A marketing rule: People prefer “all-natural.” Even when they’re looking to get hammered.
The producers of flavored vodkas have gotten the message, which is why many of them make a point of calling their products “infused.” It sounds more natural, as if they steeped lemon and ginger slices in a big vat of vodka. They didn’t. “Infused” doesn’t mean the vodka has touched real fruit—in fact, it doesn’t mean anything at all. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, responsible for controlling labeling standards of spirits, doesn’t even define the term, much less hold alcohol companies to a set of standards on the matter. However, the term is commonly used to mean soaking fruit or another ingredient in alcohol.
Almost all packaged flavored vodkas are made from plain vodka doctored with extracts or chemical blends. Absolut, Grey Goose, and Smirnoff are just a handful of vodkas that use flavoring. Some say they’re “infused,” others just “flavored.” Orange V, for example, markets itself as being “infused with the intense flavors of Florida oranges.” It’s actually made with orange flavoring. Some producers will go to greater lengths: 267 Infusions’ flavored vodka, tequila, and rum do contain real cranberries, lemons, and chili peppers. But they are also flavored with fruit extracts. How much of the fruitiness comes from the stuff floating in the bottle versus clear liquid from a dropper? The company isn’t saying.
One of a few exceptions is craft distiller Hangar One. They really do steep plain vodka with actual fruit. It’s a time-consuming and labor-intensive process: After discarding the fruit, Hangar One must redistill the liquor so that it can sit for a year on somebody’s shelf without spoiling from rotting organic matter left behind. (267 Infusions brand vodka declined to say how they make their fruit last in the bottle, but a spokesperson admitted it does go bad eventually.) And because real fruit has certain undesirable flavors (like bitterness from the pith), some of the booze must be tossed.
But what difference does it make whether or not a vodka is made with real fruit? Does one taste better than the other?
To find out, CHOW did a blind taste test of nine citrus-flavored vodkas. Four contained some real fruit: Hangar One Citron “Buddha’s Hand” and Belvedere Cytrus vodkas, which were both infused before distillation; 267 Lemon Vodka Infusion, which was infused and flavored with extracts; and Charbay Meyer Lemon Flavored Vodka, which contains extracts. Flavoring with extracts is similar to infusing: Extracts are made by soaking fruit in alcohol. The others, Skyy Citrus, Ketel One Citroen, Grey Goose Le Citron, Absolut Citron, and Smirnoff Citrus, contained natural and artificial flavors. We tried them all at room temperature, because chilling vodka can mask its imperfections, then doused them with soda water and sipped again. This is a common practice when tasting vodkas, as dilution helps to bring out each vodka’s distinguishing flavors. We were looking for real lemon flavor and overall tastiness when the liquor was drunk as a simple cocktail of vodka and soda.
The vodkas that the tasters liked least were Hangar One and Charbay. They found the vodkas extremely syrupy with strong medicinal overtones. Few of the tasters could identify the flavors associated with real lemons. 267 reminded all the tasters of Country Time lemonade, which contains no lemons.
The tasters found three of the four vodkas that contained artificial and natural flavors to be equally fake tasting. Nobody on the panel said they would choose to drink those vodkas with soda as a cocktail.
The second most popular was Belvedere. Tasters detected pleasant rind-y notes, and guessed (correctly) that it was one of the few flavored vodkas infused with real fruit. The most popular was Skyy, which is made with natural flavoring (not real fruit, not extracts). The tasters agreed it was smoother that the others, with pleasant lemony, floral notes.
We learned that vodka’s true relationship to real fruit has little bearing on its fruitiness. But it turns out that, despite the marketing, fruitiness might not matter anyway. Flavored vodka, according to research by the Adams Beverage Group, is mainly sold as an ingredient in cocktails at bars. Many bartenders use it, not as a fruit juice replacement as you might expect, but as a substitute for plain, cheap vodka. Why? Just as during Prohibition, when mixers were born to make bad liquor more tolerable, flavoring makes a cheaper vodka more tolerable.
“[Flavored vodkas] make the drink easier—a little sweeter and smoother,” explains Jen Armstrong, a bartender at the Dove Parlor in New York City.
So much for the intense flavor of Florida oranges.