Henry McIntosh discovers how Belvedere is transforming and elevating the perception of vodka during a recent trip to Poland
Gdansk is a beautiful city. Located on Poland’s Baltic coast with the Motlawa river meandering through the centre, it’s a fitting place to begin a journey with Belvedere Vodka. In Poland, they say that ‘water breathes life into vodka’, so there are few better places to appreciate one of the finest incarnations of the spirit than Gdansk.
Stood on the roof of the Hilton, observing the serenity of the Motlawa and the bustle of the Long Market below, it’s easy to note the locations synergy with Belvedere’s own name, too. Coming from the Italian ‘bella vedere’ or the beautiful view, it’s apparent that Gdansk wasn’t chosen by accident.
The intricacy with which the event has been planned is encapsulated by the sumptuous Belvedere cocktails being served as guests enjoy the balmy summer’s eve. Yet vodka hasn’t always enjoyed it this good. The scene in Gdansk is a departure from the traditional view of vodka and just as the Motlawa divides Gdansk, vodka vehemently splits opinion.
This was summarised for me by a top New York bartender who commented that the spirit was the drink of the ‘unsophisticated and uninitiated’.
He wasn’t alone in his assessment either. The New York times reported back in 2014 that vodka was coming in from the cold having been derided as the ‘whipping boy of serious mixologists for years’. Such assertions were only supported by the fact that top bars, such as Death & Company, kept vodka off their menu for the best part of a decade.
Alongside a number of top vodkas, Belvedere has been bucking this trend, by manoeuvring the spirit back into the spotlight. The brand can certainly take a lot of credit for bringing the vodka in from the cold having claimed the coveted gold standard from the ISC Tasting Guide for two years running as well as being rated “outstanding” by the Diffordsguide; a rather strong argument against the notion that vodka is simply a ‘blank palate’.
The cocktails served in Gdansk are the perfect example of this, with fresh, natural flavours championed above all else. This is evident in the Belvedere Citrus Mint Spritz, which was composed of dry vermouth, tonic water, lemon, a sprig of fresh mint and, you guessed it, Belvedere.
Only established in 1993, Belvedere has enjoyed a meteoric rise and their meticulous cultivation of one of the world’s finest spirits is nothing short of remarkable. Nowadays, you will find their spirit in the finest establishments in the world and there’s a good reason for it, too.
Poland in summer is warm and welcoming. Driving out of Gdansk into the picturesque countryside, it’s time to witness the Belvedere process at one of the brand’s agricultural farms where they cultivate the specific strain of rye used to make the vodka. On approach, fields of rye, stretching as far as the eye can see, paint a golden scene.
What separates Belvedere from many competitors is the fact their process is as transparent as their product. Readily aware of consumers ever-increasing demand to know what they are consuming, the brand are being completely transparent about the construction of their vodka.
Priding themselves on the ‘naturalness’ of the product, Belvedere is on a mission to educate drinkers as to what exactly they are ingesting. Naturalness isn’t Belvedere’s way of suggesting their drink is healthy, it’s not. Instead, it’s their drive to help the consumer understand what their drink is made up of. It’s a clever play too, for when you consume Belvedere you aren’t taking in any additives- there are no surplus ingredients and that includes sugar.
Crafting Belvedere vodka entails three elements, according to the brand’s rhetoric: rye, water and character. That’s not barley nor potato, it’s rye and only one specific type of rye too. Known as Dankowskie Rye, Belvedere’s select strain is cultivated within seven to ten trusted, partner agricultural farms; allowing them to ensure only Dankowskie Rye is used in the process.
Alongside the Dankowskie Rye Belvedere claim their ‘water’ and ‘character’ are what make their vodka so unique. “Water breathes life into vodka” and Belvedere’s source is artesian wells dating back 12,500 years. A process of reverse osmosis purifies the water and ensures it doesn’t impact the taste or flavour of the final product and this ‘softness’ elevates the rich flavour of the rye to help create Belvedere’s iconic taste.
Traversing back through the Polish countryside and onto the capital, Warsaw, the origins of the Belvedere name in Poland are explained in more depth. In the 17th century, an Italian princess left her homeland to wed a Polish prince. Not unfamiliar with the finer things in life, the princess was taken to a white building when she arrived in Poland. Stepping onto the veranda she took in the picturesque view and uttered the words “bella vedere”. Upon hearing the princess the prince renamed the building to its current moniker, The Belvedere Palace.
The palace is the building that sits triumphantly on a Belvedere bottle. Yet, unlike its namesake, there’s not much to see when you observe vodka in a glass. It is, of course, completely clear and even the fruit-flavoured distillations carry no colour despite the complexity of their taste.
Staying true to the brand’s principles, Belvedere’s fruit-flavoured distillations such as Citrus and Wild Berry are created using real-fruit via a process named maceration, whereby the fruit or flower oils are extracted by soaking them in alcohol before redistilling. The stunning flavours of the macerations are beautiful neat or mixed into a cocktail.
There’s a lot to love about Belvedere, alongside the prestigious awards and their pursuit of ‘naturalness’ there’s a poignant message of social responsibility permeating the brand’s actions. This is readily apparent through their partnership with RED, a charity established by Bono and Bobby Shiver aimed at accomplishing an ‘Aids free’ generation. For their part, Belvedere produced a special edition ‘RED’ bottle each year, with 50% of the profits going to the charity.
Is it an overstatement to suggest Belvedere have revolutionised the spirits industry? Maybe, but it’s not a stretch to note that they have and continue to change the perception of vodka. Their avid attention to social responsibility and continuing refinement of an already spectacular product it’s easy to get the sense the recent achievements of the brand are just the start of Belvedere bringing vodka in from the cold.
Venturing to Warsaw’s iconic Bristol Hotel, the journey with Belvedere is drawing to a close. To ensure there’s no doubt about the quality of the product it’s time to taste martinis. After partnering with the 2015 Blockbuster Spectre, Belvedere is now the vodka that goes into 007’s favourite drink and, after this experience, it might just be mine, too.
Sitting in the Bristol’s luxurious confines, sipping martinis, feeling sophisticated and initiated in the finer things in life, it seems Bond has particularly good taste nowadays. So the next time you are in a bar stylish enough to serve the spirit, order a 6:1 Belvedere Unfiltered to Vermouth, shaken not stirred.
Belvedere: Where & How
Belvedere Spritz Recipe
30ml Belvedere Unfiltered
30ml Lillet Blanc
70ml Fever Tree Tonic Water
70ml Fever Tree Soda Water
2 Grapefruit Slices
1 Sprig of Thyme
Combine Belvedere and Lillet Blanc in a spritz glass filled with ice, stir the ingredients. Top with Fever Tree Tonic and Soda water, garnish with the grapefruit slices and thyme.
A voyage of discovery with Belvedere