Although vodka purists may scoff (and whiskey purists too), a growing number of spirits producers, particularly independent distillers, are experimenting with vodkas that spend time in oak barrels, soaking up a bit of extra color and flavor from the wood.
Is it still vodka if it’s no longer “without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color,” as the TTB defines the spirit? That’s a gray area—or, rather, a light brown area—as most oaked vodkas have a honey-like hue. Most producers are very careful to describe these experimental products as vodkas “finished in barrels,” “rested on oak” or even “barrel flavored” rather than “barrel-aged.”
Frankly, we’re less interested in semantics and more interested in how they drink. These are five to try right now, most available in limited batches.
Made by winemaker Lee Foster Fuqua as a tribute to his grandfather H.E. Duckworth, this is a sugar-cane-based vodka infused with French oak and made in Dallas. It’s lightly sweet, with pronounced vanilla and maple tones.
The grape-based vodka made in Washington state spends time in used bourbon barrels (which are charred, hence the name). It’s pale in the glass, just a light straw tinge, and mingles vanilla and coconut, finishing with subtle oak and charcoal notes. An interesting side note: Heritage has trademarked the phrase “Char Barrel Finished.”
Hailing from Paso Robles, Calif., and newly released in June 2016, the base is distilled from red wine grapes, and it’s finished in new and used rye whiskey barrels. It’s an oak-forward bottling that’s remarkably whiskey-like, with lots of caramel and spice. The producers play with that whiskey association; the [e] in the name refers to whisky versus whiskey—with or without the “e.”
Made in Columbus, Ohio, this golden vodka takes some unusual turns. The base spirit is distilled from winter wheat, which is then infused with local wildflower honey and vanilla bean. That infused vodka is then rested in former bourbon casks. The end result is a distinct, almost creamy honey character, plus mild gingery heat and vanilla sweetness on the exhale. Sip with an ice cube; it doesn’t need much embellishment.