Flavour Carrier

When ordering a cocktail which has vodka as the alcoholic component, the drink is more about the other things that go into it than it is about the spirit.

Neutrality is not for the faint-hearted, whether it be fiscal or political. Switzerland works hard at staying above the political fray and not taking sides in global conflicts. Well, vodka is the Switzerland of the alcohol world.

It provides the mouthfeel and spirit hit of alcohol but does it without affecting flavour – which is why it is beloved of bartenders and drink slingers the world over. Cocktails were frequently referenced while we tasted our way through a small selection of locally available examples.

“The whole point of vodka is that it shouldn’t interfere with a cocktail. Other spirits like gin or Bourbon are different: you want to know that you are tasting them in a G&T or an Old Fashioned,” said Dr Winnie Bowman, a Cape Wine Master and specialist spirits judge. In a London Dry style gin it’s important that you distinguish the resiny flavour of juniper – and you also expect to taste that when it’s mixed with tonic. The point of an Old Fashioned is the interplay and balance of the drink, with the Bourbon, bitters, sugar syrup and orange zest mingling seamlessly.

As with previous CHEERS vodka tastings, Cîroc provoked discussion because it doesn’t display the typical acetone or neutral spirit notes of other vodkas. Because it is distilled from grapes rather than grain or wheat there is flavour to it. It’s also the one the panel voted most likely to sip and savour on its own. The point was also made, however, that it would still be extremely good in cocktails because of its flavour. The challenge would be on the bartender or mixologist to accommodate the vodka’s flavour profile into whatever cocktail was being made so that it remained balanced.

Tasting panel: Dr Winnie Bowman, Clifford Roberts, Shayne Dowling & Fiona McDonald

Absolut Elyx 

A single distillation, the Elyx is the same as the standard Absolut but with the cherry blossom and sweet florality on the nose more pronounced. Touch of citrus and warm cinnamon spice too. Complex, poised and long.


The Swedish vodka that launched a design revolution. Light powdery sweet perfume with a peppery bite to the palate. The spirit influence is more of a warming glow than a sharp, fiery hit. Balanced and integrated.


Different from the others in that it is distilled from grapes, the French product has a distinct flavour and taste where the others are neutral. “Skittles candy!” was one taster’s opinion while the others found citrus, lemon verbena and spice notes. Complex, tasty and delicious on its own – but it will also mix well.

Ketel One

Smooth textured and supple with a light cereal note – but then this is a wheat-based distillation. Again, neutral in nature, other than the spirit or alcohol which is advantageous for mixing with other, more flavourful, ingredients.

Russian Bear

Good all rounder which is meant to be mixed in cocktails. Solid example of a standard vodka – one that isn’t going to interfere with the taste of a mixed drink. The alcohol or spirit is front and centre but that’s to be expected when tasted neat.


An American vodka, tasters found a subtle vegetal or leafy note. “Like walking though fynbos – it’s all around but you can’t say it’s one particular plant,” said Winnie. Understated with lovely balance and silky mouthfeel. Another good one for mixing.

Cîroc Summer Citrus 

Not a true vodka, this is a spirit aperitif – like Tanqueray’s Flor de Sevilla. It too is lighter in alcohol at 35% abv not 43% like the rest. Bold orange and naartjie aromas with the same on the palate, with a sweetness that is delightful. “I can picture myself enjoying this over ice in the summer sunshine,” Winnie said. Shayne said it would work well as a shooter, crisply chilled.