Columbus, Ohio-based Middle West Spirits produces a variety of vodkas and whiskeys, but these two, pronounced Oh-Why-Oh, are the base products from which everything else is drawn.
OYO Vodka – Made from local red winter wheat, this (purported) 34-times column distilled vodka has lots of character. On the nose, there are lots of caramel and grain notes — making this much more akin to a white whiskey than a vodka — and a minimum of medicinal character. On the tongue the vodka’s roots come out, with a modestly astringent backbone and a warming, grain-forward body. There’s some citrus in there followed by more caramel, coming together to give this vodka a bit of a caramel apple feel in the end. However, a sense of mustiness on the finish, almost like sweat, dulls the overall experience a bit. 80 proof. Kosher. Reviewed: Batch #028. B / $33
Caledonia Spirits in Hardwick, Vermont primarily markets its products in the Northeast and uses honey in just about everything it makes, from honey mead to vodka and gin. We tasted both those spirits, plus an elderberry cordial from the company. Thoughts follow.
By the by: Mind the beeswax seal on the vodka and gin (they use this stuff in everything!). It’s extremely pungent and can be smelled from a mile away once the plastic wrap is taken off.
Caledonia Spirits Barr Hill Vodka – Made from raw Vermont honey, and it shows. Distinct — but richly earthy — honey notes pervade the nose, a common trait among vodkas distilled from honey. This one’s pungent enough to come across like a flavored vodka, intense with that almost nougaty, caramel flavor. Barr Hill has far too much residual character in it for the most common places where vodka finds itself, but for fans of honey, this may make for an interesting sipper. 80 proof. Reviewed: Batch #20 reviewed. B / $33 (375ml)
Harvest Spirits Farm Distillery, in Valatie, New York, focuses like so many other operations in this region on using local fruits to produce artisinal, farm-to-bottle spirits. The lineup below represents a full farmers’ market of goodies. Thoughts on the bulk of Harvest Spirits’ production follow.
Hibiscus flowers are the improbable Next Big Thing in spirits flavoring, and now Absolut is getting into the business with this new vodka, continuing the succession of equally improbably-spelled liquors.
Absolut Hibiskus is infused not just with hibiscus flower but also with pomegranate, a wise choice that gives this vodka some much-needed sweetness. Absolut’s flavored vodkas, bottled at 80 proof, tend to be a bit burly and rough around the edges, making their flavor components somewhat difficult to perceive well.
Not getting enough froot in your diet? Now you can up your intake with one of the nuttiest vodka flavors to hit the market yet: Three Olives’ “Loopy” Vodka.
Designed specifically to taste (and look) like a certain breakfast cereal, Loopy is unmistakable when you crack open the bottle. The aroma of sugared, berry-flavored cereal is dead-on uncanny as you pour out a glass. Whoever concocted this flavor (it’s natural, people!) deserves a medal.
This Belarusian vodka dates back to 1993, and hails from a 100-year-old distillery in Minsk. Distilled six times “for your pleasure” from a blend of 75% rye and 25% winter wheat, this budget brand offers lots of quality plus Eastern European street cred.
Belaya Rus (literally “White Russian”) is surprisingly easy, especially considering its birth in a former Soviet nation. The nose offers a bracing medicinal character balanced with sweetness — more like a sweet cream than typical sugar. On the tongue, more of the same, but leaning more toward the sweet side. The finish brings in some vanilla notes, and some slight nuttiness.
Those anticipating a bracing, Stoli-like character will find this a far different experience, milder, sweeter, and easier to both sip on and mix with. At all of 11 bucks a bottle, that’s a tough value to ignore.
A- / $11 / belayarusvodka.com
I once heard a story about a guy who had trademarked “Ice Cold” Vodka. Ice Cold was the brand name. Makes sense. Basically the same thing Miller did with the Lite brand.
Real Russian Vodka is either brilliant branding or incredibly misleading or both. It is made from an “authentic family recipe born over 100 years ago in Russia”… in Gurnee, Illinois.
Flag Hill, based in the great state of New Hampshire, makes a wide variety of fruit wines as well as various spirits.
That includes John Stark Vodka, which is made from — wait for it — apples and is triple distilled before bottling. Who’s John Stark? A Revolutionary War general from New Hampshire and the originator of the phrase “Live Free or Die.” Probably not a vodka man, but a patriot nonetheless.
666 Vodka has a name to live up to — even invoking “pure evil” on the front of the label. Made in Tasmania, Australia, this vodka is triple pot-distilled from Tasmanian barley, blended with water sourced from the pristine region here called Cape Grim. The finished product is charcoal filtered before bottling.
For all its uniqueness, 666 is typical of Australian vodkas, very mild on the nose with some hints of dessert-like sweetness, particularly light overtones of chocolate. The body is tailor-made for the sweet tooth. It is sugary but not overpowering, with a lightly bittersweet finish. That chocolate reappears here, along with some caramel notes. Very light herbal notes are here too, on a buttery body.
