Category Archives: Vodka Week

Vodka Week Finale: Potato Vodka Smackdown! Chopin vs. Vikingfjord

A quick look at any American liquor store’s vodka selection will demonstrate the general lack of fondness for potato vodkas on these shores.  Compared to the myriad grain vodkas on the market here, potato is given little shelf space.  The general consensus (from the Bartender’s admittedly unscientific and anecdotal survey of public opinion) appears to be that potato vodkas are too oily in texture to appeal to the mass market here. Or, as many a drinker of mainstream American beer has said upon trying a proper Trappist ale for the first time, “Eugh.  Too much flavor.”

It’s been a long week here for the Rebel Bartender, with the seemingly endless stream of grain vodkas to try  – enough to determine, at least, that most of her problems with vodka in general are actually problems with grain vodka.  Fortunately, she remembered trying Chopin once and enjoying it; and so it was that she found herself with a bottle of the stuff, getting ready to give it a go.

The difference between Chopin and grain vodkas is clear long before it even reaches your lips.  The nose is less sweet; there’s some vanilla, but it’s much richer and has earthier notes that give a much fuller sense of aroma, forming a surprising contrast for someone used to the thin harshness common to grain vodkas.  But even more distinctive is the taste:  rich and smooth in texture, with very little burn.  Trace notes of sweet spices (nutmeg, even clove) linger in the back of your palate, and the creamy mouth-feel and slightly sweet flavor are very pleasant, almost like tapioca pudding.  And in a martini, the vermouth brings out those earthy and spicy tones while harmonizing with the slight sweetness, creating a truly exceptional drink with almost no work at all.  The $35ish price point is a bit high, but for a classy, impressive, flavorful martini (or even straight shot), it’s hard to beat this vodka.

Initially, Chopin was going to be the only potato option on the list, but a dark horse challenger arrived at the last minute.  One of the fine clerks at Plaza Liquors in Tucson suggested Vikingfjord, a potato vodka out of Finland, saying that it was comparable with Chopin for less than half the price.  The Bartender was skeptical of his claims, but decided to try it out – for $12, it was hardly much of a risk.

The results?  Not bad at all.  Much sweeter than the Chopin, with an immediate strong vanilla flavor (but lacking the harsh vanilla-extract tone of most grain vodkas), and a smooth, buttery texture.  There’s a pleasantly mild burn with perhaps a touch of bitterness in the back of the throat, but a refreshing one.  Vermouth tempers the sweetness some and makes for a richer and fuller flavor, albeit one still very slanted toward the “sweet” end of the spectrum.

Ultimately, the Bartender found it superior to the grain vodkas, but not quite in the same league as the Chopin.  For the price, though, if you’re a fan of the vodka martini, it’s worth having a bottle of this around for everyday.  But do keep some Chopin in reserve for when you want to impress someone.  Or just for days when you feel like dressing up in a tuxedo, putting on some appropriate spy music, and channeling your inner James Bond.

Chopin:  A+

Vikingfjord:  A

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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

Review: Van Gogh Vodka

This vodka was something of a last-minute addition to the lineup.  While the regular bottle retails for around $30, Plaza Liquors had airplane bottles by the register for $1.50 each, which, compared to the nearly $5 cost each of similarly-sized Belvedere and Cîroc bottles, was quite a bargain price.  Additionally, the Bartender had enjoyed their flavored offerings several times before, and was interested to discover whether the straight vodka would hold up in comparison.

Initially, there wasn’t much to impress.  In addition to the cap seeming particularly difficult to open (an anti-drunk measure, perhaps?), the first whiff produced little other than the typical grain-vodka smell, with perhaps a touch more of the medicinal about it than usual.  Once properly poured into a shot glass, however, an orange-rind note came to the forefront, adding a badly-needed touch of intrigue.

Fortunately it’s far smoother on the tongue than the nose might lead one to believe; unfortunately, the flavor could accurately be described as “timid”.  The orange-rind is most prominent in the front of the mouth, with a bit of the typical grain-vodka vanilla extract mid-palate.  The finish is agreeable enough – a bit bitter, spicy, with a subtle cinnamon kick – but so mild that you have to really go looking for it.

The timidity extends to the martini test as well.  The vermouth brought out both the cinnamon and bitter notes, but none of it strongly enough to qualify as particularly distinctive.  The Bartender was about to chalk it up to the “pleasant but uninspiring” category when she got down to the bit by the olive.  Suddenly the flavors fell into place – the bitterness complemented the saltiness of the olive brine, and the orange notes helped balance out both and keep them from becoming overwhelming.

