Those of you who know me, know that while I enjoy all things cocktail, my preference is for brown spirits — rum, bourbon, scotch, rye (not necessarily in that order) — therefore, I have a minimal number of vodkas in the liquor cabinet. When mixing classic cocktails, personality and dimension is a key part of achieving a delicious, balanced cocktail, therefore neutral spirits that are “clean” tasting aren’t usually high on my priority list.
For that reason, my go-to vodkas currently in the liquor cabinet have some backbone and spice to them (Wyborowa), or lend themselves nicely to chilled shots (42 Below). Therefore, when I had the chance to give Luksusawa and Zubrowka a spin, I was curious, to say the least. Vodkas can technically be made out of anything, provided it is distilled up to a high enough proof. Typically they are grain-based (rye or wheat), or potato-based, BUT there are now also a number of fruit-based vodkas making appearances on the market. Luksusawa is a potato vodka (rare for an entry-level price point vodka), and Zubrowa is largely rye-based, with the addition of the bison grass after distillation.
My starting point for any new spirit is always a taste-test … neat and at room temperature.
- Luksusawa is a 100% potato based vodka, so I was expecting something a little different than my go-to’s which are predominately rye. it has a slighty sweet nose and taste, with a creamy mouthfeel from the potato. Its fairly smooth going down, with a slight hot finish in the centre of the tongue, which moves to the back of the throat. In terms of texture, it has a fair bit of body to it, without being overly oily. Overall, a pleasant vodka, on a par with many higher priced vodkas! If you are drinking it neat, its not quite as smooth as as vodka like 42 Below, but not far behind!
- Zubrowka is a rye+wheat based vodka which has the addition of Polish bison grass after distillation. The bison grass is incredibly fragrant (similar to sweetgrass here in North America). It is pale green colour, with a nose of freshly mown hay, with hints of lavender, thyme and vanilla. For me, this smell triggers the scent memories associated with fall fairs. This is an incredibly smooth vodka, with far more finish than I had expected. In addition to the grassy/hay and vanilla flavours, there are strong notes of wildflower honey, and almond in the finish.
The standard test for vodka mixed drinks tends to be the vodka martini, but after tasting these two vodkas, I was curious to see how they stood up in more flavourful settings. Tasting notes in hand, I decided to pick 2 classic gin cocktails and substitute the vodka for gin
First up: the Bramble (Dick Bradsell, 1984). This drink originated in the UK, has been popular in Europe for a while now, and recently made the leap to North America — with many versions popping up. It is essentially a gin sour, with the addition of creme de muir as a float on top. Given the fragrant notes in the Zubrowka, I thought it would pair nicely with the fresh berry notes. To amplify the sweet, grassy notes, I opted to sweeten this with agave syrup rather than plain simple syrup. The overall result is quite pleasant, with much more of the vodka coming through than I had anticipated! It has the added benefit, that if your crushed ice is the right texture and size, the blackberry liqueur float will look rather ghoulish! My apologies to Dick Bradsell for the lack of garnish on this one!
- 2 oz. Zubrowka vodka
- 1 oz. freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 0.5 oz. light agave syrup
- 0.5 oz. creme de muir (blackberry liqueur) you could also substitute Chambord
Combine the vodka, lemon juice and agave syrup in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake well to chill. Strain into an old-fashioned glass filled with crushed ice. Gently float the 0.5 oz. creme de muir over the top and let it drizzle down into the rest of the drink.
Garnish with a blackberry or raspberry, and serve with a straw.
Second up: the Hanky Panky cocktail. This is a prohibition-era cocktail, created by Ada Coleman, the head bartender at the American Bar in the Savoy, 1925. The recipe calls for equal parts gin and sweet vermouth, with a splash of Fernet Branca to perk things up. Using vodka instead of gin means the vodka is playing much more of a background role – a flavour carrier, rather than being centre stage, so the choice of sweet vermouth is paramount, and mouthfeel will be a big-deal! Pick a vermouth with some complexity to it to get the most of this cocktail I went with Punt e Mes, but Carpano Antica or Vya would also work.
- 1.5 oz. Luksusawa vodka
- 1.5 oz. sweet vermouth (Punt e Mes or other full-bodied vermouth)
- 0.25 oz. Fernet Branca
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Stir to chill, strain into a cocktail glass.
Twist a piece of orange peel over the drink to release the oils.
Disclosure: Sample bottles of Luksusawa and Zubrowka were provided by the Canadian distributor for these products. All other spirits referenced in this article are from my personal liquor cabinet.