May 26th, 2010

Vodka – now with flavor!


Click on’s “vodka” category, and you’ll find some words on the subject that aren’t too pretty. (I always wonder if vodka marketers who send me press releases and even bottles of vodka fail to notice this or if they just don’t care.) I’ve accused vodka of taking “hostage the imagination of all who serve or drink liquor” and described its favorite party dress, the Cosmo, as “Paris Hilton in a glass.” Then Karlsson’s Gold came along.

I first tasted it last fall at Craigie on Main when Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli was still managing the bar. He had recently acquired a bottle and made me try it. Now, I knew that if Tom, who is well acquainted with my taste in spirits, was telling me to taste a vodka, it was either going to be notably bad or notably … not vodka-like. Luckily, it was the latter. There was a bread-y fullness to it, and a clear hint of that really good unsweetened cocoa that makes a great brownie. Tom poured some chilled Karlsson’s in a martini glass and twisted a lemon peel over the top. Those cocoa notes, along with the lemon oil, resulted in something that struck me as a very stripped-down Twentieth Century. Which is kind of wild, because Karlsson’s is made of potatoes, water, yeast and nothing else.

Since then, Karlsson’s has been popping up in other bars around the city. Recently, I attended a tasting and dinner sponsored by Karlsson’s. (This is where I disclose that the company’s reps have bought me two fancy dinners and handed me a bottle of Karlsson’s Gold — their flagship and, so far, the only one of their brands available in the States). There, I met Mr. Börje Karlsson himself, who also happens to be the guy who created … Absolut?! That’s the vodka that started the whole flavorless booze-as-status-symbol quagmire we’re in today. That’s why it’s a bottle of Absolut that is reclining in a coffin in my Vodka R.I.P. series. Uh, sorry, Mr. Karlsson.

The thing is, Mr. Karlsson is like a brewer who made his career on developing the recipe for Bud Light, only to turn around and create some really funky, boutique beer with rare malt and wild hops. But in his case, we’re talking heirloom potatoes. There’s a little pinkie-nail of land on the southern coast of Sweden where a group of farmers are busily fending off golf course developers in order to continue cultivating several varieties of “virgin new potatoes,” which they pick before the tasty little tubers have even grown a skin. It takes, like, an IKEA hamper full of these things to make one bottle of Karlsson’s Gold ($40).

At the tasting, we sampled some of the single-variety potato vodkas, from different years, with which the distillery experimented on its way to developing the blend of seven potato vodkas that comprise the Gold. The intent was to create a vodka that evoked its raw material — and that raw material’s terroir — through a single distillation and with no carbon filtration to strip out flavor. They succeeded. Some of the vintages were amazingly vegetal, with hints, even, of scallion. And in succeeding, Karlsson’s utterly fails the “odorless, flavorless” criteria embraced by almost all of today’s super-premium vodkas.

Which is just fine by me. Perhaps the best description I’ve seen of Karlsson’s Gold comes from Jim Meehan of PDT, who calls it a “potato eau de vie.” However you describe it, vodka lovers and vodka haters might just be able to come together over a rocks glass full of this stuff. Mr. Karlsson recommends garnishing it with a little cracked black pepper. Skål!

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9 Responses to “Vodka – now with flavor!”

  1. Arnold

    I haven’t tasted it yet, but I’m getting the same vibe as I did regarding Bols and Leblon.

    By that I mean even my father did an informal vodka tasting years ago and found potato based versions had more interesting flavors than those made with wheat and “triple” or whatnot distilled. And there are a lot of potato-based vodkas around that are not in the super premium price range.

    My comparison to Bols and Leblon is that both were heralded locally as the introduction of interesting new spirits into the marketplace, while in fact there were already examples of both genever and cachaca available in local liquor stores that were never marketed to establishments that cared about their cocktail offerings.

    I’ll be interested to taste Karlsson Gold (which is priced in the premium category) next to other potato vodkas from Eastern Europe that are available well under $30.

  2. Aaron

    So, a guy comes to the bar and asks, “What vodkas do you have?”

    And I reply, “Which one are you looking for?”


    “We don’t have that” I retort.

    “Well, which vodka would you recommend?” he asks.

    “None, I hate vodka, so I’d go with Karlsson’s.”

    “If you hate vodka, why would you recommend that?” he asks.

    “Because it’s not vodka” I say.

    He had 3 Karlsson’s on the rocks that night and thanked me at the end.

  3. jon in NH

    True – “potato eau de vie” is a better name, strictly speaking any alcohol made with potatoes should not be called “vodka”. “Real” vodka is grain alcohol plus water. So Laurie I don’t think you’ve found a “better vodka” just a new way to enjoy alcohol.

    The best way to drink vodka is chilled with some black bread and dried fish after a few hours in the bathhouse. But the traditional way to enjoy vodka is to drink an entire bottle in a doorway with two of your workmates after your shift ends. Hey, still better than a Cosmo…

  4. ljclark

    Please let us know of the results of your experiment, Arnold. A big part of the thing with Karlsson’s is the unique quality of the potatoes. Apparently, according to someone who has sampled them, it’s not too far off to compare them to wine grapes, complete with characteristics differing from year to year and field to field.

    Aaron, thanks for sharing that uplifting tale of conversion.

    Jon — really? I thought vodka could be made out of any plant matter as long as it’s rendered colorless, odorless and flavorless in the distillation process. Then again, I did hear of some kerfuffle in the EU where Ciroc was being banned from calling itself vodka ’cause it’s made from grapes. Anyhoo, next time you go to Russia, take me with you. I want in on the black bread and dried fish.

  5. MC Slim JB

    I think Jon in NH might be offering a purist’s description, but I think from a USDA perspective, it can be based on ethanol derived from just about any plant base as long as it is flavorless and doesn’t overlap with another established, narrowly-defined category. For example, I think that at some point soon, Ciroc will be prevented from calling its product vodka because it’s grape-based and thus falls into the brandy category. Regardless, I can’t imagine how there’s much differentiation in flavor when most US producer buy corn ethanol in bulk from Archer Daniels Midland and then dilute it for bottling.

  6. robmarais

    Given that retailers & restauranteurs are more inclined to latch onto a “hot” vodka than a similar new gin or rye or tequila, there’s a chance that Karllson’s might gain some traction in the market. From what you’ve written, I hope so. I’d love to see this brand penetrate more genres of watering holes than just craft bars.

  7. CJM

    I agree with Aaron, I don’t recommend either of the 2 vodkas we carry at my bar. However, we offer around 7 different kinds of Gin, all with different flavor profiles. But, to each his own. I enjoy a dirty vodka martini every now and again…course, i might as well drink olive juice and water. But it doesn’t quite get the job done.

    I work at a wine, cheese, and chocalate bar out here in Worcester. Woman sits at the bar and asks if we have ranch dressing and american cheese…as opposed to artisenal cheeses and housemade dressings that are on our menu, and she scoffed at it…needless to say, it was a tough night. At that point, I reach for a shot of the Fernet and ginger beer…I feel that a big part of the job in being a bartender is that of an educator. Cheers!

  8. Lance Jordan

    I am the brand manager for Karlsson’s Gold Vodka in southern California. Your link was sent to me by our public relations firm. I must say I too was not a vodka fan, still not. But i do love Karlsson’s. I really enjoyed your comments and the way it was writen. If ever any of you Bostonians come to San Diego and want to know where to have a Karlsson’s on a hot summer day, let me know. Thanks for your support.
    Lance Jordan

  9. Adam

    A spirit to go with dried fish and bread? Akavit, anyone?

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