To most men, including myself up until a month or so ago, vodka means simply an odorless, tasteless clear spirit that offers very little redeeming value aside from the fact that if you drink enough of it ... well, things happen to your body. Aside from the fact that my Polish and Russian friends enjoyed it because it was cheap I had no interest in ever sampling it outside of a cocktail. Then I discovered Belvedere's Heritage 176 and my impression of vodka changed forever.
2020 is an exciting time for vodka since the United States TTB or "Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau" has changed the legal definition of vodka. Previously it was, "Neutral spirits distilled or treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials so as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color." Under the new definition, that requirement for complete neutrality is no longer required. While vodka is still a neutral spirit the new definition allows for limited flavor, taste, and color. However, vodka still may not be labeled as aged and may contain limited amounts of sugar and citric acid. This opens the gate wide for a new generation of American and indeed international craft vodka producers as well as innovators at industrial distillers like Belvedere. With the fact that you can have distinctive flavors, it means there is an opportunity for distillers to create unique expressions, promote the use of specific grains (and non-grains), water sources, and other elements that go beyond simply slapping a logo on a bottle.
Belvedere's Heritage 176 is not technically a vodka, rather it is a "Vodka mixed with Malted Rye Spirit". However, it is an example of what can be brought to the market when people begin to regard vodka the same way they do whiskey, rum, or agave spirits. We are no longer stuck with the concept of "Flavored Vodkas" to differentiate one product from the next. That being said, however, I do enjoy those too, but in a totally different way.
Instead, now we are open to exploring the history and heritage of vodka the same way we can with any other spirit that has a similar heritage.
Heritage 176 is a nod to the practice of Polish vodka distillers who used a technique of "malting" - using fire-kilned drying to liberate enzymes from the rye's starch during the process of producing vodka. This unique practice added a distinct flavor that made the spirit unique compared to vodka produced in other regions. Over time, as vodka became more than just a regional spirit, these traditions were lost to cater to customer expectations of a more completely neutral experience.
Today, however, Belvedere is committed to promoting the rye that gives their vodka its unique flavor and fits the Polish heritage. By blending this heritage distilling technique with their vodka the result is a unique expression that allows the rye flavor and complexity to fully come through to the taster.
To me, its nose reminds me of a diluted rye whiskey fresh off the still before it has been aged. This presents a taste that is identifiable as vodka ... but with notes of rye that would otherwise be covered up by aging in whiskey, or distilled out of the spirit in a vodka. Heritage 176 is a truly unique and enjoyable spirit. It is a must-try for any vodka fan looking to, well ... explore the heritage of Polish rye vodka and equally enjoyable for a rye whiskey fan who wants to try something different.
I look forward to sharing this with some mixologist and chef friends to see what flavor pairings they can create to further unlock the unique rye flavor contained in Belveder Heritage 176.
Belvedere Heritage 176 Tasting Notes:
Here are the official tasting notes from Belvedere ...
Intense baked rye bread and walnuts, with notes of cream and honey, finishing with delicate allspice and sweet biscuit notes.
A full-bodied, rich and velvety texture opens with a bold medley of toasted rye bread, brazil nuts and buttery toffee, accompanied by light creaminess and hints of sweet spice.
Smooth, creamy and prolonged with complex layers of toffee, nuttiness and mellow allspice, perfectly balancing the sweetness of malted rye.