Yes, that’s right. Your eyes are not deceiving you, as this is a vodka review.
Vodka has a bad reputation much like tequila a few years ago. Growing up, vodka was cheap, plentiful and mostly very harsh. A raw spirit that is produced in vast quantities. Today, we identify vodka with Russia, given the brands that dominate the retail shelves and advertising. Albeit, these are often mere brands with the spirit being produced closer to home at Cameronbridge, which is responsible for Smirnoff.
This particular bottle was a surprise gift from Anatoliy of Scyfion whisky and he was very positive about the standard of vodka and encouraged me to try it. There was a certain reluctance on my behalf, partially fuelled by the stigma of vodka that has endured. Of course, today, vodka comes in all shapes and sizes along with various claims. This release is no different heralding the revival of traditional Ukrainian vodka methods and is blended with crystal-pure water from the Carpathian springs.
Vodka remains big business with the largest selling brand in the UK being Smirnoff amassing sales in 2018 of 26 million 9 litre cases. But the market has become stagnant if not in decline. Diageo has revisited the brand on the basis of declining sales of 2% with new campaigns and flavoured variations. And Diageo isn’t alone with Pernod Ricard continuing to invest in its Absolut range, which is the 2nd largest selling in the UK with a mere 11.3 million sales.
The heartland of vodka is eastern Europe with its popularity in countries such as Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine. Staritsky & Levitsky produce their vodka in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. The site was selected in 2010, following years of research across vodka producers in what is dubbed the vodka belt i.e. Poland, Russia and Ukraine. Given vodka requires no maturation whatsoever, the first bottles were released later in 2010 and international industry awards followed 2 years later.
Their recipe uses single grain Ukrainian wheat, grown on local black soil and harvested every August: yes, we’re dealing with the Waterford of vodka producers. Before being distilled a mighty 5 times (just a little more than Bruichladdich) in traditional copper stills. That pure water comes into the equation, before the resulting spirit is filtered twice through rhinestone and twice through charcoal. Batches are then rested before being selected for release.
The water and spirit rest for a month and the water itself has a natural mineralisation of 1ppm. The craft aspect is up for debate, as Anatoliy explained the brand is an attempt to do craft within a huge vodka producing plant. If you read our interview with Scyfion, you’ll know that spirit production in the Ukraine is controlled by the government. This means spirit of a Lux class has been purchased from a State Enterprise, The filtration method and its frequency is also debatable – is this really craft? However, there is a new sense of optimism for spirit production in 2020, as the Ukrainian president has cancelled the state monopoly, so a new era of distillation opens up in the Ukraine right now.
Staritsky & Levitsky also produce a Reserve edition and a Private Cellar bottling, but we’re here for the everyday No.9. This particular release is batch number 15, with 9999 bottles in the batch and it is bottled at 40% strength. My thanks to Anatoliy for the surprise bottle, which without knowing it provided an opportunity for our alternative week. This release is available online via Master of Malt for £24.13, or via the Whisky Exchange for £24.25 if you wish to try a whisky alternative.
As it has been a while since I ventured into the vodka realm, I felt it was apt that I should pull out a mainstream brand for a comparison and to give my palate a refresh. I selected Absolut, which is bottled at the same strength (40%) and makes similar claims about the grain and pure water.
Absolut Vodka – review
On the nose: Very benign, glacial, white pepper, icing sugar, a cheap white wine and alcohol.
In the mouth: Fluid and undistinguished. Very neutral and smooth without anything tangible to say. Marzipan and minty at a push, with a slight burn on the finish with apples.
Distil No.9 Small Batch Ukrainian Vodka – review
Color: Clear again.
On the nose: A gentle perfume note, Limoncello, pear drops, white pepper. Again, neutral by nature and lacking character.
In the mouth: This has a noticeable oily quality and better texture. It feels stronger. Green apples, lime scale, lemon peel, a nuttiness and a lack of alcohol burn despite feeling stronger. Bananas on the finish.
At 40% the No.9 has more character and punch on the palate. It feels less industrial and safe, but still doesn’t rock my world. I was very disappointed by the Absolut, which feels like it only warrants inclusion as a mixer or basis for a cocktail. As a standalone drink it lacks character to hold your attention and only exists on this basis to get you smashed as quickly as possible.
Fred Minnick famously says vodka sucks and has gone so far as to have t-shirts printed this non-whiskey slogan. Americans are the masters of merchandise. While I can appreciate most vodkas do indeed suck, I also believe there will be some artisan, truly handcrafted examples that warrant a more favourable perspective. This Distil No.9 is not such a vodka, but there is a clear improvement, so maybe one day we’ll discover the vodka that breaks the stigma.
There are commission links within this article but as you can see, they don’t affect our judgement.