Not the most singular vodka on the market, but not a bad option either.  If you’re a fan of dirty martinis especially, it might be worth trying.  And the bottle’s design is one of the more eye-catching for your liquor shelf.  B-

Review: Cîroc Vodka

Cîroc Vodka, in addition to causing the fastidious blogger to use their copy-paste keys at a higher rate than normal, is something of an outlier in the vodka category.  The bottle claims that it is distilled from snap-frost grapes, which, if the Bartender’s knowledge gained working at a winery serves her well, are the same grapes from which they make ice wine.  Which is to say, they’re grapes left on the vine until the first frost hits, at which point they go crazy making as much sugar as possible.  Shortly thereafter, they’re picked and fermented into high-proof, very sweet wines.  Or, in this case, vodka.

Vodka, cognac, or wine in disguise?There’s not a lot in the nose to betray its unusual character.  A touch of fruitiness in the back of the throat, maybe, but that might just as well be one’s brain responding to the expectations created by seeing “Distilled From Fine French Grapes” on the bottle.  The rest is just a small amount of what the Bartender is starting to think of as “vodka smell” – that slightly-medicinal alcohol odor overlaid with a touch of vanilla extract.

Taste it, though, and suddenly a whole separate, frankly schizophrenic plane of flavors opens up.  On the one hand, there’s the familiar vodka burn (pleasingly so, not overly harsh or strong), but overlaid on that framework is a medley of sweet and fruity notes, almost like you might find in a Gewürztraminer.  It’s not an unpleasant flavor, by any means – the Rebel Spouse even liked it, unusual for him and straight spirits – but it’s not at all what one tends to think of when they imagine “vodka”.  Really, it’s quite appropriate that they’ve got Sean “Diddy” Combs advertising the stuff:  it tastes like a remix of two disparate flavors, one that (like many hip-hop remixes) has no right to work as well as it does.

Shaken up in a martini, Cîroc continues to confound expectations.  In every other vodka martini the Bartender has tried, there’s been the vodka flavor and the vermouth flavor, and in particularly good ones, the two flavors blend slightly while still maintaining their distinctiveness.  Cîroc, on the other hand, almost completely disappears – as does the vermouth – combining to form something that’s not bad, but not quite equivalent to the sum of its parts.  Given how palatable the Cîroc is alone, however, the Bartender will declare this the exception to her “dry martinis are pointless” rule.

Ultimately, whether this is worth the $30-$35 price point is going to be a matter of taste – if you’re looking for a good, plain, traditional vodka, this isn’t the right choice for you.  If you’d like to try something a bit different, however, this is well worth your time.  And if you want something to impress your jaded-drinker friends, shake it up bone-dry and garnish with a big fat red grape.  Then sit back and enjoy the expressions on their faces.  A-

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+

Recipe: Vodka Martini

Given that it’s Vodka Week, and given that the Bartender has (until today) been short a set of shot glasses to properly freeze, she has been evaluating each in the next best medium:  the vodka martini.  Not only has it provided a framework within which each spirit can display its talents, but her general preference for gin martinis has assured her ability to simultaneously discern the vermouth from the spirit itself, judge how the two combine (if at all), and also to analyze how the vodka versions stack up in terms of overall flavor.

The vodka martini is perhaps best-known as James Bond’s preferred drink, and as with so many things, Agent 007 knew exactly the right way to do it.  “Ice cold” is your watchphrase here, and as we’ve learned, shaking tends to make a drink colder and slightly more diluted than stirring. Gin martinis are traditionally stirred, true, but a vodka martini both benefits from the additional chill of shaking and bears the dilution far better than its cousin.

One final note:  while the Bartender does not believe in bone-dry Martinis of either sort (what’s the point of making the Martini if there’s no vermouth flavor to complement the spirit?), vodka has a naturally subtler flavor than gin, and therefore works best in a drier setting.  Your ultimate preferred proportions will likely take a few tries to discover, but hey – the trial-and-error is part of the fun!

Vodka Martini

2 oz. high-quality vodka
1/4 oz. dry vermouth

Shake both ingredients with a good handful of ice and strain into chilled cocktail glass.  Garnish with your favorite Martini garnish – lemon twist, olives, cocktail onion, etc.  Bonus points if you manage to come up with a garnish especially appropriate to the vodka brand used.

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)

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”.

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