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Review: Kirkland Signature Vodka (or, Is It Or Is It Not Grey Goose?)

There’s just no possible way to write a decently comprehensive piece about Kirkland Signature’s bowling-pin-sized vodka offering without addressing the rumor that swirls around it – is it repackaged Grey Goose?  Every Costco representative I’ve talked to about the stuff has at least mentioned the rumor, as have many of the people who have seen one of the bottles near my liquor shelf (usually it’s too tall to go with the rest and demands special display).  Google was no help, as there were no substantiated claims either way, just a lot of arguing back and forth.  The most likely theory the Bartender found was that KS had bought an old Grey Goose distillery and was using water from the same river in France to produce it, but again, it was presented without any evidence.

While taste tests are always going to be somewhat subjective, it seems likely that comparing two products for objective similarities and differences should be far easier to do with accuracy than simply trying a single spirit and giving it a rating.  Additionally, the Bartender cites her above-average depth of experience with vodka-tasting, as well as her lukewarm reaction to Goose from the fancy frosted bottle, as qualifications to make the call.

So, are they the same thing?  Drumroll, please…

No.  No, they are not.  And in the Bartender’s opinion, the Kirkland Signature is superior.

The rumor’s foundation is certainly easy enough to see.  Nearly identical on the nose and tongue (slightly vanilla-y, slightly sweet, very smooth) it’s not until the finish where the two really differentiate themselves.  As previously noted, Goose just sort of fades off into a very mild burn with no real standout flavors.  Kirkland, on the other hand, is far more distinctive:  a slightly more noticeable burn and notes of charcoal and olive that might lend themselves well to a martini.

Impressive as the Kirkland vodka is, however, the best thing about it might be its price – assuming you already have the Costco membership, you can get a 1.75 L handle of it for $27, less than a single 750 mL fifth of Goose costs.  This makes it only a little more expensive than many mid-shelf vodkas, and it completely lacks the bitter finish of those offerings, which makes it simultaneously a fantastic straight vodka and an excellent mixer.  Wrap that up with the fact that the bottle practically doubles as a cricket bat or home-defense weapon, and how can you say no?  A++ with cherries on top

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Review: Grey Goose Vodka

Any discussion or appraisal of American vodka consumption, for better or for worse, has to start with Grey Goose.  Quite possibly the most-recognizable premium vodka on the market, they’re rumored to be the “most-named” vodka in American bars as well (as in, people order a “Grey Goose and tonic” rather than a “vodka and tonic”).  How, exactly, one could measure such a quality outside of anecdotal experience is never quite clarified, but there’s no denying the stuff has a particular cachet.  And give credit where credit is due – that upscale image is hardly hurt by the pretty frosted glass bottle, nor (the Bartender is certain) their savvy marketing campaign.  But they say it’s not the looks but the inside that counts, so…what of the spirit within?

Honestly, the word that came to the Bartender’s mind when she poured her first taste of Grey Goose was “impressive”.  Not in the sense that there’s anything that stands out about it, but (in fact) the exact opposite.  Neutral though it may be in drinks, vodka is pretty unmistakable alone – cheaper brands often give off a rubbing-alcohol smell, and even pricier types usually have a touch of that alcoholic harshness.  Grey Goose’s nose is surprisingly light and easy to miss – there’s possibly a touch of vanilla extract, but you really have to go looking for it.

The vanilla is more prominent on the tongue, and especially in the sides and back of the mouth, along with a slight nutty undertone.  And while there’s a bit of the traditional vodka burn as it goes down, it’s nothing particularly harsh or surprising – even a drinking newbie wouldn’t do the sip-cough-splutter routine when trying it.

