Review: Score Vodka

score_medium

The grain in Ukraine falls mainly on the vodka producers, one of which is the maker of this new spirit, Score Vodka.

Score is distilled from organic winter wheat, distilled seven times, and run through a “unique milk-based filtration,” which sounds pretty crazy but, hey, it’s Ukraine, amirite?

The vodka itself is clean and very lightly oily, an interesting balance between old world and new world styles. The attack is lightly sweet — cotton candy through a lemonade filter. On the tongue, a little rush of sugar gets things going, then a big, astringent, hospital note hits hard, largely washing all of that sweetness away. The finish arrives quickly and is quite bittersweet, an interesting melding of the two styles that come before it.

One comment must be reserved for the bizarre closure, which is not a traditional screwcap but rather, is a plastic top that, when twisted, causes a controlled-pour spout to emerge directly from the top of the cap. Twist it the other way and the spout descends back down. A little flap of plastic works as a rudimentary cover for the affair (which, improbably, is actually watertight). Wild stuff, but exactly what you’d expect from Eastern Europe, I guess.

80 proof.

B / $NA / scorevodka.com

Review: HKB Baijiu

hkb baiju

Pundits love to pontificate about “what’s next” in the world of whatever it is they’re experts about. When it comes to spirits, one word is increasingly bubbling up to the top: Baijiu.

Baijiu is a Chinese distillate of fermented sorghum, though other grains like rice and wheat are sometimes used, depending on where it is made. Unlike most shochu, baijiu (white alcohol in Chinese) is typically quite strong — on par with vodka, a spirit for which it is often substituted (and which is largely produced in a similar fashion).

HKB — short for Hong-Kong Baijiu — is a newer brand of baijiu that is slowly making inroads in the U.S. It is distilled in China from a mash of five grains — sorghum, rice, sticky rice, corn, and wheat — and is blended in Italy by a grappa producer after aging (in large, neutral terra cotta urns) for two years.

The results are unlike any white spirit you’ve likely had, though grappa is the closest analogue. Intensely aromatic on the nose to the point of filling the room after simply pouring a glass of the stuff, HKB is punchy with overripe tropical fruits, coconut, and camphor. The palate is also very, very fruity, pungent as it starts off with a fermented pineapple character and loading up some oddball secondary notes, including rosemary, cloves, lemongrass, rhubarb, and more. The finish is epic in length, punchy with bitter-sour camphor/mothball notes, pure ethanol notes, and the aftertaste that comes with off-brand citrus-flavored candies. As a baijiu newbie, I was wholly unprepared for the sensory assault that is contained in that opaque red bottle, and as I write this after sampling the product, I’m still unprepared for another go-round.

That said, I can see how this could be an interesting cocktail ingredient (in the same way that a white whiskey, cachaca, or heavily flavored vodka can be). On the other hand, I’m not necessarily ready to go there myself whole-hog. All in all, it’s a category to keep an eye on as it winds its way into the American market.

86 proof.

C+ / $50 / baijiuamerica.com

Review: 4 Pearl Vodka Flavors – Lime Basil, Strawberry Basil, Chocolate Hazelnut, and Pumpkin Spice

pearlIntroducing four new flavors from Luxco-owned Pearl Vodka (which recently rebranded all its bottles with a more streamlined design) — two fruity/basil blends, two dessert-focused for winter sipping. Let’s give them all a sample.

All are 70 proof.

Pearl Vodka Lime Basil – Gentler than you’d think. Heavy on candied lime peel, with just a hint of racier, Thai-style basil on the back end. Modest in structure, pure in its flavor elements, and offering a crisp body with a short finish. It’s a fine alternative to Hangar One Kaffir LimeA

Pearl Vodka Strawberry Basil – Somewhat chemical-smelling on the nose, a common problem with strawberry vodkas. There’s no hint of basil in the aroma, but on the palate it offers a heat more akin to black pepper than any kind of herb. A heavily sweetened finish washes that away, though, leaving behind a bit of a medicinal character. B

Pearl Vodka Chocolate Hazelnut – So, Nutella vodka! Nails it on the nose — though it’s heavier on hazelnut than chocolate. The palate isn’t far off, either. Cinnamon is a distinct secondary character but otherwise this vodka exudes lovely hazelnuts dusted with cocoa powder. Some vanilla marshmallow notes emerge on the finish. Dessert-focused vodkas like this are often largely undrinkable, but this is a surprising winner. A-

Pearl Vodka Pumpkin Spice – Far more restrained than I’d expected, with classic brown sugar, cinnamon, allspice, and clove notes. The sweetness is at first dialed back, but it doesn’t take long to start building up on the palate. As it begins to coat the mouth, it leaves behind a saccharine character that eventually becomes too much and hangs around for far too long. B-

each $13 / pearlvodka.com

Drinkhacker’s 2015 Holiday Gift Guide – Best Alcohol/Spirits for Christmas

We at Drinkhacker have been busier than ever this year, and yet it seems impossible that it’s time for our eighth annual edition of the Drinkhacker holiday gift guide — our “best stuff of the year awards.” As always, the list comprises some of the best-rated products we looked at over the last 12 months but is also focused on products that are 1) actually available, 2) worthwhile as gifts, and 3) not entirely out of the realm of affordability.

