Wednesday 21 May 2014

A little vodka alchemy from U'Luvka

Apparently this is what a balance of male and female looks like
My sister is a Human Resources type. Nowadays she is freelance, but she used to work for a “wealth management” company. Clearly anyone above a certain level in the business was assumed to have wealth of their own that needed management, and they would regularly receive presentations from people with investment opportunities to offer. One such was a new vodka brand called U’Luvka. You’ve probably heard of it now but at the time it was a bold new concept. I’m not sure why there was a feverish belief that it was a surefire money-spinner but, several years down the road, I spotted a bottle in my local Sainsbury’s, marked down from £35 to £30 (I think it was nearer £42 originally). Needless to say, curiosity got the better of me and I bought one of these oddly-shaped bottles to find out what the fuss is all about.

The bottle was, I believe, one of the selling points; the brand owners clearly believe no one could resist its charms. Personally I find it really annoying—at 14½ inches too tall to fit on a normal shelf, poorly balanced for pouring, etc. And I don’t know what it is saying about the vodka—it’s like a giant crystal sperm.

I tend to be suspicious of any “ultrapremium” vodka, as clearly there is a lot of marketing bollocks going on to make up for the fact that vodka doesn’t taste of that much. (And I assume that vodka rather lends itself to this kind of marketing, as the sort of person who is won over by it probably doesn’t like booze that much and might be upset by something really flavourful.) I actually dislike Grey Goose, as it tastes unpleasantly sweetened to me.

High-end vodka usually ends up trading either on provenance or on notions of “purity”. (In fact producing 96% pure alcohol and diluting it with distilled water is relatively easy, but most punters probably wouldn’t like the taste of it; I gather that most of the fancy filtration techniques used on vodka are more about nudging the flavour one way or another.) U’Luvka is made in Poland and the back story concerns a 16th-century chemist and alchemist named Sendivogius (Michał Sędziwój) who distilled a vodka for the court of King Sigismund III. Apparently the court’s habit of constantly offering toasts of vodka meant that they were plagued with permanent hangovers from the rough spirit: Sendivogius was commissioned to distil something purer, thus freeing the court to carry on quaffing while still being in a condition to carry on affairs of state. Of course, while darker spirits, red wine, port, etc., do contain congeners that might make you feel rougher, if you drink enough of any booze you will get a hangover, however “pure” it might be. And I can’t imagine that a court that is permanently drunk is going to be any more competent to govern than one that is permanently hung over! Anyway, U’Luvka claims—in a vague sort of way—to be a rediscovery of this recipe.

Sendivogius: no longer involved in the production of U'Luvka
It is made at a distillery outside Wroclaw from a blend of 50% rye, 25% wheat and 25% barley grown in the north of Poland. Despite the blarney about purity, the vodka is deliberately filtered only twice to retain a certain amount of character. The packaging is apparently all about alchemy, embodying the balance of opposites: the bottle is meant to combine female (the rounded body) and male (the tall—if inexplicably crooked—neck). The symbol on the front merges the alchemical glyphs for spirit, soul, man and woman, thus presumably celebrating alcohol’s ancient transformative power to get men and women together (something they possibly regret the next morning once the spirit has worn off). Even the suggested cocktails on the website all have names relating to alchemy.

For all this guff, I can report that fortunately U’Luvka isn’t bad at all. For me the nose has a striking aniseed/caraway character, presumably from the rye, essentially fresh and vibrant, with an orange zestiness and a cereal note. On the tongue it is very smooth, creamily approachable and with an impression of icing-sugar sweetness, yet without actually being cloying at all. It is subtle and poised, but with some balanced complexities, whispers of wood, rubber and pineapple. It retains these qualities in a vodka Gimlet or vodka Martini, and does indeed make good examples of these cocktails.

I grab a few other vodkas for comparative purposes—Ketel One, Chase and Russian Standard. Ketel One has the most similar character, though with a slightly richer mouthfeel and darker notes of chocolate and a hint of strawberry. Chase has a woodier nose and is very plump in the mouth and has a darker balance than the bright U’Luvka. Russian Standard is admittedly outclassed here, coming across as a rougher spirit.

I like U’Luvka, but would I buy it again? Probably not. For me Ketel One offers a pretty similar experience for about £10 a bottle less (and a more practical bottle design at that), while for the same money as U’Luvka Chase offers a more sumptuous presence if you are planning to sip it neat.

One mystery is the name. Unless I’ve missed it, nowhere on the website do they explain it, though elsewhere online I’ve found an explanation that it means “legless” in Polish, referring to the vodka toasting glasses used in Sigismund’s day that had no bases and so could not be put down until empty. Legless indeed…

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