This all sounds fairly positive, and it is – this vodka is truly impressive in its smooth texture and general unremarkability.  But that very point also turns out to be its biggest liability.  In a vodka martini, the biggest impression it makes is a complete lack of impression; you can taste the slightly-vanilla sweetness and the vermouth, and…that’s pretty much it.  No surprises in the back of the mouth, no real complexity of flavor, nothing really to untangle or savor. And while this may reflect the Bartender’s lack of experience with premium vodkas, it seems that there should be something else there in the flavor – as previously noted, if vodkas were all truly neutral there wouldn’t be much reason to choose one brand over another.

This all makes Grey Goose a bit of an odd duck when it comes to categorization.  It’s not very interesting on its own or even in a drink showcasing it, unless you’re in the mood for something uncomplicated.  Its neutrality might be a plus in a mixed drink, but the $28-$40ish price point doesn’t make it a particularly attractive choice compared to many other, less expensive mixers.  Given its popularity in America, there’s probably an implication here about the corresponding cultural lack of taste, but the Bartender will leave that connection for others to explore.  C+ (B if you can get it on sale)

Recipe: Blushing Duchess

Aside from sounding like an inn in medieval Europe, this is a delightful drink that makes for an excellent summer afternoon pick-me-up (or put-me-down – it may not taste like it, but the Duchess is blushing for a reason!).  It’s also one of the few drinks that needs no extra touches for presentation; a mint sprig would add a nice dash of color if one is feeling particularly ambitious, but otherwise, the drink itself is lovely to behold.

A few notes regarding the ingredients:

  • Turbinado sugar is a type of raw sugar that you can find for obscene prices in the supermarket’s baking aisle, or for quite reasonable prices in bulk at the local co-op or health food store.  (If you’ve ever tried Sugar in the Raw, you know what to look for.)  You can substitute plain white sugar in a pinch, but turbinado has the dual advantage of the superior flavor and prettier presentation.
  • The quality of your grapefruit will make a significant difference here; if you can get it, the Bartender especially recommends fresh Arizona grapefruit due to its soft texture and sweeter flavor.  Be careful, though – the stuff is like citrus crack.  Once you start buying it you may not be able to stop.
  • The recipe is originally from Grey Goose’s website (with, of course, a couple of tweaks); the Bartender discovered it as part of her ongoing campaign to find a drink that makes the stuff worth the $30ish price tag.  Having tried it with both Goose and with Skyy (her standby mixer), she can safely recommend that one use higher-quality vodka in this drink; the grapefruit helps hide the harshness, but Skyy’s bitter flavor still came out strongly.  If you don’t feel like shelling out for Goose, however, something less expensive but still quality like Ketel One would probably do the trick nicely.  Edit, 4/27/11:  Having tried it with Ketel One, the Bartender actually recommends it over Goose for this drink – K-1’s citrus overtones, rather than being overwhelmed as expected, in fact complement the grapefruit beautifully.

And now, the recipe!

Blushing Duchess

Turbinado sugar
3 wedges of grapefruit, peeled/seeded
2 ounces vodka
1 ounce triple sec
Lime wedge

Run the inside of a grapefruit peel around the rim of a rocks glass and coat it with turbinado sugar.  Roll the grapefruit wedges in remaining sugar and put them in the bottom of a shaker; muddle vigorously.  Add vodka, triple sec, and ice; shake, then pour everything (including ice and grapefruit wedges) into the rocks glass.  Squeeze the wedge of lime into the drink and serve!

Recipe: Peartini, Perfected

After the Bartender waved goodbye to the last batch of guests (Rebel Houseguests?), she discovered to her delight that they had left a present on her home bar; specifically, a bottle of Grey Goose La Poire.  This particular spirit had been on her to-try list for a while – pear vodka is fairly unusual – but given its cost and her generally-unimpressed reaction to the classic Goose, it had never quite made it to an actual purchase.  So what better way to try the stuff out than on someone else’s dime?

Fortunately, it’s a much more interesting spirit than plain Grey Goose.  Surprisingly strong and non-sweet for such a fruity spirit, it could add an extra dimension to a number of drinks, and likely wouldn’t need to be used in large quantities to do so.  This Peartini recipe is an exception, designed to complement and show off La Poire’s qualities.  It comes originally from the Grey Goose website, although the Bartender has done a bit of tweaking to get the sweet-sour balance just right – hence the name.

