New Zealand vodkas are wowing the world and our judges have found the ones with the most vavoom.
There’s actually a law in the USA which dictates that vodka should be colourless, odourless and flavourless. Err, pardon? If you’ve ever sipped great vodka straight, or sampled it with high-quality soda water, you’ll know that great vodka definitely has a flavour. Vodka typically reflects the carbohydrate used as its base. Internationally, most vodkas are made from grains (e.g., wheat or rye), corn, potatoes and even grapes; however, seeing as cows carry our little country, a lot of New Zealand’s vodkas are distilled from milk products like whey. Grain-based vodkas tend to be smooth and creamy, while potato-based vodkas tend to be more oily. Corn vodkas can show sweetness, while whey-based examples can exude a butterscotchy, creamy flavour. Alongside the base, subtle botanicals and notes of citrus, spice and florals are also teased out aromatically by the distiller and don’t underestimate the power of the water used to bring the vodka to proof to influence its flavour. Water is everything!
We knew the time was nigh to explore, for the first time, just how healthy our vodka industry was. We knew New Zealand was world-class at making wine, beer, cider and gin – but vodka? We had no idea how solid the call for entries would be. From a whopping 44 entries, our panel of expert judges have found the First XI of New Zealand’s best vodkas.
“On the whole, the NZ vodka panorama was impressive and the future looks bright. I was impressed by the breadth and quality of the vodkas offered,” said judge Maxime Cavey. “In terms of a good vodka, I look for purity and a clean palate showing good distillation techniques. Secondly I look for texture and balance of alcohol (so as not to overpower the base distillate) followed by secondary flavourings (if any).” Kate Galloway agreed. “Vodka is an exercise in restraint and finesse. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, 'Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away',” she said.
The best vodkas showed great skill; a light hand, a creamy, full mid-palate, freshness and a silken finish, with no alcohol burn and no cloying sweetness. While our local market supports home-grown vodkas, we often can't compete on price with large, industrial brands. “But we can compete on character because excellent raw product and access to clean water means mean we can craft vodka that’s pure and delicate.”
However, Maxime did note that a number of entries showed questionable base spirit and while Kate was excited about our top examples, she too felt there is still a lot to be learned... “By far the most common fault was the use of flavourings or essence,” she said. “Seldom can these integrate well in the general architecture of the vodka. Distillers should resist the temptation to use synthetic flavourings, because with an abundance of wonderful produce in our country, there is no reason to resort to these. Using sugar to round out the palate also appeared way too common.” Another common fault was a lack of balance, allowing alcohol burn to persist, and not using the heart of the distillation and adding flavours after the process.
In the flavoured category, it was encouraging that on the whole they were natural, approachable flavours. “Most of these I’d use in cocktails or a quality mixer,” said Maxime. “Three flavoured vodkas stood out as great accompaniments for Bloody Marys – the ones with chilli in are more obvious, but I also liked the ginger-based and the ones with native flavours. I was impressed that the top three were all so close.”
How and when do our judges prefer to drink vodka? “A good Bloody Mary with a Sunday brunch or at an airport before boarding a flight (it’s been a while since having one of these!)” says Maxime. “Or on a sunny evening on the deck, I shall have a vodka mixed with a Mac’s Mandarin, Lime & Bitters over lots of ice and a sprig of mint.” Meanwhile, Kate’s favours “a tart Vodka Gimlet made with fresh lime juice. Served simple, cold and strong as a summer aperitif”. Cue head nods from the dish team.