This year, by popular demand, we’re adding wine to the gift guide. It’s one of the busiest categories on the site, one of the most popular gift items on the market, and something we’ve overlooked for too many years.

As always, the offerings below are only a tiny selection of our favorite spirits from the last year, and we welcome both your suggestions for alternatives and questions about other categories or types of beverages that might be perfect for gifting. Chime in in the comments, please!

Happy holidays to all of you who have helped to make Drinkhacker one of the most popular wine and spirits websites on the Internet! As always, thanks for reading the blog!

And don’t forget, for more top gift ideas check out the archives and read our 201420132012201120102009, and 2008 holiday guides.

Rhetoric 21-Year-Old_Hi-Res Bottle ShotBourbon – Diageo Orphan Barrel Project Rhetoric 21 Years Old ($100) – So many amazing bourbons hit this year, and so many are already impossible to find. While Diageo took some early drubbing for its curious Orphan Barrel project, this year it really hit its stride. Rhetoric 21 is the best of the lot to date — and part of an ongoing project that will see older and older expressions of Rhetoric shipping every year. It’s still widely available at its original selling price, as is its near equal in the Orphan Barrel project, Forged Oak 15 Years Old ($75). I loved Col. E.H. Taylor Cured Oak ($75 on release), but you’ll be lucky to find it for $500 today. That makes the over-the-top (but delightful) Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Century ($400/1 liter) seem like a downright bargain.

Scotch – The Exclusive Malts Ben Nevis 1996 17 Years Old ($140) – I’m not going to break the bank this year with my malt whisky pick and rather send you hunting for the 17 year old Ben Nevis from The Exclusive Malts, an indie bottler that has been absolutely on fire with a string of amazing releases. The exotic fruit, sweetness, and cereal notes combine in an inimitable and very compelling way. A big hand is due to Diageo again in this list for its 2014 limited editions (which hit the U.S.) in March this year. If you have the cash, check out Rosebank 21 Years Old ($500), Strathmill 25 Years Old ($475), or Brora 35 Years Old ($1,250), all three from that series. Finally, peat fanatics should head directly for whatever Laphroaig 15 Years Old ($70) they can still find.

journeyman ThreeOaks_750Other Whiskey – Journeyman Distillery Three Oaks Single Malt ($47) – Craft whiskey in the U.S. is finally, finally, arriving, and this year it’s landing a top spot on our best of the year list. Michigan-based Journeyman is showcasing how single malt should be made in America with this young but exuberant spirit that any whiskey fan owes it to himself to try. For another top craft pick, consider Craft Distillers Low Gap 2 Year Old 100 Proof Whiskey ($75), a young wheat whiskey that is the best of this series so far. The Irish Yellow Spot ($95) maintains a special place in my heart next to its Green sibling — and don’t forget that rye is making leaps and bounds. One of the best is Woodford Reserve Rye ($38) — where it is actually made instead of trucked in from another state.

Gin – Oppidan American Botanical Gin ($30) – Our top gin pick this year comes from a Chicago microdistillery where a bounty of botanicals is used to spice up a London Dry style gin, giving it a delicate, floral character that should not be missed. Other great options include Tanqueray Bloomsbury ($33), Anchor Distilling Old Tom ($30), and the exotic Painted Stave South River Red Gin ($22/375ml), which really is red.

Vodka  Square One Bergamot Vodka ($35) – If you must give vodka this year, try this unusual, citrus-flavored vodka from Square One. Other good (and unflavored) options include Vodka Mariette ($30) and Tigre Blanc Vodka ($90), proceeds of which go in part to support large cats in the wild.

DP30yrs_white_USAhighresRum – Don Pancho Origenes Rare Rum 30 Years Old ($425) – New rum brands don’t pop up every day, and when they do rarely do they have a legend in the business attached. Don Pancho (aka Francisco Fernandez) is putting his name on a finished product for the first time, and it’s a doozy not to be missed. For less ritzy outlays, consider the well-aged offerings in the form of Kirk and Sweeney Dominican Rum 23 Years Old ($50) or Ron Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva ($40).

Brandy – Cognac Paul Giraud Grande Champagne Tres Rare ($179) – A tough call from among these three stellar Cognacs, and really you can’t go wrong with any of them. My slight preference ultimately goes to Giraud and this well-priced rarity. Close runners-up: Majeste L’Empereur Cognac XO ($110) and Domaines Hine Bonneuil 2005 Cognac ($100).

dulce vida extra anejoTequila – Dulce Vida Extra Anejo ($160) – Another solid year for tequila, with a flood of excellent extra anejos really showing their stuff in 2015. My favorite of the bunch is from Dulce Vida, aged 5 1/2 years in used wine barrels. Great tequila with a great story behind it, too. Also worthwhile are Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia 2015 Rolling Stones Tour Pick ($150, also available for less sans the Stones imagery), El Mayor Reposado ($30, amazing bargain!), and the luxe Patron Extra Anejo 7 Anos ($299).

