Travel retail/Duty Free has proven to be a really good testing ground for major brands. Due to its inherently limited nature, brands are able to more easily stretch outside their comfort zone without worrying too much about the impact a potential misstep may have on their brand. Most travel retail offerings never go beyond the shelves of major airports, while a select few, like Jack Daniels Sinatra Select, do graduate and go on to become national products.
Absolut Vodka is well known for its unique and creative range of special travel retail offerings. In 2013, Absolut Vodka debuted Absolut Amber, an oak flavored vodka exclusive for travel retail. The concept of an oak flavored or oak aged vodka was not new. Oak aged (rye) vodka is a traditional spirit in Poland and Lithuania, and is referred to as starka. A number of craft distillers have successfully experimented with starka releases, including most notably Bull Run Distillery, whose starka is among the best we’ve tasted.
Even though it wasn’t something completely new, Absolut Amber was important, because it represented one of the first major brands to seriously put their toe in the oaky vodka waters. Absolut Amber never really found its way very far outside of travel retail, and our impressions of it weren’t exactly positive. When Absolut Amber faded into the sunset, we thought it would be the end of the story. But the story for oaked vodka isn’t over yet!
Absolut has returned to the oak flavored vodka space, armed with learnings from their Absolut Amber release, with a new offering entitled Oak by Absolut. Oak by Absolut is technically labeled as “oak infused vodka/vodka/vodka rested in oak barrels.” It’s an odd and interesting classification which basically means that Absolut has blended vodka flavored by oak chips with vodka and then used oak barrels to “rest” it in.
Oak by Absolut (40% ABV, $25) – dark gold in color, this vodka looks on par with some of the light whiskies on the market. It’s important to note that the bottle for Oak by Absolut is covered in an amber-colored film, making it look much darker in the bottle than in the glass. It’s a clever marketing move which, on the store shelf or back bar, makes this vodka easily sit side by side some of the deeper aged American whiskies on the market and match color.
As you’d expect from a product called “Oak”, the nose for Absolut Oak is centered around oak with both toasted and charred oak. The oak on the nose has a distinct split wood, or wood chip, quality to it. Underneath the oak is caramel, and it combines with the char note to read as slightly burnt caramel. Absolut’s signature wheat grain is also clearly there in the equation and there’s a slight citrus edge in the mix to remind you that indeed the base of this spirit is vodka. Everything comes together to create an interesting and inviting nose.
The entry for Oak by Absolut is a lot softer than the nose would suggest, with soft wheat, vanilla, caramel, and a touch of black pepper. As with many of Absolut’s products, the mouthfeel is very pleasant, soft and round. Moving toward the midpalate, the black pepper intensifies and is joined by strong oak. The combination here of caramel, wheat, black pepper, and oak is really pleasant, and it delivers on the promise of an oak-flavored vodka.
In the midpalate the focus shifts strongly towards the oak and black pepper. There’s a fairly pronounced pepper kick with some solid intensity of oak. Unfortunately, the ramping up of the oak also means an intensification of oak tannins. The relationship between oak and spirit is a complicated one: oak has the ability to mitigate issues in a spirit and a spirit has the ability to draw out and process some of the better elements of wood. To do this, you really need the right oak and time.
As with Absolut Amber, Absolut has used oak chips to flavor their vodka. Oak chips expose a fairly large amount of surface area of the wood to the spirit, making the transfer between the two happen much faster. The problem with this is that the core of an oak stave has a very tannic “red layer” which needs to be absorbed, digested, and oxidized. When you throw chips into spirit you get a rush of these tannins. These tannins are also why good oak casks are made from staves which have been yard dried for several seasons. Put simply, oak chips will never give you the quality and integration of oak flavor that a good cask and time can.
In Oak by Absolut, these oak chips give a level of tannins which take something that was fairly pleasant in the entry and transform it into something that’s too tannic and dry. Although the midpalate is off the mark, things recover a bit on the finish, where the tannic oak dissipates in favor of black pepper and caramel, however bitter tannic oak lingers on the palate long after this spirit has gone.
We have to admire Absolut for giving the oak-flavored vodka another stab. Oak by Absolut is an improvement over Absolut Amber, as it does hold on tighter to the core of the Absolut Vodka flavor experience. Oak by Absolut was rested in casks which has helped the integration of flavors, but it still relies on oak chips for its flavor, and like a car with a flat tire, oak chips can only get you so far.
While Oak by Absolut may not radically change the face of the vodka market, it could be a very important entry. The thirst for oak in spirits has only increased since 2013 and there is surely a segment of the population drinking American whiskey who could be wooed over to a lighter oak vodka. The question is, what can an oak-flavored vodka deliver that a lighter style Canadian whisky can’t? 78 Points