Top of the Tasting
1. Blue Duck Rare Vodka $85 - Gold Medal
The very name of this very special vodka says it all, really. All three of our judges were wowed by its soothing purity and delicacy of flavour. The softest of florals feature on the nose and Kate noted an upfront crispness which moved into a round, cooling mouthfeel, while Maxime and Yvonne both commented on its lick of citrus on the finish. It’s an absolutely stunning example made using 100% whey spirit and a mammoth 7 distillations and no added preservatives, sugars or softeners. Plus, $5 from every bottle purchased direct from their website is donated to NZ Forest & Bird. blueduckvodka.co.nz
2. Coast Road Vodka $57 - Gold Medal
Triple-distilled and charcoal-filtered, this hugely impressive vodka is incredibly clean on the nose yet unveils lovely light spice and lime on the first sip. Maxime loved its rich, oily textures and soft herbal notes. Kate also loved its smooth, sweetly creamy mid-palate. “Clean, silky, ribbon-like and completely lovely,” agreed Yvonne. premiumliquor.co.nz
3. Black Collar Distillery Black Collar Vodka $50 - Gold Medal
With its super-neutral nose and flinty, wet stone minerality, this is a classically styled, beautifully balanced vodka. Kate enjoyed its pure, lingering citrus-laced finish and Maxime was wowed by its soft florals, subtle spices and its soothing, rich textures. Sublime. blackcollardistillery.com
4. Waiwera Gingerella Ginger Citrus Vodka $60 - Gold Medal
From the name, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was going to prove a heavy-hitter in the flavour-infusion stakes; however, the team at Waiwera have masterfully managed to create a very smooth, clean example with hints of gingerbread, jasmine and citrus aromatics. Kate found a subtle tweak of toffee and mandarin, while Maxime noted hazelnut layers on the finish. “Bright, energetic and delicious to sip,” said Yvonne. waiweraspirit.co.nz
5. Waiwera Vodka 2014 $60 - Gold Medal
This strikingly unusual but completely delicious vodka had, according to Kate, an almost wine-like architecture to it and distinct lemon and yuzu notes underpinned by a range of botanicals. You may see this vodka out in the marketplace with a slightly different label. One will say “Waiwera” one will say “Vintage”, but rest-assured, they’re both the exact same delicious thing. It’s a hugely interesting style. waiweraspirit.co.nz
6. The National Distillery Co Aquifer Plateau Vodka $58 - Gold Medal
Triple-distilled and named as a nod to the 10,000-year-old volcanic water from the North Island’s central plateau that this vodka is cut to proof with, this vodka has lifted, pure aromas, a full, rich and generously smooth mid-palate presence and a perfectly prickly finish. “Beautifully balanced, clean and showing subtle wood and spice notes,” added Maxime. Superb. nationaldistillery.nz
7. Triple Rock Chili Mocha Vodka $40 - Gold Medal
Our judges were well and truly wowed by this rose-gold-coloured, cocoa and coffee-crammed sensation. With a mid-palate heaving with citrus peel and pepper, Maxime was also impressed with its luxurious texture. Kate loved its coffee and lamington flavours and its liqueur-like, muscaty tones and chili heat, and Yvonne loved it’s choco-chili-crazy-goodness. nzliquor.online
8. Peaked Distillery Organic Vodka $75 - Gold Medal
With aromas of wild plant botanicals alongside hints of orange oil, gunpowder and anise and a stylish, supple, elegant mid-palate, this vodka stood out from the crowd. Kate loved its pithy, delicately bitter and complex quinone finish. peaked.co.nz
9. Scapegrace Signature Vodka $70 - Gold Medal
If a delicate edge of cinnamon, citrus and earthy herbal notes in your vodka spins your wheels, this beautifully structured example will send you sideways with joy. Slippery, soothing and luxurious, it has, according to Kate, a creamy texture and a warming finish. scapegracedistillery.com
10. 26000 Vodka $45 - Gold Medal
26000 Vodka is made using glacial reservoir water from near Nelson that’s 26,000 years old, and the purity showing throughout was undeniable. “Clean, elevated, lifted mineral-focused aromatics,” noted Yvonne, while Maxime and Kate found hints of coconut, lemon and a mouthfeel that was creamy, cooling and chalky-fresh. 26000.vodka
11. Karven Vodka $75 - Gold Medal
Soft, subtle botanical notes and a hint of toasted bread, bamboo and soft citrus wowed Kate, while Maxime immediately commented on its smoothness, balance and refined citrus layers. Yvonne noted how stylishly it presented on the palate with a hint of green pepper. Lovely. karven.co.nz
Enter the dish tasting panel:
Bring on the Big Reds
Our next dish Tasting Panel will focus on New Zealand Reds . Results to be published in issue 115 of dish, on-sale 13 May 2024. Entries close on Wednesday 20th March. We'd love to see your wines so please enter here!