Taxfreetravel.com guide to duty-free vodka
Vodka is easily the world’s most popular alcoholic spirit by a country mile, selling a staggering 413.3 million cases last year. Yet traditionally it has been stuck in the slow lane when it comes to duty-free. From Buenos Aires Ezeiza to Tokyo Narita, airport shops the world over have gone big on Scotch whisky and Cognac mainly because it appealed to the businessmen, who made up the largest proportion of their customers. The higher price of brown spirits compared to vodka also helped to clinch the deal.
This brown-is-best mentality has started to change. The cocktail boom of the late 1990s and noughties, allied to the rise of so-called super-premium vodka brands such as Grey Goose, Ketel One and Belvedere with their luxury packaging, slick marketing, multiple distillations and purer-than-pure ingredients, have seen to that. True, whisky and cognac still dominate the duty-free liquor shelves, but more room is being made for vodka, especially the higher-priced brands that deliver the better profit margins for the airport retailers.
Being colourless and odorless by nature, vodka is of course the ideal cocktail ingredient, but many top bartenders and drinks writers are starting to look down their noses on it. Their main criticism is that there is little to distinguish one vodka brand from another, bar the label on the bottle, especially as producers seem hell-bent on pushing the purity (or should that be the lack of character?) of their products.
Vodka drinkers tend to choose their favourite brand by the bottle design, the country of origin or the price tag, they argue, but very rarely the taste. In short, they find vodka boring and one-dimensional in comparison to the many different styles of rum, whisky and Cognac available on the market • a triumph of marketing and hype over substance and content. They claim the vodka boom is starting to fade, making way for more interesting white spirits such as gin and rum.
These detractors make some fair points, but not all vodkas are alike. When sipped neat at room temperature it becomes clear to even the most untutored palate that each different brand has its own slightly distinctive aroma, flavour and aftertaste (sometimes referred to as the ‘burn’). Much of this subtle variety has to do with the fact that vodkas are made with all sorts of raw ingredients from cereals such as wheat, barley and rye to potatoes, beets and sugar cane.
Now very few drinkers consume vodka in this timid way, sipping it as if it were a fine Cognac or single malt. Most will either knock it back ice cold and neat in the classic Russian and Eastern European manner, or drink it mixed as a part of a cocktail. Either way, the taste of the vodka is hardly paramount, but we would still argue that if you are going to spend more than £20 on a bottle of vodka, why not discover whether you actually like it or not? Vodka snobs out there might be surprised.
The range of vodkas available in duty-free is increasing every year• super-premium ‘new world’ vodkas such as Grey Goose, Cîroc and Belvedere rub shoulders with classic brands from Russian and Poland such as Stolichnaya and Wyborowa. As with all spirits, finding a personal favourite is very much an enjoyable (and highly personal) quest, but here at taxfreetravel we’d like to offer a few suggestions, as well as typical airport locations where you can find them:
Best vodka for cocktails
This classic and very reasonably priced vodka, which is available in 130 countries worldwide, has done exceptionally well in blind taste tests against much more expensive brands in recent years. So if you are going to choose a vodka for your favorite martini or cosmo, why not opt for this tried-and-trusted favourite, which sells more than 25 million cases each year? After all, if it was good enough for James Bond....
Best gift vodka
An award-winning Polish vodka, whose packaging is totally unique. Unusually, U’Luvka is made from rye, wheat and barley, making it beautifully smooth. It can be enjoyed as a sipping vodka, or as part of a killer martini.
The distinctively curved bottle with its ancient decorative male and female symbols fits the hand neatly. And if you can track down the accompanying legless glasses and ice bucket, the whole package makes a great gift.
Duty-free distribution is growing fast and now includes the likes London Heathrow, Dubai International, Amsterdam, Zürich and Abu Dhabi airports. It also available as the in-flight pouring vodka brand onboard Emirates in First Class.
Most authentic vodka
The bottle label of Russia’s most famous vodka is a retro classic, displaying the former Hotel Moskva, where Stalin once stayed and the site of one of the first metro stations in the Russian capital.
Established in 1901, Stolichnaya is inexorably bound up with modern Russian history• drunk by Stalin to celebrate victory in World War II in 1945, and sung about by Yuri Gagarin in 1961 as he nervously awaited blast off in Vostok 1 to become the first man to travel into space. Vodka doesn’t get anymore Russian.
Best vodka for flavours
Another contentious one to decide considering the bewildering array of flavoured vodkas out there. We plump for Absolut, which boasts a great range of flavours, many of which you will have no trouble finding at major airport duty-free shops worldwide. Our pick of the Absolut crop is the unusual Absolut Peppar, the versatile Absolut Pears, and the wonderfully tropical Absolut Mango.
Best Organic Vodka
If you only ever buy organic, then Akvinta is your vodka choice. Totally free of any sugars, additives or artificial agents, Akvinta uses certified organically grown grain and uses a quintuple filtration styem to produce the very purest of vodkas. The first organically produced Mediterranean Luxury Vodka, Akvinta has a light lemon citrus note with a touch of sweetness, a light peppery mouth feel and a smooth creamy finish. Drink it on its own, over ice or as a classic Vodka Martini. 40% proof.
Most stylish vodka
Okay, this is a tough one to choose given the amount of competition, but we had to go for the French brand which kick started the super-premium vodka revolution in the US in the late 1990s.
The brainchild of top US drinks marketer Sidney Frank, Grey Goose is distilled no fewer than five times in Cognac, France, and made from wheat, barley, rye and corn, lending the finished product a distinctively smooth, clean taste. It’s definitely one for the style-conscious drinker.