The Terroir of Artisan Olives & Craft Vodka

Chopin Vodka has joined together with Losada Olives to pair our exceptional single-ingredient vodkas with craft-produced olives. Losada is a purveyor of artisan Spanish olives. In this article we share some of the complexities involved in pairing vodka with olives and discuss the journey of the olive from the grove to the martini glass.

The simplest pairings are often the hardest to perfect. Combining vodka, olives, brine and ice may seem like a straight-forward task but the devil is in the details. By beginning with high-quality ingredients much of the work is already done. Chopin Vodka distillery specializes in single ingredient craft distillations of vodka. Each vodka has a distinctive flavor profile depending upon the ingredient that is distilled – potato, rye or wheat - and the natural factors that shape the ingredient’s growth.

Losada, like Chopin Vodka, is a family owned company that controls their entire process of production from beginning to end. Their olives also depend upon the elements of nature which produce distinctive flavors in the fruit. It’s because of these similarities, as well as the popularity of pairing olives with vodka, that we’ve decided to explore this topic together. 

Some olive basics
There are several hundred varietals of olives in the world, each with their own flavor profiles. Some olives are better for producing olive oil while others are perfect for eating, and others for pairing with vodka. The color of an olive depends upon its ripeness when it was picked - an olive that is picked young will be green; later, it will become straw yellow, then brown and eventually purple. Although we have become accustomed to thinking about olives in terms of green and black, it is better to associate olive colors with their ripeness when harvested. The black color often found in olives is the result processing methods that darken the fruit.

Wind, rain, sunshine and soil have a great influence on an olive’s flavor. As these natural factors change from year to year, so too do the flavors of the olives. The same is true of well-produced vodka, as vodka is the distilled essence of natural ingredients. As those ingredients change with the forces of nature, so also does the flavor of the vodka, which is why we say that our vodka is influenced by its ‘terroir’.

In large groves, olives are most commonly harvested by shaking the trees. When the tree is shaken then the fruit falls to the ground for collection. Although this is a fast way to harvest the fruit, not all of the olives that fall are ripe, causing the colors/ripeness of picked olives to be inconsistent. Some growers allow nature to decide when the olives is ripe, as the fruit falls to the ground in its own time.

The best way to harvest great olives is to pick them by hand, as this ensures that the olives are of ideal ripeness. Picking fruit by hand is slow, hard work and is costly for olive producers, but it remains the best way for artisan producers, such as Losada, to ensure the highest quality of olives.

When olives are eaten straight from the tree they are very bitter. In order to remove an olive’s bitterness they must be cured – either with lye, brine or by dry curing. Lye is made by filtering water through the ashes of burnt hardwood. After treating olives with lye, they are thoroughly rinsed and then usually placed into a gentle brine. Brining is a technique of preserving food in a salt-water solution. The amount of salt used in the brine depends largely upon the desired flavor of the olive recipe and the process of extracting the bitterness with brine can take as little as three months or as long as a year.

When olives are placed into a brine solution, the sugars in the fruit and wild yeasts on the raw olives naturally begin to ferment. This fermentation can be emphasized or reduced depending upon the producers’ recipe. Fermenting the olives can add a physical sparkle to the finished fruit and also develop the complexity of the flavors. In some cases, vinegar is added to the brine once the fermentation process is complete, such as with Kalamata olives from Greece.

To dry cure raw olives, salt is applied to the fruit and left to dry for up to several months. When the salt draws out the moisture from the olive the bitterness is also extracted. Once cured, the salt is removed and the olives are then preserved with a coating of olive oil. Dry olives have wrinkled skin and have more concentrated, robust flavors.

Blending the perfect vodka-olive cocktail
Why do olives pair so well with vodka? Perhaps the easiest answer is that salt is a flavor enhancer; as olives are often brined, then the salt in the brine elevates the flavors of both the olives and the vodka. However, we could go further to explain how vodka and olives complement each other. Both vodka and olives (most often) go through a process of fermentation, which means that alcohol is produced in the processing of both ingredients. Additionally, olives are rich in oil, and essential oils are very good at transmitting and blending flavor - particularly in alcohol.

The challenge in pairing vodka with olives is to find the balance between the saltiness and flavor of the olives with the flavor profile of the vodka. While bartenders often mix drinks according to measure, a more gastronomic approach to mixing produces better results. Begin by tasting the brine and the olive to determine their saltiness and flavor profiles of each. Then, blend the vodka with the brine, tasting frequently and adjusting the balance as you go. In the end, drop as many olives into the cocktail as you desire.

If making a dirty martini then the brine should replace the vermouth to avoid the competing flavors. A rough ratio of vodka to brine is around three parts vodka to one part brine. A ‘slightly dirty’ martini will have about a ½ part of brine, and a ‘filthy’ martini will have about 1 ½ parts of brine.

Shaking vs. stirring is a matter of preference. Stirring is great if you’ve found a perfect balance between the olive brine and vodka and you want to chill it without changing the balance. Shaking will dilute the cocktail but will also add air and ice. Ice shards can be lovely to drink, air will enliven the flavors and shaking will thoroughly blend the oils in the vodka with those in the brine.

While pairing olives with vodka is a matter of individual preference, we have found a few combinations that we believe work particularly well together. Vodka should be chosen by considering the flavor of the ingredient from which it is made. A sweet, delicate olive will pair nicely with wheat vodka. A more pungent, bold olive can be complimented nicely with the spiciness of rye vodka. While an earthy olive will feel at home in potato vodka.

Chopin Potato Vodka with Losada Gordal Pitted Olives: the meaty texture and savory flavor of this bold olive pairs fantastically with the earthy, creamy flavor of Chopin Potato Vodka.

Chopin Rye Vodka with Losada Aloreña Olives: Aloreña olives are bright, firm and a little acidic – naturally brine-cured and cracked (split open before brining), their flavors shine in the bold spice of Chopin Rye vodka.

Chopin Wheat Vodka with Losada Natural Gordal: because of the slow, natural brining process used in the preparation of these Gordal olives, their delicate flavor compliments the light sweetness of Chopin Wheat vodka.