Peartini, Perfected

2 ounces Grey Goose La Poire
1/4 ounce amaretto
3/4 ounce syrup
1/2 ounce lemon juice
1 ripe pear

Shake all (liquid) ingredients and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.  Cut a thin, nearly translucent slice of pear and lay it along the inside of the glass.  Enjoy the rest of the pear with the martini – they’re tasty!

Review: Belvedere Vodka

Vodka Week looks to be stretching itself out to something more resembling a fortnight, but we’ve come nearly to the end of the Bartender’s planned review lineup.  And, much to her relief, this is the final grain vodka she has on the list.

Belvedere, in addition to having the classiest bottle of the bunch (hard to beat neo-Classical architecture for sheer elegance), is also distilled from rye, not wheat, which might account for it having the most distinctive flavor as well.  Unfortunately, it also serves as an excellent example of the dangers of individuality for its own sake, as the flavor in question is a steely, metallic note reminiscent of nothing so much as envelope glue.

Envelope glue?

Yes, envelope glue.  The Bartender couldn’t quite believe it either, but her years as an administrative assistant have left her rather familiar with the flavor, and it dominates Belvedere’s mid-palate.

In all fairness, this is possibly the smoothest vodka of the bunch, with even less burn than Grey Goose.  But the strange flavor combined with an unpleasantly bitter finish (the Rebel Spouse thought it reminiscent of grape seeds) makes it fairly unpalatable when drunk straight.

The taste improves immeasurably in a Martini.  The bitterness recedes into the background, and while the vermouth brings the metallic notes (in all their stationery-adhesive glory) to the forefront, they become oddly refreshing at colder temperatures.  But once again there’s just not that much complexity to the flavor; you get the metallic notes, the slight bitterness, and then that’s pretty much that.

The Bartender applauds the makers for coming up with a slightly different take in an overcrowded category, but given the mixed results and the $30-$35 price point, it’s not something she can recommend except to hardcore vodka fanatics and collectors of pretty bottles.  C

Announcing: Vodka Week*!

Let’s get this out of the way first thing:  The Bartender has never been a vodka drinker.  Oh, she’s used the stuff regularly – it’s practically impossible to earn one’s mixology credentials in America without doing so.  And it’s an absolutely unparalleled choice for giving a bit of alcoholic kick to any juice concoction you might come up with.  What better than a neutral spirit to blend without unbalancing your careful mixing of flavors?

Vodka fandom: superficially familiar, but foreign and a bit confusing...

However, it’s difficult to get far in American cocktail culture without realizing that vodka is far from just a mixer on these shores.  It has encroached on several gin drinks in the form of the vodka martini or vodka-and-tonic; the Bartender once had a spirited discussion with the person at the counter of a dive bar in Alaska who was convinced that a Greyhound consisted of vodka and grapefruit juice.  (This despite the fact that the entire point of a Greyhound, and indeed the reason it has attained “classic drink” status, is the way the gin and grapefruit flavors complement each other, whereas vodka in grapefruit juice tastes like – wait for it – grapefruit juice! Ahem.)  And then there are the die-hard fans who will drink the stuff straight, usually from the freezer.

This certainly explains the myriad brands available on the market – after all, if the stuff were truly tasteless, it wouldn’t much matter whether you used Grey Goose or Svedka – even if it still leaves the source of the attraction mysterious.  However, the Bartender is nothing if not open-minded, and several of her friends who fall into the vodka-drinking camp are planning a visit later this month.  Therefore, now seems like a good time to build up a stock of premium vodkas, experiment with them in vodka-centric cocktails, and generally attempt to gain more familiarity with a particular segment of bartending that she has avoided thus far.

