Get Into the Spirit, A Clear Favorite

Versatile vodka's neutrality means it's welcome everywhere


The Gazette
by Teresa J. Farney

October 20, 2004

It doesn't have a distinctive flavor -- or much flavor, period.

It doesn't have a seductive aroma or dazzling color.

Even the U.S. government brands it with the ignoble label: neutral spirit."

Nevertheless, Americans love vodka. It's the country's best-selling distilled spirit, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Indeed, sales of vodka rose 2 percent last year from the previous year, reaching 24 percent of total distilled spirits sales, according to the council. Cordials and liqueurs were a not-even-close second, with 12.8 percent of sales.

Vodka's unobtrusive characteristics are the very elements that make it so popular. People can sip it without choking, and use it in mixed drinks or in recipes without it over-powering the other ingredients.

"It's a neutral spirit and can be easily mixed to make cocktails, which have gotten rejuvenated because of show like 'Sex and the City,' " Says Monica Bell, council spokeswoman.

Over the past decade, liquor store shelves have been filling up with an ever-growing selection of vodkas --- luxury brands costing $30 or more a bottle; flavored vodkas; vodkas in bottles that probably cost more to make than the pr0duct they hold.

Add to that a a vodka introduced in July: Colorado Premium Vodka. Gail and Rob Stephens, owners of the Stagecoach Inn and former owners of the Craftwood Inn, both in Manitou Springs, wanted to create a libation to accompany the Color ado cuisine on the restaurants' menus.

"We wanted an extension of the flavors of Colorado foods," says Gail.  'We started experimenting with infusing vodkas and serving them at the Stagecoach Inn. They were a Huge success."

Those beverages --- infused with raspberries, peppers or juniper berries --- led them to create Colorado Premium Vodka, a labor of love that took three years of research and experiments.

"It's the only vodka made from Colorado water, and one of only a few in America made with pure spring water," Gail says.

But it's not just any spring water. The Stephenses tasted every Colorado spring water they could find. They located what they believed to be the best source in the heart of the Rockies --- but its location is a closely guarded secret.

"The water comes from the old melted snow which bubbles to the surface from 8,000 feet below," Gail says.

They arranged for a sample batch of vodka to be made, using their water and a proprietary blend of Midwestern grains. They they set out their vodka, along with others including Grey Goose, Ketle One, SKYY and Absolut, for a blind tasting y their employees and friends.

"Without exception," Gail says, "our vodka was judged smoother, cleaner and purer than the other vodkas."

When they delivered several cases of their vodka to Coal-train Wine and Liquor, the store staff put it in a blind tasting against Grey Goose.

"Grey Goose is sort of the standard for the premium vodka category," says Jeffrey Frees, a sales associate. "We were about 50-50 divided on whether we liked the Grey Goose or the Colorado Premium. It was close enough in quality to the Grey Goose to divide our opinion."

Truly, though: Is there any real difference among any of the vodkas? Some people would say no, because the ingredients are more or less the same. According to the Beverage Tasting Institute in Chicago, the basic formula starts with a mash made from grain (usually rye and/or wheat), potatoes, molasses, beets and other plants. The mash sugars are then fermented and distilled.

Russian, Swedish and Baltic vodkas rely on wheat. In Poland, the grain of choice is rye. Russian distillers thumb their nose at using potatoes, the institute says, but the Poles are partial to potatoes.

American distillers use all the base ingredients, and U.S. regulations define vodkas as "neutral spirits," with no distinctive color, taste or aroma.

"Because American vodka is, by law, neutral in taste, there are only very subtle distinctions between brands. Many drinkers feel that the only real way of differentiating between them is by alcohol content and price," the Beverage Tasting Institute says.

But in the April 2004 issue of Wine Enthusiast, author F. Paul Pacult wrote about a variety of unflavored vodkas: "The pricier vodkas are, in fact, better tasting and significantly more distinctive than blander, inexpensive 'industrial' brands."

Still, Pacult noted, the less expensive brands are fine if they're going to be used in cocktails, and he quoted several experts who said that, in the end, consumers will reach their own conclusions.

Consumers seem keen on Colorado Premium Vodka, which sells for about $20 for a 750-milliliter bottle. When the vodka was introduced in July, sales were hopping.

"We couldn't keep it in stock at first," says Frees. "The sales have slowed down some, but it's still very popular with many repeat consumers."

Half of the 2,400 cases of the limited first-edition produced this summer have been sold throughout the state. The Stephenses are looking to get their vodka into other state, but liquor laws have presented some hurdles.

However, it's easy to get your hands on a bottle at most area liquor stores, or to have a cocktail made with it at many local restaurants. Look for future batches to appear with limited-edition labels boasting one of the state's several fourteeners. First up will be Mount Elbert, followed by Mount Massive. Gail Stephens hopes they become collectibles.

Even if they don't you can still drink the vodka --- or cook with it.