That was the first thing that hit me when I took the sniff of Hophead Vodka, Anchor Distilling’s highly talked-about spin on the classic spirit.
Hophead doesn’t smell like cigarettes, though. It just reminds me of them. The hops-infused vodka smells exactly like what it proclaims on the bottle — hops and vodka — and there’s something about that combination that makes my mind run back to many a dive bar I’d encountered before everyone started banning smoking in them.
Hophead is “Hop Vodka,” or “Vodka with hops,” both noted on the label. What’s that? It’s flavored with hops in the same way that gin is flavored with juniper, as a botanical used as an infusion during the production process rather than as a vial of “hops flavoring” that’s poured into the vodka before it’s bottled. It may still be a flavored vodka (which gin is too), but it’s clearly done in an artisanal way that San Francisco’s Anchor can be proud of and call unique.
This is weird stuff. Pushing past my mental connection with quarter beer night, Hophead offers something I can’t say I’ve encountered elsewhere. It is aromatic and spicy, but incredibly hoppy underneath. Think about a big IPA, with its bracing power, lip-curling bitterness, and hop-fueled finish. Now up it to 90 proof and pull out all the body — the residual sweetness and the creaminess, and most of the bitterness, too. You’re drinking Hophead Vodka.
Alternately, imagine a white whiskey without that funky, raw grain character. In a world of barely drinkable white dog, Hophead is offering something different.
With its hot finish and a nod to the bitterness of the hops, Hophead concludes on a confusing and discordant note. It is at once off-putting and inviting. I keep wanting to sample it again if only to figure out its mysteries, or maybe to understand why anyone would do this to a poor hop bud. And yet I don’t feel like I need to explore Hophead in extreme depth. Ultimately, I fear I’m no closer to figuring it out, although I do see Hophead having a home in the liquor cabinets of both beer nuts and vodka fans looking for something extremely exotic to play with.
No idea what they are going to do with it.