Liqueur – Spirit Works Sloe Gin ($40) – It’s a light year for quality liqueurs, but I have to give the nod to my hometown heroes Spirit Works and their killer sloe gin. Other top picks include Maraska Maraschino ($27) and Tempus Fugit Creme de Cacao ($31), both of which should be home bar staples.

Wine As promised, this year we’re adding a smattering of ideas for some of the best wines we’ve seen this year that would be appropriate for gift-giving. It’s hard to pick a single “winner” (and probably not fair because availability will vary widely) but here are my top seven wines of the year, in no particular order:

Need another custom gift idea (or have a different budget)? Drop me a line or leave a comment here and I’ll offer my best advice!

Looking to buy any of the above? Give Caskers and Master of Malt a try!

Review: Stolichnaya Elit Vodka

elit by Stoli bottlePerhaps the best known of ultra-luxe vodka bottlings, Stoli Elit is oversized, over-designed, and over-hyped — complete with  a limited edition subset of vodkas that are made with water from the Himalayas, the Andes, and other far-flung locales.

Straight-up Stoli Elit is a single-estate vodka that starts with winter wheat, spring wheat, and rye from Stolichnaya’s farm in Tambov, Russia. The spirit is distilled three times and blended with water from Riga, Latvia, then filtered through quartz and birch charcoal before bottling.

The finished spirit is impressive. The nose is gentle and lightly floral, with touches of lemongrass. The body is equally balanced and light on its feet — offering a supple experience that features just a touch of citrus, a hint of baking spice, and a slight kick of black pepper on the finish. The experience couldn’t be quieter and more supple, a perfectly made vodka with nothing to detract from a wholly lovely experience.

While it’s lacking in the viscous punch you expect from most Russian vodkas, it’s so easygoing and pleasant that it’s impossible not to recommend — especially since, while it’s expensive, it’s not obscenely overpriced like some luxe vodkas.

80 proof.

A / $47 / elitbystoli.com

Review: Ciroc X Vodka

ciroc x

‘Tis the season for luxe vodka bottlings, and at the top of the heap you’ll find this monster from Ciroc, an ostentatiously-packaged vodka that retails for two-fiddy. Er, $250.

Ciroc is of course vociferously repped by P. Diddy, who has been stumping for the brand for more than a decade. And now, it seems, it’s time to push things to a new shelf which they’ll have to build above where the top shelf is now.

Cîroc X, aka Ciroc Ten, is made using a blend of French grapes just like regular Ciroc is, “including the first harvest grapes of 2013 vintage, which are said by vintners to be the crispest of the harvest,” OK? Other than that, no real production information is available. And you really shouldn’t need it, anyway.

Just for kicks, let’s taste the vodka!

The nose is clean, just a touch medicinal but otherwise very mild, with perhaps a hint of mint. The palate is equally quiet, offering an old world astringency that echoes hospital character over anything else — primarily antiseptic, touched just barely with vanilla, and fading out with a clean, simple finish that has a tinge of sweetness.

I have few tasting notes for Ciroc X because there are few available to write. This is a very neutral, uncomplicated spirit, which is precisely what a vodka should be. For straight sipping, Ciroc X offers a straightforward and quite enjoyable experience, and its fluid design makes it blend well naturally with just about anything. I can’t complain about the vodka at all, really.

That said, there’s no getting around the price tag and the fact this this is a vodka primarily made to be admired from afar and not to be literally consumed. There simply isn’t $250 inside the bottle, and there really can’t be. Instead, it’s a solid $30 spirit with $220 of flash surrounding it, and that is quite a predicament. There’s not necessarily a right answer to the calculus there, but it’s how you approach that kind of equation that will demonstrate not just what kind of drinker you are, but what kind of person you are, too.

Please show your work.

80 proof.

B / $250 (1 liter) / ciroc.com

Review: Smirnoff Peppermint Twist

Smirnoff Peppermint Twist Bottle Shot (HIRES)Ho ho ho! What’s Santa want next to the fireplace? Not another peppermint candy but rather a peppermint-flavored vodka. Smirnoff Peppermint Twist isn’t just a mint-flavored spirit, it’s all wrapped up and ready for your holiday partying.

Let’s give this flavored vodka a holiday-centric spin, shall we?

The nose is all candy canes, and that’s not just the bottle wrap telegraphing things: fresh peppermint, with subtle sweetness underpinning the racy spice. The body’s a smooth operator, offering sweet peppermint candy with a gentle warmth to it. It’s simple and uncomplicated — which is probably what you want from a bottle designed to look like a holiday candy. The finish is quite lasting and appropriately evocative of wintertime. Peppermint flavored spirits aren’t a tough nut to crack, to be honest, but with Peppermint Twist, Smirnoff’s got as good a handle on it as anyone.

P.S. Don’t miss the scratch-and-sniff bottle wrap!

60 proof.

B+ / $15 / smirnoff.com