Review: 9 Rocks Vodka

9 rocks vodka

Black Rock Distillery in Spray, Oregon (population: 160) is the home of 9 Rocks Vodka (aka Nine Rocks Vodka), which is a triple-distilled (from what is unknown), charcoal- and micro-filtered neutral spirit.

Mild on the nose, the vodka offers a gentle medicinality with an undercurrent of marzipan and marshmallow. The body is somewhat sweeter than the nose lets on, with notes of vanilla, more marzipan/almond paste, some citrus (lime, perhaps), and nutmeg on the back end. The finish recalls some of those early medicinal notes again, but here they’re light and dusted with a fine sheen of dark cocoa powder. The denouement is clean and refreshing, quite easygoing on the whole.

9 Rocks may not have a rap icon behind it or feature an etched label featuring a wintry landscape, but it’s just as good as the imported stuff.

A- / $23 / blackrockdistillery.com

Review: Rolling River Vodka

rolling river vodkaRolling River Spirits is a Portland, Oregon distillery producing vodka, gin, and — soon — a whiskey. Today we look at the company’s vodka, which is distilled from winter wheat in a small reflux column still.

Rolling River Vodka is both fruity and floral on the nose, but the body takes things in a different direction: burnt sugar, dark chocolate, and a vegetal, charcoal-laden undertone. This is a strange and incongruous vodka, where the sweeter aromas don’t ever really mesh with the more brooding, powerful body. It’s ultimately difficult to put the whole package together, but the bittersweet, almost tree-bark-laden finish pushes this more toward a curious gin alternative than anything else, at least in my book. Discuss amongst yourselves.

80 proof.

B / $25 / rollingriverspirits.com

Review: Lockhouse Vodka

lockhouse vodkaBuffalo, New York’s first distillery since Prohibition is Lockhouse, and its eponymous Lockhouse Vodka is its first product. (A gin is now also available.) Column-distilled from local grapes, it’s an unusual spirit in the increasingly familiar vodka space.

A pungent nose offers the immediate connotation of a white whiskey, with hospital notes mingled with toasted grains. The body however is a study in cacophony. At first, aromatic notes reminiscent of Muscat or Riesling grapes roll across the tongue, offering a spicy and floral character. This doesn’t linger, however. Those grainy, almost hoary, notes make a rapid return here to the palate, giving the bulk of the body an intense astringency. The finish is earthy and funky when it should be fresh and bracing. An acquired taste, I think.

80 proof.

C+ / $38 / lockhousedistillery.com

Review: Kai Lemongrass Ginger Shochu, Lychee Vodka, and Coconut Pandan Vodka

kai

Vietnam’s only vodka comes from Kai, which distills rice into both vodka and shochu (aka soju — it puts both names on the bottles), in a variety of flavors. Kai (slogan: “Taste the pleasure”) sent us three expressions of its Asian-inspired spirits for our investigation. Thoughts follow.

Kai Lemongrass Ginger Shochu/Soju – Very light and fragrant. The shochu starts with lemony notes and a heavy floral character on the nose. The body is moderately sweet, with plenty more of that flower-meets-citrus character throughout. The ginger kicks up at the end, but it’s more candylike than fresh ginger root. At just 24% alcohol, the spirit is lacking in heft but it makes up for it with that punchy, powerful fragrance. 48 proof. B+ / $30

Kai Lychee Vodka – Milder on the nose than expected, but the body is a fruity and largely authentic recreation of lychee fruit. Similar to, but not as sweet as elderflower, it offers perfumy aromatics and a surprisingly chocolaty finish that creeps up on you in time. Some mild astringency keeps this with one foot solidly in the vodkaverse and firmly away from the world of liqueurs. 70 proof. B+ / $35

Kai Coconut Pandan Vodka – Technically this reads “rice alcohol,” not vodka, but it’s really the same thing (and newer bottles appear to be updated to read vodka). Pandan is a tropical, palm-like tree that bears a fruit with some vanilla characters. The pandan gives this vodka a bit of an edge, turning the straight coconut notes into more of a savory, grilled-coconut affair, the equivalent of the coconut flavor you get in a Thai curry rather than an Almond Joy. More almond-focused than vanilla, it’s got a uniqueness you won’t find in other coconut vodkas, or even most coconut rums. 70 proof. A- / $35

kaivodka.com

Review: Infuse Vodka Peach and Orange Clove

infuse vodka Orange_Clove_sm

We encountered Infuse Vodkas about a year ago, reviewing four members of this unique flavored vodka lineup, each featuring solid botanicals suspended inside the bottle. Today we check out the remaining two vodkas in the lineup — though, unfortunately, they are not my overwhelming favorites of the bunch.

