If you’ve read any articles about vodka in the past ten years,
including especially those written by me, you’re probably under the impression that for a vodka to succeed, it has to be completely flavorless. That’s certainly the line most vodka companies are working with, touting how many times and how intensely their particular brand has been filtered through activated charcoal or even diamonds. You can’t really blame them – they’re just taking a cue from U.S. spirit law that says for a booze to be called vodka, it must be “odorless, colorless, and tasteless.” Essentially, vodka should be the un-booze, more of a feeling than a beverage. But what if a liquor company took the opposite tack, creating something that was clearly vodka, yet retained some hint of the grain it was produced with? Would it taste good, or would drinkers accustomed to a glass full of nothing feel like they were drinking dirty booze? The vodkologists over at Belvedere are about to find out with the launch of Belvedere Intense Unfiltered 80.
Last Wednesday – my birthday, as it happened – I headed over to Belve’s offices on the west side of Manhattan, passing through a steampunk-inspired lobby and into a large white room with several tables and a wide, curved bar. Taking a seat at the bar with a half-dozen or so fellow writers, we were greeted by an affable English woman who proceeded to tell us the story of the vodka and pour us a sample.
The thing about the Belvedere Intense Unfiltered 80, she explained, is that it’s distilled four times from a high-quality baker’s grade grain called Dankowskie Diamond Rye, which is grown in just a handful of farms in the Mazovian region of Poland. And while the yield from that grain is less than what they’d get from
schwag normal grain, it produces such a pleasant, complex, and smooth taste that it doesn’t need to be filtered to taste good. The takeaway being, it’s the vodkas made with the lowest-quality ingredients that require the most filtering. Makes sense.
She poured two fingers or so in a champagne flute and I nosed and swirled and did all the standard booze-taster tricks. It smelled like vodka – as antiseptic as ever, but with a faint aroma of grain – and it had pretty good legs for a quasi-neutral spirit. Then I took a healthy sip and let it penetrate my tongue. It was definitely vodka, a blast of cold Polish winter followed by a warm finish. And the flavors: a pronounced sweetness, a little bit of bread, maybe a dash of white pepper. I’d have to be sipping it right now to give the full rundown of the flavor profile, and half of that would be made-up bullshit anyway, but the point it is it actually had flavor, and the flavor was good. And yet, it wasn’t a flavored vodka per se. Because I don’t dig those, at least not in public.
So, Belve’s new Intense Unfiltered 80 is a fine, delicious vodka that actually has character. I wouldn’t adorn it with anything but ice, perhaps an olive or two. It would make a fine dry vodka martini. And it actually gives you something to talk about while you sip it: is a vodka best in a state of complete purity, or does a hint of grain add more than it takes away? Let the debate begin.