Vodka is the perfect spirit to introduce consumers to the concept of grain to glass spirits. Laura Foster has the inside story.

There are many things that this godforsaken pandemic has changed. How we work and shop, and even our preferences for the places we live, have shifted seismically in a short space of time.

One of the ways in which people’s buying habits are changing is in their preference for sustainable products. Awareness of the world’s precarious state has grown, alongside recognition that global warming increases the chance of pandemics. And so it is that 33% of UK consumers think that a ‘reduced environmental footprint’ is more important when choosing the products they buy now, according to Globaldata’s Covid-19 Recovery Consumer Survey.

From a drinks perspective, spirits that hail from grain to glass, or indeed farm to bottle distilleries, tick this box in a big way, and I would argue that vodka is the best spirit with which to introduce this concept to customers.

When a spirit has to be neutral in character and distilled to a minimum abv of 96% in order to be labelled vodka, there are few parameters that a producer can play with.

The base material used to produce a vodka is the biggest way to make a difference to flavour profile, and brands that can tell a story that brings this base product to life – “Our wheat/potatoes/rye come from the fields that directly surround our distillery, and this is exactly how they are grown” – are at a distinct advantage, for this is something that customers can both visualise and understand.

Growing crops sustainably, and not having to import them from eastern Europe or beyond, will be a huge plus point in the eyes of the post-pandemic punter.

At the Copper Rivet distillery in Chatham, Kent, the team use the same mash bill for their Vela vodka, which is a mix of wheat, barley and rye, as their Dockyard gin (for which Vela is the ‘neutral grain spirit’ that is used), Son of a Gun Cask-Finished Grain spirit and Masthouse Column Grain whisky.

The silky-smooth Vela, with hints of spicy rye bread, fresh pear, clotted cream and coffee grounds, is a moreish introduction to everything the distillery does. “We love [getting] gin drinkers to taste Vela vodka, because it’s that spirit which shows that our ‘neutral grain spirit’ when distilled to 96.4% abv isn’t neutral at all, in the way that a gin maker who is using bought-in alcohol needs it to be. It has character and a flavour profile – and we’re in control of that flavour profile,” says Stephen Russell, Copper Rivet’s founder.

Sustainable distilleries

Up north in the Scottish Highlands, Arbikie boasts three completely different vodkas in its portfolio: the clean, sweet and zesty Tattie Bogle potato vodka; the creamy, earthy Haar wheat vodka with its mix of warm meringue and pencil shavings; and its climate- positive Nàdar vodka, which is made from Daytona peas, tastes of butterscotch and jasmine, and results in a saving of 1.54kg of CO2 emissions per bottle produced. On top of this, the peas fix nitrogen into the soil, removing the need for artificial fertilisers.

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“Arbikie is focused on becoming one of the world’s most sustainable distilleries, and as both farmers and distillers we are in an ideal position to grow and distil our family of sustainable spirits,” says distiller founder Iain Stirling. “Sustainable products are undoubtedly the future... and they will be the major economic driving force in the years to come across the world.”

Heading down to Oxford, and the team at The Oxford Artisan Distillery (TOAD) is also hoping to leave the world in a better place after it has made its products. For TOAD, this is by improving the health of the soil in which its rye is grown.

To do this, TOAD teamed up with archaeobotanist John Letts, who has been working to reintroduce heritage grains, and a method of farming that sees multiple varieties of a type of grain such as wheat grown together in the same field.

This genetic diversity both produces a hardy, sustainable crop that is grown organically, and improves the health of the soil.

“There are no chemicals [used here], you see nature coming back in. The soil rebuilds itself. You’re working far more in harmony with nature, and for us that’s a massive bonus, it’s hugely important to what we’re doing,” said TOAD founder Tom Nicholson as he and Letts showed us a selection of medieval thatch.

The rye that TOAD uses for its vodka is based on a blend of old varieties that Letts spent 15 years blending, but as rye cross-pollinates, it is forever evolving. The result is a vodka that’s silky smooth, sweet and creamy up front, before numbing Szechuan peppercorns and slightly burnt sourdough crust take over on the drying finish.

“This is the way crops were grown 500 years ago,” added Letts. “The key to sustainability is genetic diversity. If this model of distillery spreads, this is the key to the sustainable revolution that we need.”

What a story to share with the customer who cares. All hail grain to glass vodka! Vive le revolutión!