Can A Big Brand Vodka Be Cool Enough For Craft Cocktails?

Can A Big Brand Vodka Be Cool Enough For Craft Cocktails?

Once upon a time, way back in the 1990s, vodka was pretty much the coolest thing you could order. It was the It drink at clubs and bars and its magical (dearth of) flavour swept the nation. But, in the last decade, the craft movement has exploded. “Small batch”, “hand-made” and “craft” are the new buzzwords for everything from beer to whiskey and gin to cocktails.

Meanwhile, vodka has been left out of the conversation. No longer sitting at the cool kids’ table, it’s been forced to hang out with a group of aunts in tacky sweaters. So when arguably the biggest vodka company in the world makes a play to get in on the craft scene, does it have a chance of fitting in? Or is it like the time your dad showed up at your prom, wearing Hammer pants and a D.A.R.E. T-shirt?

It’s the weekend, you’ve made it through the long week, and it’s time for Happy Hour, Gizmodo’s weekly booze column. A cocktail shaker full of innovation, science, and alcohol. Can I get a vodka that’s just vodka-flavoured anymore?

What Is Elyx?

Elyx is a new, premium vodka from Absolut, and everything about it is a play at craft culture. By way of background: Vodka is the number one selling spirit in the US and, globally, it’s number two, just behind South Korea’s insanely popular Soju. Roughly 520 million cases of vodka are produced every year, which breaks down to roughly 200 bottles per second. It’s big, and among premium vodkas, Absolut is the biggest (and its second-biggest among second-tier vodkas, with Smirnoff being first). In other words, Absolut is the machine that craft culture rages against.

Despite that, when it comes to Elyx, Absolut basically does everything right to appeal to craft sensibilities. A fun-fact most people don’t know about their favourite vodka: Most vodka companies don’t actually distil their own spirits, at least not at the start of the process. Surprise! Most buy neutral grain spirits from third-party companies, and then run them through their own rectifying stills. Actually, when you read about spirits that are “distilled six times!” that typically means it goes through one still with six rectifying columns. Generally speaking, each rectifier is designed to remove a different impurity (the most important being methanol), then they water it down to the proof they want, bottle it, and slap their label on it.

In contrast, Absolut buys wheat from 450 different farms in the south of Sweden and they do all of the distilling themselves at their main distillery in Nöbbelöv. The distillery was recently dubbed the world’s most energy efficient distillery per litre. Not only that, it sits directly on top of an underground lake that’s more than 122m below the surface and has never been touched by industry, so the water that goes into the vodka is theoretically super pure. Got a lot of crafty buzzwords in there already, right? Just you wait.

For Elyx, Absolut uses single-estate wheat which comes from just one single farm at Råbelöf Castle in Åhus, Sweden, where they have been growing wheat since the 1400s. According to Absolut, that farm has consistently yielded the best wheat with the perfect water/starch balance. The wheat undergoes the usual process at the main distillery to become a raw spirit, but then it’s put on a truck and carted over to a second still to be finished.

This rectification still, known as Column 51, was built in 1921 and is entirely copper. Copper is extremely important to the process because it catalyses trace compounds within the spirit and imparts a distinctive (if subtle) flavour. This still is entirely hand-operated by a small team of highly-skilled distillers. Temperature, flow-rate, and “every knob, handle, and lever” is adjusted by hand. “From seed to bottle, everything is done within a 24.1km radius of the distillery,” according to the literature.

I mean, come on! What could be craftier than that? “Strained through the mustaches of proud miners then filtered through the charred stones of the Berlin Wall.” OK, maybe that. But otherwise, it ticks basically every other box craft fetishists could want. Oh, except, it’s made by the monolith that is Absolut (not some little mum and pop operation), and it’s a vodka. So how do you sell it?

The Push

To help legitimise Elyx in the cocktail scene, Absolut has been hiring people with very legit cocktail cred to be Elyx’s brand ambassadors. In Los Angeles, they got the highly-respected Lindsay Nader, whose resume includes places like the legendary PDT in New York amongst others. Gizmodo caught up with her in LA and got the full rundown on what exactly Absolut is trying here.

“It’s a hand crafted product, so we’re definitely going after the best cocktail bars and the best farm-to-table restaurants,” Nader told us. “We’re looking for a specific type of customer and a specific type of bartender. We’re being careful with it and we’re testing the waters. We don’t want to see it get thrown into a Long Island Iced Tea, but you’ll start seeing it soon speciality liquor stores.”

Part of the pushback, of course, is against Absolut itself, which is seen as a behemoth in the liquor world. However, as Nader is quick to point out, “Some brands are big because they make a really good product.” Absolut aside, a lot of what Nader does is focused on vodka as a category, trying to bring it back into the conversation. She talks about it in the context of history, of global sales, and of production, where she stresses the three most important factors for a vodka: water, raw materials (i.e. wheat), and production method. This, of course, is a nice segue into talking about Elyx, where she gets to highlight everything that makes it so craftastic.

So, it’s a very direct play for the cockles of the craft cocktail heart. But what does the modern cocktail community think of Elyx? We asked.

