Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Ketel One Vodka

As Vodka Week approaches its second seven-day span and shows no sign of stopping, some readers might be surprised at the lack of mention of a certain ubiquitously-advertised brand, as a subject or even as a comparison.  There is, in fact, a reason for this, as this particular brand is one that has never failed to disappoint the Bartender, despite the number of variations and ways she has tried it, and she has therefore forsworn spending money on it again, or paying it any attention whatsoever.

That said, other reviewers have described Ketel One as “the vodka {other brand} wishes it was”, and that’s an assessment with which the Bartender will wholeheartedly concur.  The noses are very similar – antiseptic, with maybe a touch of vanilla extract – but there’s a world of difference on the tongue.  The Brand Which Shall Not Be Named inevitably serves up a harsh, one-note medicinal character with an unpleasant burn going down.  Ketel One, while still possessing a touch of that medicinal burn, is significantly more complex – the immediate lemon-rind flavor gives way to a slight richness mid-palate and an almost peppery finish.

As for the martini test, K-1 (as it should be referred to in hip ‘n’ swingin’ circles, if it isn’t already) proves itself perfectly competent.  The harshness is muted some by the cold, mostly leaving the lemon/pepper combination with a touch of creaminess that complements the vermouth nicely.  Nothing to amaze and delight the seasoned drinker, but perfectly palatable and with a nice selection of tasting notes to savor.  For a spirit that regularly retails around $20-$25, it’s a surprisingly decent showing.  B+

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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)

Review: Jim Beam & Jim Beam Black

“This tastes like feeling sorry for yourself.”

Such was the Rebel Spouse’s pronouncement upon trying bourbon for the first time, in the form of Jim Beam Black.  And the Bartender couldn’t help but agree with him.  Strongly oaky and slightly sour, the stuff burns its way down your throat, especially if you’re not steeled for it.  But then, after leaving that streak of liquid fire down your trachea, it hits the pit of your stomach, lighting a warm and oddly comforting little fire there.  Not at all unlike the quasi-masturbatory experience of self-flagellation, where the pain of wallowing in your own mistakes and their consequences gives way to the empty but oddly sweet sense of having cried oneself out, and being ready to face the coming day.  Is it any wonder Humphrey Bogart serves the stuff straight up at his personal pity party?

The classic, white-label Jim Beam was actually the Bartender’s first experience with hard liquor, thanks to her teetotaling mother nonetheless having a couple of airplane bottles on hand with which to make bourbon cakes.  It’s not as awful as you might expect from its price and ubiquity, either.  The nose is not particularly complex, but oaky and slightly sweet.  As for the taste, while there’s definitely some harshness (especially for the whiskey-uninitiated), the flavor is an oddly compelling mix of sweet-sourness.  And then, of course, there’s the signature (and disconcertingly pleasant) bourbon burn.  If anything, its biggest liability is its simplicity.  It’s just not very interesting on its own – quite good in a mixed drink, but not something you properly savor and appreciate singly.  That said, at an average of $15 a bottle, it’s hard to argue with as a bar staple.

Jim Beam Black, on the other hand, has a little more character to it.  Its claim to fame is the extra time barrel-aging – eight years instead of four – and the oakiness definitely comes through on the nose.  It also has a noticeably stronger burn, even more than the extra 6 proof on the label would indicate.  Strangely, though, the extra character all but disappears when mixed; the Bartender made up Whiskey Sours with each to compare, and the only real difference with the Black was a slightly more complex finish.  This is possibly the ultimate drink for the aforementioned pity parties; it’s also good paired with particularly sweet and rich foods, such as spice cake with cream cheese frosting.  And for only a few dollars more than the regular Jim Beam, it’s almost worth stocking this instead for its versatility – drink it on the rocks when you’re not feeling particularly fancy, or shake it up for a perfectly decent whiskey sour.

The Bottom Line:

Jim Beam: Good for cooking or mixing, but plain on its own.  B

Jim Beam Black: Perfectly decent straight, but not so pricey you’ll regret mixing it – a rare combo.  A-

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