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Know Thy Vodka

In conversation with a master taster 

Vodka authority Markku Raittinen, the global brand ambassador and master taster for Finlandia, has traveled from his native Finland to 55 countries during his nearly 20-year stint with the brand, which is a consistent medalist in the annual San Francisco World Spirits Competition. He stopped in San Francisco during his recent West Coast tour and took the time to educate us on his spirit of choice and its appeal in our city.

SF Mag: Finlandia just took home four medals in a prestigious San Francisco spirits competition. What is your opinion of these types of contests?
Raittinen: A lot of people consider all well-known premium vodkas equal, but there are differences. Winning awards and competitions has helped set us apart from the crowd. We have a lot of respect for the results because the judging is strictly blind. I’m judging vodka in the International Spirits Challenge in London for the second time this year, and I won’t know which one is Finlandia.

SF Mag: What else distinguishes Finlandia from other vodkas?
Raittinen: It’s proven to be the purest vodka. Where other brands now use sexy materials like lava stone, silver sand, and diamond dust to filter, we have no need for filtration due to the quality of our distillation. We don’t treat the water. We leave it as it is: glacial water from ice age springs.
     We’re also the number one imported premium in the vodka belt—in countries such as Poland, Russia, Hungary, and Ukraine. That says something.

SF Mag: What is it like representing your vodka in San Francisco?
Raittinen: The education level here really sets it apart. People take their food and drink seriously. They’re curious and want to learn. And if they like what they taste, they’ll be loyal. 

SF Mag: How does your product appeal to San Franciscans?
Raittinen: It’s design conscious. The bottle is always being updated. It's inspired by ice, which is constantly changing—melting, growing, shifting. The first bottle designer was Tapio Wirkkala in 1970, and Harri Koskinen designed the second bottle. He and Kenneth Hirst collaborated on the latest one.
     We also have true progressive environmental values. The barley fibers that we use are separated for reuse in the food industry, and all the carbon dioxide produced is caught and concentrated to sell to the soda industry. The distilled mash is high in protein and sold to farmers for feed.

SF Mag: What’s your favorite Finlandia cocktail?
Raittinen: I’m a true Finn (lifts his cranberry flavored vodka and ice). People hesitate to order vodka on the rocks, but you order a Jack on the rocks, so why not? And the purity makes it perfect for martinis where now the addition of fresh herbs and infusions are popular.
     Another great drink is the vodka crush, made with fresh squeezed fruit, such as grapefruit or strawberries, with Sprite, triple sec, and crushed ice. The crush concept makes for easy variations with seasonal fruit. The agricultural bounty you have in San Francisco year-round pairs perfectly with Finlandia. You don’t have to import oranges like we do in Finland.

Where to drink Finlandia in San Francisco: The Blue Light, Blondie’s, Yoshi’s, Bistro Boudin, Rosa Mexicano, and Palomino.