Although vodka purists may scoff––whiskey purists, too––distillers are experimenting with vodka rested on oak, be it barrels or chips. These formerly white spirits absorb color and flavor from the wood to become a different beast entirely.
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 should we say light brown?) as most oak-finished vodkas have a honey-like hue. Most producers are careful to describe these experimental products as “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.
This Portland, Oregon, distillery was inspired by the Eastern European tradition of filling barrels with vodka and burying them at the birth of a child, to be opened on the kid’s wedding day. The distillery’s starka, as the spirit style is known, is made with the brand’s original vodka at high proof, aged for a year in Oregon pinot noir barrels. The result is creamy and spiced, best enjoyed straight from the freezer or in your favorite whiskey cocktail.
Made in small batches by winemaker Lee Foster Fuqua, in Dallas, as a tribute to his grandfather H.E. Duckworth, this sugar cane-based vodka is infused with French oak. It’s lightly sweet, with pronounced vanilla and maple notes. The brand recommends trying it in a gently smoky and spiced Martini riff.
This “barrel crafted” offering from the vodka giant has a tawny hue and deep vanilla and oak flavor. Made using oak chips to infuse the vodka with barrel flavor, it offers an experience not unlike drinking a light whiskey. Whether it draws in whiskey drinkers is an open question, but it could be a gateway to brown spirits for the devout vodka lover.
Made in Columbus, Ohio, this golden vodka takes some unusual turns. The base spirit is distilled from winter wheat, which is infused with local wildflower honey and vanilla bean. That infused vodka is then rested in former bourbon casks. The end result has a distinct, creamy honey character, plus mild gingery heat and vanilla sweetness on the exhale. Sip with an ice cube. It doesn’t need much else.
Hailing from Paso Robles, California, the base is distilled from red wine grapes and is 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.”