Developing a Vodka Palate

I’m a silver linings kind of guy. So, when the pandemic struck about 10 months ago, I decided to make good use of the time and read a lot of good books, work on my French and learn a new instrument. And after a week or so, I started drinking vodka. Let me rephrase that: I decided to begin to appreciate vodka for its qualities as a spirit, rather than merely as the base of a cocktail. 

I’ve done the same thing with other spirits. It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when I didn’t love Scotch. As with anything nuanced and complex, vodka is an acquired taste. Sure, you can mix it with a can of Red Bull, I guess, but there’s got to be more to it than that. And so there is. I’m not saying anything profound, of course, to anyone who’s already a vodka connoisseur. 

I recently had the opportunity to sample some vodkas from Belvedere. I learned that the Polish vodka-making tradition dates back 600 years, and the company has been producing theirs for well over a century using 100% Polska rye and water from their own well. 

I was not aware that single-estate rye vodka was a thing. One of the most appealing facets of wine is the notion of tasting a landscape in the glass. That is to say, terroir is a signature feature of wine, as well as other spirits. A pair or Belvedere single-estate rye vodkas impressed upon me that, of course, this is simply another spirit that is a product of the land that produced it. 

There are a couple of these special single-estates that have begun to change my mind about the way I think of vodka. 

The first is the Smogóry Forest Vodka, which hails from a village with a population of about 750 in rural western Poland amid ancient forests near the German border. The tasting notes informed me to look for a nose of “intense aromas of sea air, toasted rye bread and caramel,” a palate with “rich and mellow with initial impressions of salted caramel, cereal and a touch of honey. Persistent with delicate notes of toasted bread, white pepper and fudge,” while the finish included “notes of baked bread sea salt and caramel.” 

Now, did I experience all those amazing flavors from start to finish? Nope. My vodka palate is still young, and developing. It’s a process. But knowing what to look for certainly allowed me to begin to get better understand the complexity of a really good vodka. I’m very familiar with the profile of an oak-aged spirit, and while I won’t say I’m bored with it, I will say I’m delighted about discovering a new world of exotic aromas and tastes. 

The Lake Bartężek estate is located in Northeastern Poland’s Masurian Lake District — a region containing some 2,000 lakes — and considered one of the world’s natural wonders. I was told that this smooth, delicate vodka mirrors the unique terroir of its homeland, renowned for its snowy winters, which challenge and strengthen the rye and develop the spirit’s refined character, reminiscent more of the region’s calm lakes than its harsh climate.

It feels exuberant to begin to articulate the notes of a spirit and understand its flavor profile. And in detecting hints of hay and whiff of something nutty, and a lingering taste of a seedy rye loaf, and the warm sensation in my chest after a stiff drink, I’m finally beginning to understand why this is spirit is so treasured among our Polish brothers and sisters. 

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