Taste: Flavor of the Month

Vodka is the country’s number one spirit, and shows no sign of slipping. But it’s the surging popularity of flavored vodka that keeps this supposedly flavorless spirit at the top of the heap. Flavored vodka sales in Pennsylvania grew three times faster than those of standard vodka last year, fueled in part by new products.

Infusing vodka is the easiest way to impart a particular taste. Steeping almost any food in vodka for a few days, from cherries to ginger to coffee beans, can make a delicious infusion like those featured at Nectar in Berwyn. But this isn’t practical for commercial use; flavors and colors break down over time. Only small-production luxe offerings, like Hangar One’s Kaffir Lime and Van Gogh’s Dutch Chocolate, use a variation on this infusion method. Most others rely on “natural flavorings” — think Froot Loops, not fruit salad.

The modern era of flavored vodka was triggered by Stolichnaya, which released a series of flavors in the ’80s. But it was the launch of Absolut Citron in 1988 that opened the floodgates. Delicious alone or in a classic Lemon Drop at Mount Airy’s North by Northwest, Absolut Citron remains the top-selling flavored vodka in the U.S. two decades later. By 2000, virtually all major vodka brands had expanded into flavors, from industry leader Smirnoff’s popularly priced line of Twists to ritzier imports, like Ketel One’s Citroen. Unlike toasty, oaky whiskies and pungently piney gins, flavorless vodka was a perfect blank slate, allowing added flavors to pop. And the flavored trend is spreading to other white spirits, like rum and tequila.

The range started small, but vodkas now come in as many flavors as Baskin-Robbins. Like lemon, orange is a perennial favorite. Stoli Ohranj appeals to ladies who’d like more “O” in their cosmos upstairs at L’Etage in Queen Village. But new contenders emerge each season, hoping to capitalize on food fashion trends. While raspberry and vanilla were early flavor favorites, black cherry and blueberry have made waves more recently, in drinks like the Red Bull-fueled Cherry Bomb at 105 Social in Manayunk and the blue-tifully balanced Veruca Salt at Alfa off Rittenhouse Square.

The flavor gurus have chosen 2007 to be the year of the pear. Absolut Pears is already turning heads in the succulently rich Pear Drop at Striped Bass on Walnut Street and the tangy pink Peartini at Sullivan’s in King of Prussia. And Grey Goose is in on the pear game; its anxiously awaited La Poire just debuted in Pennsylvania state stores.

Old may consult for some of the businesses she writes about.