Again, all Infuse Vodkas are flavored not with mystery essences but with dried fruits and spices. Both are 80 proof. Thoughts follow.

Infuse Peach Vodka – The big slices of dried peaches look enticing, but this spirit is just way too medicinal. Suffering from much the same problem as Southern Comfort, Infuse Peach has a raw alcohol overtone to it that the peach notes only serve to enhance, not detract from. Even the peach notes are indistinct and a bit off-putting, more like a vaguely-flavored cough syrup than anything that came from the orchard. C-

Infuse Orange Clove Vodka – Gentle on the nose, almost lemonade-like, with just a hint of baking spice. The body is equally restrained, a layering of easy citrus fruit with clove and some evergreen notes, lending this vodka a quality on the palate that approaches that of many modern gins. The flavor isn’t altogether intense, and the finish is short. It’s pleasant enough as a simple mixer, but it doesn’t really push its component flavors far enough to replace either a solid, citrus-flavored vodka or a fruity gin. B

each $28 / infusevodkas.com

Review: Snow Leopard Vodka

snow leopardThis vodka hails from Poland, where it is six-times distilled from spelt. The beast on the label isn’t just for show: 15 percent of all profits are given directly to snow leopard conservation projects through the Snow Leopard Trust.

I immediately enjoyed this vodka right from the start. The nose is crisp and fresh, bracing with medicinal notes and hinting at dense lemon oil and vanilla extract. The body is racy, alive with punchy astringency but rounded, balanced, and far from gasp-inducing. Some light sweetness — citrus focused — emerges in time, along with a distinct walnut character later on in the game. The finish is almost buttery and brings on more sweetness, but with the appropriate edge — a shining, sparkling spirit that any vodka fan will find just about perfect as a straight sipper. Works well in cocktails also.

80 proof.

A- / $30 / snowleopardvodka.co.uk

Review: Wildwood Spirits Stark Vatten Vodka and Kur Gin

Stark VattenWildwood Spirits is a new craft distillery located in Bothell, Washington. We tasted the company’s first two products, a solid vodka and a uniquely flavored gin. Thoughts follow.

Stark Vatten Vodka – Swedish for “strong water,” made from heirloom, local red winter wheat in a self-proclaimed European style. I think that’s a reasonably fair description. This is a rounded and creamy vodka with mild, vanilla- and cocoa-tinged sweetness. The core however offers modest hospital notes, gentle astringency that isn’t exactly biting but which finishes clean and easy. While a true European vodka would have less sweetness and more of a medicinal kick, this is at least a good entry point to the style. 80 proof. B+ / $29

Kur BottleKur Gin – Essentially made the same way as Stark Vatten, then infused with “classic juniper aromas and flavors with subtle citrus (Seville orange) as well as Douglas Fir and Braeburn apples from Mr. Liedholm’s [the distiller] back yard.” Also in the mix are orris root, fennel seed, and coriander seed. There’s no soft hand with the juniper on this one; it’s a punchy pine bomb from the get go. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the apple notes are intense and vivid — the lively and saucy character like what you get in a young apple brandy, lightly spiced with what come across like pie spices of cinnamon and cloves. The finish is chewy and hangs on the fruit, building caramel notes and tempering the juniper considerably. A very unusual, but worthwhile, gin. 80 proof. B+ / $29

wildwoodspiritsco.com

Review: Oregon Spirit Vodka and Merrylegs Genever

vodka odsTwo more spirits from Oregon Spirits Distillers in Bend, Oregon — these renditions of those two most classic white spirits, vodka and gin. Let’s taste them together!

