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Vodka meets Veuve

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Vodka marketing reminds me of one of those early Saturday Night Live parody ads. Anybody out there remember the first season?

The commercial features a razor with - absurdly back then - three blades. It was a send-up of Gillette's then-novel twin-blade shaver. The tagline: "Because you'll believe anything."

Eerily anticipating the era of Schick Quattros and five-blade Gillette Fusions, SNL in 2000 aired a sequel featuring the "Platinum Mach 14," equipped with you-know-how-many blades.

In the world of vodka marketing today, it's all about distillation overkill. The more cycles through the flavour-stripping still, the better. The current overachiever would appear to be IS Vodka, distilled seven times for unparalleled flavourlessness. Scotch, incidentally, is distilled just twice.

So, now I'm gratified to see vodka moving in the other direction, proudly taking on an extraneous chemical: carbon dioxide.

Make room for Camitz Sparkling Vodka ($43.95 in Ontario), a Swedish brand to be launched at the retail level next week in Ontario. Packaged in a clear, champagne-style bottle with mushroom-shaped cork, the drink can be sipped on its own but bartenders are finding it gives a lively lift to short cocktails without having to dilute with soda.

"Basically, we switched out our old vodka for Camitz in our house martini," says Minh Nguyen, floor manager at Sho-Dan, a sushi bar in Montreal.

Mr. Nguyen, who began carrying the brand a year ago, says he has quietly swapped Camitz for regular stuff in just about every other martini, finding that many customers react favourably without being able to put their finger on why. "It's just more refreshing, that's the way I would put it, just because of the bubbles."

Camitz, first launched in select markets including Quebec in 2007, was developed not by distillers but by self-described inventor Peter Camitz and commercial film director Mattias Lindberger. Though they claim to have originated the bubbly vodka concept, at least one competing brand, O2 from English Distillers, would dispute that.

English Distillers patented the product in 2003. But O2's conspicuous drawback, at least to my mind, is packaging. It comes in a standard Grey Goose-style frosted bottle and is topped with a screw cap. Camitz is squarely aimed at the fashion-forward flock that frequents nightclubs featuring champagne-bucket bottle service. It even comes with a resealable champagne stopper to replace the original cork.

The natural-source carbonation is filtered to be the cleanest gas of its kind in the world, the company claims, while the wheat-based spirit itself is filtered five times and made with water from underground springs in Sweden.

I'm not certain purity is the big sell here. But against all expectation, I like the product, which is not as wacky as it sounds on paper. There's just enough fine carbonation; not as frothy as a Coke. On first impression, the taste is mild, disguising the 40-per-cent alcohol. Then it turns spicy, warm and vaguely sweet. I could see it pairing nicely with caviar in a vodka-meets-Veuve kind of way. And I could see cosmo drinkers leaping all over it like the media on a White House puppy.

Though it's possible to substitute Camitz for regular flat vodka in most applications, there's one place it can't go: the freezer. The cork will lose elasticity.

Mr. Lindberger says the bubbles should last several days in the fridge if the bottle is more than half full. If it goes flat, it "will just become a regular vodka," Mr. Nguyen says. "You can use in bloody Caesar."

Camitz will be joined by seven other luxury vodka brands as part of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario's semi-annual Premium Fixture spirits program. Most are new to the province and some are available in other provinces.

One of the more compelling items, to my taste, is Eight Below Luxury Vodka from Grimsby, Ont. ($44.95). Made by one of this country's great distillers, John Hall - the man behind the excellent Forty Creek line of Canadian whiskies as well as Kittling Ridge winery - it's infused with a whisper of icewine, which contributes more in the way of luscious texture than grapy flavour. This is essentially a dry vodka. For those who like to keep track, it's distilled four times.

Though the product is new, Mr. Hall has been making vodka for years. He's also the guy behind Prince Igor, one of the top-selling brands in Ontario.

Eight Below, which just won gold in the flavoured-vodka category at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, takes its name from the temperature at which icewine grapes are harvested and at which Kittling Ridge ice-filters its vodka.

I'm confident the big luxury vodka in Ontario this season will be Prairie Organic Vodka ($34.95 in Ont.; $39.99 in B.C.) from Minnesota. New to Ontario, it's been a runaway success in other markets.

Certified kosher as well as organic, it's distilled between four and six times, depending on what the distiller feels each batch needs. Corn-based, it tastes robust and spicy. Not my favourite, but the eco-friendly marketing angle is very much on trend.

My top pick of the Ontario release, by a mile, is Tito's Handmade Vodka from Austin, Tex. ($32). Available for the first time as part of the premium spirits feature, it's distilled six times and filtered through activated charcoal, like Jack Daniel's. Made at the first legal distillery in Texas, the brand was started in the mid-1990s by a former oilman by the name of - I'm not kidding - Tito Beveridge.

Press accolades for his corn-based spirit have been pouring in since he took the unanimous judges' choice award, the double gold, at the 2001 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. The Wall Street Journal called the product "America's first craft-sippin' vodka," an allusion to a more conventional southern U.S. beverage, bourbon. Soft, light, slightly sweet and round, it is vodka smoothness cranked to 11, as good as anything made from Swedish spring water, Iceland glaciers or Polish potatoes.

Texas vodka. Sounds like fodder for a Saturday Night Live parody.

bcrosariol@globeandmail.com

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