When it comes to talking about vodka, the last image that comes to mind is a farmer. Although it makes perfect sense: when you consider that vodka can be made from any sugar-rich agricultural material, it’s a surprise we don’t see more of them Martini in hand while milking a cow.
In the world of vodka production, farmers have an important role to play when it comes to a growing style within the category: single estate vodka, aka, vodkas whose raw material is grown in one geographic location. This might not sound groundbreaking but considering a lot of vodkas buy their material in – or even buy in their spirit – single estate in vodka is an outlier.
One such vodka comes out of Wiltshire’s Ramsbury Distillery where farming is at the centre of its production. “Starting as farmers we have a different approach to distilling spirits,” explains Alistair Ewing, group and estate manager. “Most are either distilled in industrial-style processes to produce the spirit, or micro -distilleries are buying their raw spirit from major spirit producers.” The team at Ramsbury grows all its own Winter Wheat (a 50/50 mix of Horatio and Spotlight) on its 19,000 acre property, sources water from its own well, mills, distils and then recycles its waste by feeding it to their farm animals. And, of course, bottles its vodka.
It’s by no means the only vodka giving single estate a place in the category. Koskenkorva in Finland has just launched its Climate Action single estate vodka that shines a light on regenerative farming. Its barley comes from Jari Eerola’s farm in Finland and brand ambassador Mikael Karttunen sees single estate as an exciting vehicle for expressing terroir in the category: “When you’re putting in single estate barley as opposed to any barley you get a different flavour profile… it is very interesting how you can get different flavour profiles from single estate vodka, it almost gives a new playground in the vodka category… You might even find a terroir in vodka.”
While single estate is often adopted by smaller, independently owned distilleries, some of the big brands want in on the action too. Perhaps the most surprising is Belvedere which launched its Single Estate Rye collection back in 2017. In an echo of Karttunen’s interpretation of the sub-category, the series was inspired by the concept of single estate expressing terroir in vodka.
“When Belvedere was first created in 1993 and started the super-premium vodka category, it was in a very different place to where it is now,” explains global brand ambassador Mike Foster. “Thankfully gone are the days of random and weird flavours like toffee, popcorn, bacon, whipped cream and the like! The direction of travel for super premium vodka innovation reflects the changing times, its more about being authentic… We are passionate about rye and for the last decade we have been investing in research to better understand our raw ingredient, from new and historic rye varietals to the place where its grown.”
So, is making single estate different harder than making non-single estate vodka? For Ramsbury’s Ewing, there are both pros and cons when it comes to the process.
“The advantage we have is that we are producing all the raw materials, so we have complete control. The disadvantage is that with all growing crops there will be slight differences in starch, protein specific weight etc. This is mainly due to the weather in the growing period of the wheat. The variety we select also has a major bearing on the final flavour and it is up to the skill of the distiller to equate all of these differences to produce a premium, consistent final product.”
And what about the environmental impact? Of course, Koskenkorva’s work with Climate Action can claim the advantages that come with regenerative farming while Ramsbury, while investing in solar panels, is also looking to the future with a closed loop system that also sees used water being put back into the environment via the distillery’s biological reed bed system and finally back to where It began in the chalk beneath the distillery.
For Belvedere though, single estate is all about taste. “We’re seeing a tidal wave of opinion in favour of flavour,” says Foster. “At Belvedere, we… showcase these nuances of flavour through natural methods, such as the creation of our Belvedere Single Estate Series. Customers are starting to care much more about what they consume, they want unadulterated, authentic, genuine, natural ingredients, that are expertly crafted to showcase their inherent qualities.”
And when it comes to consumer values – focusing on traceability, locality and environmental credentials – single estate vodka, says Karttunen, could be a category for new entrepreneurs and even producers making other spirits to jump on.
“I think that there is definitely plausible that it might bring new brands and new entrepreneurs to the category… because it reflects the values of certain of brands that see themselves as really crafty and local… Where the raw material comes from, how environmentally friendly or how responsible it is, these questions are so important for consumers nowadays. In vodka traditionally there hasn’t been a discussion of all these things – now suddenly single estate offers the possibility to answer these questions: it’s a stroke of luck for vodka producers… it is a huge opportunity for vodka.”