A guide to made-In-Pittsburgh vodkas

A look a three locally made vodkas and some of the best snacks to accompany the sipping

by Wes Shonk
December 8, 2020

VODKA, AN OVERVIEW

Vodka is an underappreciated spirit. It gets the party started, mixes with everything, but never gets the love. It’s the most widely consumed liquor in the United States, but unlike many other spirits (here’s looking at you, whiskey) it’s rarely enjoyed all by itself. However, in vodka’s historical homelands — countries in Central and Eastern Europe, shots of chilled vodka are customary. To appreciate it that way, the vodka needs to be good.

So what do I look for in a vodka? I try not to get caught up in marketing hype about the number of distillations, complex charcoal filtrations, or fancy packaging. Instead, I look for a vodka that tastes good on its own, with bonus points for bright flavors and a velvety texture. Everybody has different preferences, but I think a good vodka should be naturally sweet, have little-to-no alcoholic burn, and finish without harsh lingering flavors. Some vodkas are made to be completely neutral, and those are the ones that disappear well into mixed drinks. Others are distilled to be the opposite, with signature flavors and texture.

There are two main ingredients in any bottle of 80 proof vodka: ethanol and water. Both of which are mellow and subtle, which means creating notable flavors takes a skilled distiller. For years the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) definition vodka as “neutral spirits … without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” Which is an accurate description, except when you’re tasting different vodkas side-by-side. There has been so much interest in craft vodkas that earlier this year, the TTB updated the definition of vodka to reflect that the spirit can be manufactured with up to two grams per liter of sugar and up to one gram per liter of citric acid,” thus acknowledging that vodkas each have their own unique qualities.

PITTSBURGH VODKAS OF CHARACTER

Fortunately for us, Pittsburgh has several vodkas that are worth drinking on their own. We have a modern-classic potato vodka and two new kids on the block: one from grapes and the other from wheat. Let’s meet them.

Boyd & Blair Vodka / 40% abv / $24.99 / Pennsylvania Pure Distilleries

The OG Pittsburgh vodka, Boyd & Blair is now 10-years-old and is hitting its stride. Co-founder and Master Distiller Barry Young said that the vodka has “really been in the zone for the past five years.” It shows. Fresh off a ranking of the best vodka in the world from the Ultimate Spirits Challenge, Barry said “the goal of Boyd & Blair is to give people a choice: we don’t have to settle for mediocre spirits.” Made from Pennsylvania-grown potatoes and fermented with champagne yeast, this vodka defies the TTB’s insistence on being without distinctive character: it’s thick and viscous, floral, and (dare I say) flavorful. BUY IT

Parking Chair Vodka / 40% abv / $20 / Lawrenceville Distilling Co.

Co-owner and distiller Joe Degroot said they started off with a focus on absinthe and gin, but have been “pleasantly surprised by the popularity” of their vodka. They take a French wheat spirit and run it through a still, keeping only “60-70% of what goes in. Just to make sure that Parking Chair Vodka is a high quality product.” I like it because it’s in line with a classically tasty vodka: clean, soft, and medium-bodied. BUY IT

Kingfly Vodka / 40% abv / $32 / Kingfly Spirits

Though the Limoncello may be their most well-known product, Kingfly has a standout vodka that is distilled from Napa Valley grapes. Sales manager Shawnee Fereydouni said it’s good enough that you can “drink it on its own,” which was music to my ears. She’s right — this spirit has a silky texture and bright, fruity flavors. BUY IT

HOW TO DRINK GOOD VODKA

As the weather gets colder and the daylight hours get shorter, I’m looking for any excuse for a good time. Taking cues from some of Pittsburgh’s Eastern European cultural heritage, here’s how to do it with a bottle of well-made vodka.

Plan an evening with someone in your quarantine bubble — a friend, housemate, family member, or partner. These things are always best with good company. Make sure no one’s got anywhere to be; this is an evening to take your time.

Next, gather your supplies. You’ll need a few things: a bottle of good (local) vodka and some snacks. The snacks are absolutely crucial to a proper European-style vodka drinking session. You’ll want things like a loaf of dark rye sourdough from Five Points Bakery and some butter and dill pickles from Pittsburgh Pickle Company. Smoked fish from Mill Creek Trout Farm can be found at the Bloomfield Saturday Market. Don’t forget cured meats, hard cheeses, and pickled eggs too. These snacks are all friends with vodka.

Get your vodka nice and chilled. I keep mine in the fridge, but some like it straight from the freezer. The cold temperature is going to make it a bit more viscous and taste a little sweeter.

Now for the fun part. Pour you and your companion small shots of chilled vodka. Keep them small so that you can make an evening of it. Toast one another, knock down your half-sized shot, and enjoy the cool, bracing spirit. Munch on those snacks, play some good music, and enjoy the crisp fall weather. Repeat.

PRO TIP: Looking for a vodka cocktail to enjoy during the holidays? Check out Boyd & Blair’s recipe for Fall La La La. Boyd & Blair also offers a line of ready to drink craft cocktails that you can enjoy at home or give as a gift.

📸 Header photo credit: Getty Images

Boyd & Blair Potato Vodka is available in hundreds of Fine Wine & Good Spirits Stores in PA, 43 states nationwide, from boydandblair.com, Pennsylvania Libations, & Soergel Orchards. Look for the line of Boyd & Blair Ready To Drink Craft Cocktails in Pennsylvania stores as well as CA, DC, MD, DE, FL & SC. Looking to spice up your holidays? Check out some cocktail recipes from Boyd & Blair.

Wes Shonk has worked at Hidden Harbor, Butcher & The Rye, and Wigle Whiskey. He is currently developing a cocktail business in Pittsburgh.