For years, the wine world has placed a lot of importance on the concept of terroir–the place and conditions under which grapes are grown. The idea is that identical grape varietals will produce uniquely different flavors depending on whether they’re grown in, say, the volcanic soil of the Greek islands or the gravel and clay fields of Bordeaux. It’s a fun concept to think about, because you can imagine you’re drinking in the essence of a place, mountains, waterfalls, and all. The way I see it, if terroir really is a thing and not a bunch of bullfeathers, it’s a marketing coup: the physical embodiment of all the intangible attributes that have long been used to sell booze. And there’s no reason wine drinkers should have all the fun. Now beer and spirits people have terroir on the brain, making much of the ideal conditions in which the ingredients used to make their various liquids are grown. But among all boozes, vodka is perhaps the least likely candidate for differentiation based on terroir. After all, its very definition calls for it to be "odorless, colorless, and tasteless," so what difference does it make where its cereals come from? Perhaps quite a bit, if the smooth Karlsson’s Vodka Batch 2009 is any indication.
The unique thing about Karlsson’s Batch 2009 is that it’s made from very fancy virgin potatos which are grown in the southwest of Sweden, and I’d almost swear I can taste the fresh North Sea air in my martini.
Karlsson’s Gold Vodka, the standard bearer of the Karlsson’s line, is known and respected in bartender circles. It’s made with a blend of several varietals of virgin new potatoes, and stands out from its competitors by actually having some flavor, a rarity among vodkas where disappearing is almost the goal. Karlsson’s Batch 2009 is made from just one specific type of potato, the Solist potato, which are planted in March and harvested around Midsummer, when the Swedish days are at their longest. And they’re grown in an area called Cape Bjäre, which might be about as pristine as New Jersey’s Meadowlands for all I know, but sounds like a very pretty, clean, and fertile place.
In America we’re used to potatoes being rather cheap (the reason french fries accompany every fast food meal) but Solist potatoes are very pricey, retailing at around $100 per pound. Amazingly, Karlsson’s says they use more than 17 pounds of them for each bottle. I’m not exactly sure how the math works–the bottles go for $80 per–but suffice to say they’re some precious spuds.
I opened the potato-shaped bottle and poured two shots over ice in a small tumbler, giving it a swirl and a minute to settle. Then I picked it up and nosed it, getting the faintest whiff of celery, but not much else. It’s definitely a true vodka that way – it smells like a snowstorm. A sip revealed much more. It’s dry at first, followed by a vegetal note, before settling to reveal a pleasant sweetness. As with other potato vodkas I’ve tasted, it’s a bit smoother than most rye and wheat vodkas. It’s also very soft in the mouth without having an oily feeling. It’s an excellent sipping vodka with a story to tell. I like it.
But is a single-year, single-varietal potato vodka that much different than other vodkas? If you’re the type to pay attention to what you’re drinking it is. And while it probably wouldn’t make much of a difference if you just mix it with Coke, the Batch 2009 would add a nice savory element to certain cocktails – or at the very least get cozy with a couple of plump olives. So, terroir is a factor in vodka? Tastes like it to me.
Karlsson’s Vodka is available at such fashionable spots as PDT in New York.