Earlier this year a panel of expert judges convened in a nondescript hotel convention hall in Brooklyn to assess merit across all major categories of spirit. It was part of the annual New York World Wine & Spirits Competition, which in just several iterations has already grown into one of the city’s premiere tasting events.
We’ve spent significant time covering the top-rated whiskies from that competition. It included several jaw-dropping surprises, all of which are worthy of exploration—if you fancy aged spirit. Now we’re going to venture into the realm of vodka. But first we must address the elephant in the room: how does one define greatness in a category that is flavorless by design?
Well, for starters, vodka isn’t flavorless, exactly. It is often conflated with neutral grain spirit, but that’s a vast oversimplification. And an outdated one. Vodka doesn’t even have to be made from grain at all. It can be distilled from vegetables, fruit, honey, starches—we’ve seen compelling examples come from all sorts of base ingredients. And it certainly doesn’t need to be neutral in flavor or aroma. If you have doubts, you ought to consider cracking open a bottle of the very expression that the New York Wine & Spirits Competition dubbed the best of 2023: Stumbras Premium Organic Vodka.
The first organic vodka to ever come out of Lithuania is crafted according to strict parameters of production. It begins its life as wheat grown on an organic farm, deep in the heart of the Baltic nation. After distillation, the liquid passes through a proprietary linen-based filtration. This process is said to imbue the vodka with its notable smoothness and subtle viscosity.
You can debate whether or not there’s some element of gimmick to be found there. But what’s certain is that the wheat at its core imparts a pleasing sweetness upon the palate. It carries through, into the aftertaste, where you’re left to ponder the lingering nuance of this flavor. Yes, flavor—in vodka.
And, to be clear, we’re not talking about flavored vodka. In fact, Stumbras specializes in one of those as well. Namely, a cranberry variant, which was also recognized by the judges in New York for its exceptional bitter notes. The company has the craft pretty well dialed-in after over 115 years of getting the job done.
You can find its award-winning organic expression on American shelves rather easily, priced at around $20 per bottle. The aforementioned subtleties of its tasting profile marks it as a natural fit against tonic or soda, served over rocks. Especially if you’re going to add lemon or lime into the mix, with the tart and bitter elements of citrus balancing out all things sweet from the wheat in the vodka.
Or do the unthinkable: try the 80-proof spirit neat. Maybe you’ll be able to call out some of the same grassy aromatics in the liquid that won over those contest judges back in Brooklyn. Perhaps you, too, will call it one of the more interesting vodka on shelves today. But what you won’t be able to do is call it flavorless.