Vodka brand Belvedere took a leaf from whisky’s book to create its latest drink. Peter Ranscombe finds out why.
VODKA is – if I’m feeling generous – a blank canvas on which bartenders can paint exciting pictures through cocktails.
At its best, it’s neutral and unobtrusive; at its worst, it’s just plain boring.
You can make it from pretty much anything – potatoes and cereals like wheat, barley and rye are the most popular raw materials, but some countries use crops ranging from grapes to sugar beet.
To be called “vodka”, the raw material must be distilled so that 96% of the liquid is pure alcohol, leaving behind little room for flavour.
That’s why the liquid then becomes the base for many other spirits, including gin.
Yet not all vodkas are born equal.
In 2002, Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH) – the luxury goods giant that owns Glenmorangie and Ardbeg whiskies – bought the Belvedere brand, which had been launched in 1993.
It only makes its vodka from rye, the country’s traditional crop, which is also the basis for its fantastic breads.
That rye comes from eight farms and is distilled to create a vodka with a distinctive creamy texture.
The brand has even explored the “terroir” of rye with its single estate vodkas, “Lake Bartężek” and “Smogóry Forest”.
The next step for the label has been to venture back in time to try to recreate the taste of vodka from Poland’s past.
And they’ve tapped into a trick that sits at the very heart of making malt whisky.
A quick history lesson
As most Scotch fans will know, “malt whisky” takes its name from the raw material used to create our national drink – malted barley.
In a nutshell, barley grains are soaked in water until they sprout and are then dried – as an interesting aside, if that heat comes from burning peat then you end up with a peated whisky.
Belvedere thinks migrant farmers from Scotland are likely to have brought the technique to Poland.
Up until the 1800s, all crops needed to be malted so enzymes could break down their starches into sugars that could then be fermented into alcohol.
Then, scientists began to better understand the process, discovering enzymes like diastase and amylase that could be added to do the job without malting.
While grain whiskies – made from wheat, rye and other crops – adopted this technique, malt whisky continued to use the traditional malting process.
LVMH has returned to malting to add a different flavour to its Belvedere Heritage 176 (£42), which has its UK launch this morning and will appear on Amazon and the company’s own Clos 19 website from next week.
After making a spirit from malted rye, Belvedere then carried out hundreds of experiments to work out in what proportion it should appear in the final drink.
It decided that blending just 2% of the malted rye spirit into its normal rye vodka would give the desired flavour.
The taste test
While the standard Belvedere Pure Vodka (£31.99, Master of Malt) has light aromas of cotton sheets, cereal and lemon – leading into cream, vanilla and more citrus on the palate – the Heritage 176 has much more pronounced notes of tablet, rye bread and butter.
Those toasted rye bread notes come through much more strongly on the palate, with walnut and a spicier alcohol heat than the standard bottle.
It still shares its sibling’s creamy texture, making it an enjoyable drink on its own over ice.
And, just in case you were wondering, the “176” in the drink’s name comes from the Fahrenheit temperature at which the malt is heated in the kiln.
Read more of Peter’s wine, beer and spirits reviews on his drinks blog, The Grape & The Grain.