The Opposition

For starters, we reached out to our good friend Sother Teague of Amor y Amargo in NYC, who was recently featured in the New York Times and has helped us with many Happy Hours in the past . We asked him what he thought of Elyx, and if it (or any other) vodka had a chance in the landscape of craft cocktails. He didn’t pull any punches:

I’ve tried it. Nothing too special. Vodka, by its very nature, is supposed to be clean and pure. “Colorless, odorless, neutral distilled spirit.” It brings very little to the cocktail. Even the simplest vodka cocktail, the screwdriver (50/50 vodka and orange juice) just becomes watered-down, boozy orange juice. It does no favour for either the vodka or the OJ.

Vodka holds no place in the cocktail pantheon.

However, vodka certainly holds a place in the pantheon of spirits. It’s just meant to be drunk alone and preferably well-chilled. Usually paired with salty or rich foods (Caviar, foie gras, etc).

Basically, if I were to make you soup and give you the choice of starting with water or with stock, you’d likely choose stock. Let’s start from a place of flavour. When making cocktails, I never reach for the “water” that is vodka. Rather, I reach for “stock” to build flavour on.

So there you have it. We also spoke on the phone to one of the most prominent bartenders in the country, who asked to remain anonymous due to his close relationship with Absolut (and its parent company Pernod-Ricard). He was among the first to be sent a bottle when Absolut began testing the waters. “It’s really good,” he said, “but I don’t really understand it. I think they’re taking kind of a strange tack on it, because it’s high-end.” He explains further:

We’ve kind of come full circle on vodka. For a while it was like $US70 bottles, and it was everywhere. Then it was like, “FUCK vodka!” It wasn’t cool any more, some bars stopped serving it entirely. And now it’s kind of come back around and it’s like, “Yeah, vodka’s ok for what it is.” But, nobody wants a super premium vodka anymore.

I told him Elyx was selling in the $US50 range. His response?

Fifty dollars for a bottle of vodka is completely insane! Like I said, it’s good, but in this day and age, who gives a shit? Sure, it’s delicious; I kept it my freezer, I drank it when I got home from work. But once it was gone, I never bought another bottle. I bought a $US17 bottle.

Surprisingly, vodka actually appears in two of the cocktails on his menu right now, out of roughly a half dozen. But he’s careful to point out that vodka isn’t the prominent ingredient. “It’s just used to make the drinks a little stronger without changing the flavours. And I’m sure as hell not using a $US50 vodka for that,” he said. “When vodka is really, really bad it’s just kind of bad, and when it’s really, really good, it’s just kind of good.”

I relayed this last quote to Lindsay Nader for her reaction.

“I’d love to sit down with him and have him do a blind tasting,” She said. “Also, regular Absolut and Elyx mix very differently. Regular is great in shaken, citrusy, bright drinks. Elyx is great for simple, unadorned drinks. Like the vesper or a vodka martini. It stands on its own so well. ” Challenge accepted.

The Taste Test

Absolut sent me a bottle of Elyx for this article so I could check it out. I also went to my corner liquor store and grabbed a bottle of plain old Absolut, so I could compare and contrast. A poured a large glass of each and went to work. While they’re definitely more similar than they are different, they certainly aren’t identical.

Going back and forth, smelling each of them, I found that Elyx has a much milder odour. You’d think it was lower proof, but nope, Elyx is actually slightly higher (42.3 ABV proof vs 40). They both just smell like a neutral grain spirit, which is to say it doesn’t smell like much.

Sipping each (and drinking water and eating crackers in between) I found that regular Absolut is a bit sweeter and is definitely simpler. It’s just a very straight up, “Yup, that’s what vodka tastes like.” Nice and clean, smooth, and definitely inoffensive.

Elyx definitely tastes a bit drier, and there’s a little something more going on on the palate. If I didn’t know how it was made, I’d probably have trouble articulating exactly what the difference is; but, because I do know, I feel like it’s a very subtle copper taste, which I assume is imparted by the continuous copper still at the end. It’s got a little bit of a tannic edge to it you can feel on your teeth. Just slightly sour and bitter.

So, yes, it does indeed have more “character”, but it’s very subtle.

I then tried a Vesper (one of the cocktails Lindsay and Absolut both recommended) made with Elyx, and it was good. It didn’t change my life, but it was light and refreshing, and it certainly packed a punch. I then tried the same drink but with regular Absolut. It did taste a little rounder, and a little sweeter. It didn’t seem quite as dry, and perhaps there wasn’t quite as much complexity. But, to be honest, the difference was extremely subtle. While the two versions of Absolut taste different, these differences are almost completely obscured by the gin (Beefeater 24) and Lillet Blanc.

So what’s the verdict? Like the dissenters said, it’s really good. If I was to keep a vodka in my freezer that I’d use for sipping, would I prefer Elyx over regular Absolut? Yeah. But would I prefer it by a margin of $US20 a bottle? No. Honestly, I’d probably just pick up a big bottle of something decent and keep it in my freezer for a rainy day. But, then again, I’m not a vodka connoisseur. If you are, it’s definitely at least worth trying to find it at your local, high-end bar and giving it a taste. Ideally a blind-taste. Once you’ve taken a swig or two, let us know what you think, and check back next week for the next Happy Hour.