrance molecules,” says Karakasevic. “To this day, almost all flavored vodkas are made from flavors manufactured at factories, such as the IFF (International Flavors & Fragrances), which also make everything from hot dog to perfume essences.”

Winters agrees that the taste difference between the two—the fresh, raw material, and a chemist’s approximation of what some “thing” is supposed to smell and taste like—is immediately evident, and is enough to separate their products from the stigma of lesser-than flavored spirits for seekers of real flavor and quality drinks.

“We don’t rely on marketing to banish the bad rap that flavored spirits have,” he says. “That’s what tasting is for.”

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