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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

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+

Review: Ketel One Oranje

Back when the Rebel Bartender was a teenager growing up with a teetotaling mother, her few experiences with alcohol came entirely from what she could filch from the kitchen.  Teetotaler her mother may have been, but she was also a fine cook, and a moral stance against alcohol was no reason to compromise the quality of a bourbon cake with imitation spirits (hello, Jim Beam!). And of those experiences, the one that stands out most vividly was trying pure orange extract – largely because the stuff was nearly 80% alcohol (hello, scalded sinuses!).

Ketel One Oranje reminds the Bartender quite a bit of that experience, although fortunately without the deleterious effects on mucous membranes.  The nose is almost completely sweet orange, with a bit of alcohol vapor in the back of the throat; the taste is an odd but pleasant sweet-bitter combination of orange juice and orange peel.  And really, that’s all there is to it.

It may come as a surprise to the newly rebellious, but orange is a tricky flavor in mixology.  Straight orange juice tends to overpower everything else in the drink with some alacrity – there’s a reason you rarely see it outside of screwdrivers.  Triple sec, on the other hand, is usually used as an accent, and therefore tends to be fairly weak.  Ketel One Oranje, whatever it lacks in complexity, does fill that middle ground nicely – you can use it to add a distinct orange note without steamrollering the other flavors.  And if you happen to be making chocolate-chip cookies or a buttercream frosting, might the Bartender recommend tossing an ounce or two of this in the mix?  A-

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

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: 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: 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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