The Good Life

Make mine platinum

Finlandia’s luxury vodka opens up a debate about a spirit that’s still largely divorced from tasting notes

I am not given to drinking during the day, far less at a time that’s closer to breakfast than lunch. Yet, it isn’t every day that you get to share a table with the master taster Markku Raittinen, far less a tasting of — vodka! I’m intrigued because — even though I’m no typical vodka drinker – isn’t the whole point of vodka that you’re not supposed to really, really taste anything? 

“And you’re not even American,” Raittinen shakes his head in mock distress, though it’s a lament he’s familiar with. The urban legend that vodka is a drinkable alcoholic beverage that is colourless, odourless, tasteless and without a distinct character, he explains, owes to comparisons with white American whisky in the 1930s or 1940s, which truly was awful. In the absence of any vodka association or platform, the definition has lingered, even though high quality vodkas have moved up the quality and taste scale. While most people still associate vodka with Russia, most premium and leisure vodkas are, in fact, produced elsewhere.

Raittinen is in India to promote luxury vodka Finlandia Platinum. I’m sceptical of “luxury” spirits, which often mean promoting the same wine in a new bottle. Change the packaging, invent a new name, jazz up the bottle — and voila! The team at Finlandia did consider the routine. Finlandia Classic was already considered the purest vodka in the market, how could they go about improving it further? Since they couldn’t make it better, the vote was to make it different.

In India, as around the world, vodka is seen as a mixer, something you adulterate with other spirits and juices to make cocktails, so the quality hasn’t mattered too much. Initially, of course, Smirnoff was rated good enough when you got it from either duty-free or the neighbourhood bootlegger. In recent years, Absolut has become the dominant vodka at duty-free shops, and with its increasing variety of infusions, you can find everything from mandrake, peach to vanilla and chocolate flavours to add to your bar. 

But if there’s one vodka I’ve truly enjoyed, it has to be Grey Goose, a stand-alone that I’ve dared to serve as a post-prandial liqueur. Now, Raittinen set up a test — although he calls it a tasting — for me. He got three vodkas adulterated with water in three unlabelled bottles, and as I sipped, he quizzed me on the tasting notes. (I confess to having used “medicinal” and “surgical” to describe some of the taste.) Mostly, I’m glad to note that I’m pretty clued in, placing Absolut at the bottom of the scale, rooting for Grey Goose, but giving top points to the Finlandia Platinum. 

So sure is Finlandia Platinum of its sovereignty in the luxury space that it’s taken the extremely brave (or foolhardy, depending on your view) route of dispensing with the label altogether. Instead, all it has is a small tag suspended from the neck of the spiffily-designed bottle that carries its name. But what sets the Platinum apart from the Classic version is the ‘softening’ of its crisp flavour over a bed of birch. 

Handcrafted in small batches, the first run has 100,000 individually numbered bottles, of which 1,000 have been made available for sale in India at a retail price of around ₹5,000 a bottle. As for the sweet note that comes from the marriage of barley and birch, if you can’t tell the difference — you deserve your Smirnoff.