In the world of vodka, innovation has been rampant for decades.
When I was first starting to drink “grown-up” spirits, vodka was supposed to be Russian. But that’s all changed.
Absolut brought Sweden into the picture and set off on a flavour odyssey that continues today. The revelation here was that countries outside the former Soviet Union could do transparent firewater.
Grey Goose — a French vodka — eventually created the premium vodka market, a remarkable thing, as I had been raised to believe that outside Stoli, all vodka was essentially global moonshine, a basic spirit made from whatever was lying around and could be cooked up in the still.
American wines and craft beers became a thing in the 1980s and 1990s (and beyond), so it was only a matter of time before somebody decided that American vodka was a good idea. Not the kind of stuff the revenuers would run you down for making in the backwoods — rather, something you could sell in respectable establishments.
Enter Bert Butler “Tito” Beveridge II, a Texan who discovered that he could legally set up a distillery in the Lone Star State. The rest is history: Tito’s Handmade Vodka went from being truly handmade, distilled six times from corn, to being one of the biggest success story in American booze since Prohibition was repealed.
Some folks have turned away from Tito’s as production has surged, but I’d never really bought much of the stuff, even though at $US20, it’s quite reasonable. My vodka of choice is Finlandia, also priced at about $US20, with a relatively smooth mouthfeel and some spicy nip.
Tito’s sent me some vodka to sample, and over a month I used it to mix my two main vodka cocktails, with a focus on making one of them as all-American as possible. They were the Bloody Mary and the Dirty Vodka Martini. (I also sampled Tito’s straight, over a bit of ice, just to test the overall flavours, which as many reviewers have noted, tend to be sweet-ish, due to the corn used in the distilling process. I don’t really like straight vodka, but Tito’s was a tasty quaff.)
Let’s talk about the martini first. I make a very specific style of Dirty Vodka Martini, and with Tito’s I noticed almost immediately something that would define the spirit for me: its bite. Mind you, Tito’s doesn’t have a reputation for being a harsh drink, and it wasn’t harshness that I was detecting. It was just an edge. For the olive brine, I used a Canadian brew (despite some searching, I couldn’t find anything from the USA in my neck of the woods), so I guess I ended up with a NAFTA Dirty Vodka Martini, but it was certainly better than taking brine straight from a jar of olives.
The bite persisted with the Bloody Mary, which I make using either a basic, store-bought mix — often good old Mr. and Mrs. T, but modified with pepper, Tabasco or some other hot sauce, and Worcestershire sauce — or my own, which I make from scratch using tomato paste and a variety of other ingredients. I like my Bloody to have some snap from the liquor that cuts through all the other flavours, and Tito’s performed well in this respect. (And I guess made for a true all-American vodka cocktail!)
On balance I’d say that if I were making Bloody Marys, I’d reach for Tito’s in a heartbeat. For martinis, I might think otherwise, but that’s more of a personal thing, given that I prefer a more silvery and smooth texture. I’m also not so sure I’d go for Tito’s with sweet mixers, although a summertime vodka tonic would be on the agenda. Something about that sweetness blending with the tonic and the lime would be pleasant, and the bite would give that otherwise boring concoction some character.
One can now find plenty of American vodkas at varying price points, and we really do owe a debt to Tito’s for setting off the surge. It’s always been easy to be cynical about vodka as a spirit, largely because it’s easy to produce a vodka that’s effectively just see-through hooch in a bottle (or a plastic jug).
The great thing about Tito’s is that it is widely distributed and the quality is uniform. The price is also just right. Again, I wouldn’t use it for every cocktail that requires vodka. But I’d definitely use it for some of my favourites.
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