Oregon Spirit Vodka – Distilled from winter wheat. Very innocuous on the nose, it’s got just some modest hospital notes and a dusting of white grape juice to provide tartness and sweetness. The body is extremely neutral — all vodka is supposed to be flavorless, in theory, but this is one of the most neutral vodkas I’ve ever encountered. No bite. Nothing much at all on the palate aside from just the lightest touch of toffee character to provide a little sweetness on the very end of the finish. If you truly want a flavorless vodka, look no further. 80 proof. A / $25

merrylegsMerrylegs Genever Style Gin – Genever-style gin is distinguished by being a distillate of barley wine, and sure enough Merrylegs stakes its claim on being “authentic” because it is indeed made from a base of 100% malt barley. The infusion bill includes juniper, coriander, star anise, green anise, pink rose, and lemon. The gin is fragrant like a white whiskey, its malt character rising instantly to the forefront. This masks all the botanicals on the nose, but you’ll find them front and center on the palate. The anise character is easily the strongest, giving this gin a light licorice touch up front. At the back end, the coriander makes its presence felt more strongly, with a little kick of sweetness and a licorice candy echo to finish things off. I’m not sure what to think of this product — it’s easy to sip on, but it doesn’t come across much like gin at all. (I get almost no juniper character in it at all.) White licorice whiskey? Starter absinthe? You tell me. 80 proof. B+ / $30

oregonspiritdistillers.com

Review: Ice Fox Vodka

IceFox 750mlThis new vodka is made in Treasure Island, in San Francisco Bay off the coast of the city, where there are probably no foxes and definitely no ice — rather, a portion of profits from the sale of Ice Fox vodka are donated “to protect the shrinking population of the Arctic foxes that inspired the product.”

Triple-distilled from American corn, this is straightforward stuff. The nose is lightly sweet and a touch fruity, but more traditional hospital notes dominate. The palate is fairly harmless, lightly sweet with milk chocolate notes, a touch of honey, and brown butter. The body is far from overwhelming, just a modest, simple spirit with a short finish that whisks away, leaving behind nothing much at all. Fine for mixing, but not exciting enough for a straight sipper.

Update January 2015: I tried a sample from a different batch of Ice Fox and had moderately different tasting notes, including strong notes of citrus peel and cinnamon bark. Still plenty of hospital character to go around, but with a considerably more rustic, less sweet secondary character. In other words: Your mileage may vary.

80 proof.

B / $20 / icefoxvodka.com

Review: Hanson of Sonoma Organic Vodka

Hanson

Hanson of Sonoma — based in, of course, Sonoma, California — distills its vodkas from the most abundant product around these parts: grapes. Using a massive 50-plate column still, it runs its spirits through seven filtering systems before bottling them in snazzy, artisan-looking bottles (all of which are signed and numbered).

Hanson of Sonoma is sold in six expressions (one straight, five flavored with organic infusions — no syrups or concentrates). We tried five of the six vodkas available — all but the boysenberry version.

All expressions are 80 proof, and all are from batch #0123.

Hanson of Sonoma Vodka – Shockingly fruity. I would have thought this was a flavored vodka, it’s so full of mixed berries — strawberry, blueberry, and hints of citrus. Super light bodied and refreshing, it’s like a distilled pink lemonade. An easy mixing vodka with fruit-centric cocktails. Not a martini vodka. A-

Hanson of Sonoma Mandarin Flavored Vodka – Sweet orange on the nose — the essence of orange Chuckles. The body’s got more grip to it, a medicinal character that overtakes the citrus notes quickly. As the orange fades into the background, a drying, neutral finish takes hold. Fine for your cosmos, I’m sure, but the original, unflavored expression would do the job just as well. B+

Hanson of Sonoma Ginger Flavored Vodka – Very mild ginger on the nose — it could easily be mistaken for lemon or maybe grapefruit. That said, it’s the berry notes of the straight expression of the vodka that come through the clearest, particularly on the palate, though this expression is much drier than the Original. B

Hanson of Sonoma Cucumber Vodka – Another sweeter vodka style, which is a little jarring next to the light cucumber notes here. In fact, the nose has more of a lime zest character to it, while the body is clearer on the vegetal cucumber notes. It eventually comes together on the finish with some crisp spa-water essence, but it’s never distinct enough to merit crafting a cocktail around it. B

Hanson of Sonoma Espresso Flavored Vodka – The big finish always goes to coffee. This is the only non-clear expression of Hanson of Sonoma. Notes of a very dark espresso roast on the nose. The body is pungent, almost bitter with heavily-charred espresso beans. Imagine the darkest, blackest cup of coffee you’ve ever had, then filter that through the lens of a fruity vodka. This one was by far my least favorite expression of the bunch, particularly thanks to its tannic, chalky finish. C-

hansonofsonoma.com