Is vodka, like gin and whiskey, merely an acquired taste?  Will the Bartender discover a well-hidden love for the stuff over the next several days?  Or is she dooming herself to a bleak period of medicinal and depressingly bland cocktails, with only the thought of a good stiff gin martini at the end of it to keep her going?

Stay tuned!  The most thrilling part of our tale is yet to come!

*The Bartender reserves the right to change the actual chronological length of Vodka Week at her discretion, but maintains that “Vodka Week” sounds rather snappier than “Vodka Week-Plus-A-Day-Or-Three” or “Vodka Indeterminate-Diurnal-Period”.

Recipe: Adam & Eve Martini

This recipe comes courtesy of the folks who make the Wild Hibiscus Flowers in Syrup, and it nicely showcases both the aesthetic and flavor-related strengths of their product; so far as the Bartender’s cocktail-learning quest is concerned, it also demonstrated the supreme importance of using good-quality spirits when mixing a drink.  In this instance, she initially thought the drink interesting but a little bitter; when a bit of tinkering with the ingredients failed to produce something more palatable, she set the recipe aside.

Revisiting it some time later and with a far greater vodka selection, the Bartender decided to try making it with Kirkland Signature vodka.  And lo and behold – a drink that had previously been mostly a novelty suddenly became extremely tasty.  (For the record, plain Skyy is rapidly losing its place on her liquor shelf, although their citrus offering is still excellent.)

This is also an excellent example of how an unusual ingredient and a fancy garnish can really dress up a drink.  If you ordered one of these in a nice bar, it’d probably come served by a uniformed attendant with a price tag bordering on the obscene.

Adam & Eve Martini

2 ounces good-quality vodka
3 ounces apple puree (stage 1 baby food works best)
1 ounce Wild Hibiscus syrup
1 hibiscus blossom + maraschino cherry for garnish

Take one hibiscus blossom and stuff it with a maraschino cherry.  Shake the rest of the ingredients with ice, then strain into glass.  Spear the flower/cherry garnish with a chopstick and lay across the top of your cocktail glass.

Review: Kirkland Signature Premium Small Batch Bourbon

Once again, it’s time for we Americans to celebrate the independence of our nation.  Across the US, millions of people are indulging in those quintessentially Statesian traditions of outdoor barbeques, explosives, and alcohol consumption.  Admittedly, the wisdom of combining those last two concepts seems questionable at best, but the Bartender lives in an area recently plagued with wildfires, and has forgone the explosives for this year – thus allowing her to partake of libations freely.  And really, what could be more American than inexpensive and readily-available Kentucky bourbon?

For those unfamiliar with the Kirkland Signature line, it’s the house brand for Costco Wholesale‘s chain of warehouse stores.  It’s also a store brand of surprisingly consistent quality; one of Costco’s big draws is that they accept returns on anything, no questions asked – if you buy something and don’t like it, you can bring it back (and thanks to the membership system, they don’t even require a receipt).  Obviously, this creates an incentive to stock products of good quality, and the Bartender was very impressed by their vodka offering.  Therefore, when she discovered they had started carrying bourbon as well, she was extremely interested in trying it, especially as the Rebel Spouse’s stock of 1792 (his preferred brand) was currently gone.  And if it could stand up to the 1792 in quality, it represented a significant potential savings – $20 for a liter as opposed to $28 for a fifth.

Alas, Kirkland’s first impression was not positive.  At 103 proof, the stuff is extremely hot when drunk straight; what few notes come through the alcohol burn are overpoweringly oaky and sour.  Adding a bit of water, or serving it on the rocks, helps some; the flavors open up, allowing some charcoal and molasses notes through and giving it a bit more complexity.  It does, however, still burn significantly on the way down; this is pity party bourbon of the first degree.

In all fairness, it’s not without its charms – it mixes up into a perfectly decent whiskey sour, and the strong flavor would probably work very well in bourbon lava cakes.  But I wouldn’t really recommend it straight unless you enjoy the sensation of having your taste buds scalded into submission.  C+

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