The clear, odorless, tasteless, spirit that is vodka has seduced many by its amazing ability to blend it with almost anything. It's part of the backbone of the spirit industry, but times are changing.
According to IWSR, a liquor market-tracking association, global vodka consumption has taken a plunge in the past few years. Between 2010 and 2014, it dropped almost 2 percent while whisky consumption increased by 17 percent.
In the US, millennial drinkers' have a renewed interest in American Bourbon; in Europe, we observe excessive market congestion with too wide a range of brands. But while industrial, anonymous vodkas are gradually losing their appeal, customers have moved towards flavored and premium vodkas. And their sales are now soaring.
What was once meant to attract consumers is now apparently putting them off. "I think it is because people are beginning to understand that they have been lied to in some ways with some of the claims and the outrageous marketing: vodka that's been filtered through diamonds or made with water from the Himalayas, for example… All these things that we do not think mean anything," says William Borrell, the co-founder and owner of craft vodka company, Vestal. He produces the product with his father in Kaszubia, the historic Eastern Pomerania region of northwestern Poland.
"Our real quest, as the name Vestal suggests [in the Roman mythology Vesta was the virgin goddess of the hearth] is to try to find truth and honesty of what vodka used to be," he explains.
The fascinating journey began some 25 years ago and coincided with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the birth of a "New Poland." At that time, John Borrell, William's father and a longtime war correspondent, decided to retire in the remote, rural countryside of Kaszubia. "I was growing weary of living out of a suitcase in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America", he recalls. Tired of writing about violence and death, he busied himself with establishing a boutique hotel on the shores of the pristine White Lake.
A new life in the Polish countryside quickly led John and William Borrell to start drinking moonshine with their neighbors and local farmers. "This vodka," recalls William, "had as much identity as a brandy, cognac, or whisky. So for us, the real light bulb moment was: ?"
In the mid-90s, John Borrell went on to start a wine-import business, introducing wines from New Zealand (the country where he was raised) on the Polish market which—at that time—could not offer much more than the remainders from the Communist era: cheap, unpalatable Bulgarian Sofia and Hungarian Egri Bikaver.
Later on, he planted a small vineyard next to his hotel and started to make a wine of his own. But it was ultimately Mr. Borrell's love of fermented grape juice that drove them to his latest venture.
"In the beginning, it was just a big experiment. We did not really know what would happen when a specific potato was planted in a specific field. We began to understand what was going on just by experimentation," recalls William. For the last five years, dozens of potato varieties were put into test in different parts of Poland. The results were revealing. Weather, climate, and the terroir played critical roles in determining the final flavor profile of the spirit.
A few centuries ago, every Polish manor had its own distillery. The multitude of soils and microclimates across the country meant that each spirit had its own distinctive flavor and personality. Everything changed in the 19th century, when a vast part of the Polish territory was taken over by the Russian Empire. "The vodka trade in Russia was incredibly lucrative, and vodka revenues could be increased by simply raising the tax rate, encouraging greater consumption, or both," wrote Mark Schrad in his book: Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State. The author argued that the Russian Empire, and later the Soviet empire and the present-day Russian Federation, drew upon the "debauching" of its own people to finance wars and state expenditures. The result of these financial and political maneuvers has left us with the tasteless, industrial and multiple-distilled spirit we know today.
Distillation strips vodka of its flavor and color. During this process, water is separated from alcohol, and congeners (the organic compounds responsible for the flavoring and the aromas in an alcoholic beverage) are removed. A spirit can be distilled many times and each distillation cycle makes it purer. Active charcoal filtration is an extra process that comes after distillation and wipes out all the remaining impurities. At that point, the resulting liquid—water-white, flavorless and of around 95-96 percent abv—is reduced to around 40 percent abv. Then it can be mixed with additional flavors through maceration, blending in distilled fruit spirits, or through the addition of essences. Then it's ready for bottling.
Vestal is different. Unlike the biggest players in the spirit industry, its producers pick potatoes as soon as they form. In Kaszubia these are called "virgin potatoes," young spuds that have "very low starch and very high flavor profile." Once dug from the soil, the potatoes are washed, boiled, and combined into a potato "beer" that special enzymes are added to in order to break down the starches and kick off the fermentation of the sugars. After 48 hours, once the conversion of starch to sugar to alcohol has been completed, the wash is distilled once in a four meters single column with 42 plates on it, to a spirit of around 94 percent abv. After the reduction to bottling strength, the producers leave the spirit to rest for anywhere from nine to up to twelve months in large stainless steel tanks.
"In terms of vodka production, this is the most bizarre thing to do", says William. But Borrell father and son have made yet another amazing discovery: time is vodka's ally. In the tank, it allows for all the aggressive elements [like the ethanol or varnish remover odor] to dissipate. Aging in a bottle fosters mellowing and yields softer and sweeter flavors. "Like in a rum, a brandy, or a whisky, time makes a huge difference."
Five years ago, Vestal was an obscure small batch vodka brand sold on London street markets to anyone courageous enough to taste it. Today, it is sold in four different countries. According to William, "there is an underground market where people are selling the, otherwise unavailable, 2008 and 2009 vintages to various collectors in Singapore, China, and the US." One bottle can sell up to £2890. The bigger players in the spirit industry have also gotten the message.
So how does William account for Vestal's popularity? "There is no other reason for that people find it a compelling story that we are telling; that through Vestal we are looking into the origins of vodka."
Kaszubia has spoken. Are you ready to hear it out?