That said, the only real sense you get of vodka here is some light medicinal character that comes along as the spirit fades. It’s altogether very easy drinking, though vodka fans who love the funky hospital notes of Eastern bloc spirits will be dissatisfied.
A- / $28 / 666purevodka.com
Italy seems to be a hotbed these days — not for wine, but rather for vodka.
Milano Green is made from wheat in the north of Italy and blended with spring water from the Italian alps. Production methods are sustainable, per the company, but the producer does not claim that the product is organic.
This vodka has a very modern profile: Neutral on the nose, with only mild medicinal notes. The body has ample sweetness to it and a short, simple finish. Just a hint of black pepper on the finish, and maybe the lightest touch of baking spice. No frills here, this is an easy and refreshing vodka that works well on its own or in pretty much any cocktail.
Note: Milano Green’s website features an older bottle design.
A- / $30 / milanogreenvodka.com
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.
Chai tea is one of the “it” flavorings of the ’10s, and Yahara Bay, which produces the V Bourbon we reviewed a few days ago, takes a different tack than the various chai liqueurs on the market.
Instead, the company flavors vodka with chai to create a unique (and more powerful) spirit.
The color of whiskey, Seraphine smells big and chai-like, with that unmistakeable cinnamon/allspice+tea character on the nose. There’s raisins, cardamom, and nutty notes in there. It’s altogether a lot of fun. The body is a different animal, though, and wholly unexpected. Instead of that big, creamy rush, what comes along is a surprisingly thin, and not entirely flavorful animal.
Once in a while we like to head into the archives and take a fresh look at a classic — particularly when we need a palate cleanser. Today we turn to that icon of the vodka biz, Absolut, a brand which was in many respects the first premium vodka to be sold.
Absolut has always had a light charcoal note on the nose for me, along with traditional hospital character, and that’s still true. But served straight up, the Swedish superstar is considerably sweeter than memory offers, with brisk caramel notes to balance out its medicinal underpinnings. The finish is short and uncomplicated, fresh with some grassy as well as lemon hints, but mostly offering a sweet, somewhat dessert-like feel.
B+ / $16 / absolut.com
I’ve been resisting even opening this bottle for several months, for reasons which must be obvious. Liquid popcorn? I’ve been scared.
360 Buttered Popcorn, in reality, is more harmless than you might expect. The nose is sickly sweet — more like a glazed doughnut (a vodka flavor which 360 also makes) or cotton candy than anything you’d expect from popcorn. The recent Smirnoff Iced Cake vodka has a lot of similarities with this one.
The popcorn component is a bit more of an afterthought. Somewhere in the finish there’s a vague corny character — something like you get in very young Bourbon — along with that distinct chemically sludgy taste that comes with movie theater popcorn butter. The funky aftertaste recalls cardboard and ashes… or perhaps another part of the movie theater: The floor.
70 proof. Naturally flavored (inexplicably).
C- / $13 / vodka360.com
Pomegranate and acai have developed strong “superfruit” reputations, which have led to many a boozemaker attempting to use these products to make new spirits. But the fact remains that neither of these taste particularly good, which is why most pomegranate juice drinks are stuffed full of sugar or other, sweeter, juices. Acai, based on the few times I’ve tried it in berry form, is pretty nasty, too.
Enter Pomacai Vodka, a spirit flavored with, you guessed it, pomegranate and acai. The product is grape Kool-Aid purple (artificial colors are added), lightly colored but mostly transparent.
Looking for something different for a sparkling wine this New Year’s than that bottle of Freixenet? Absolut Tune is not that wine.
Immediately curious — it’s a blend of Absolut Vodka and Brancott Sauvignon Blanc wine from New Zealand, then fizzed up with carbonation — this is a bold experiment for both the vodka biz and the wine world. What better way to sell vodka to a vino snob than to blend it down to an alcohol level comparable with wine? (14% in the case of Absolut Tune.) And what better way to push wine to a vodka lover than to slap the Absolut name on it?
Technically a flavored vodka (5x distilled), Kinky is a bright pink “liqueur” flavored with mango, blood orange, and passion fruit, a clear shot across the bow of Alize, Hpnotiq, and its ilk.
The look and taste are actually heavily reminiscent of pink lemonade. Of the three fruits named in the mix, the passion fruit is the most present, but it’s mostly vague, lemony citrus that dominates. It’s sweet and sour, actually not at all bad to sip on and not nearly as saccharine as the neon color would indicate.
That said, it’s not the most complex spirit, but it’d make a great addition to a fruity cosmo-class drink, or as a topper to a glass of sparkling wine.
B / $20 / crosbylakespirits.com
You have to appreciate a company that wants to do some good in the world, even while it’s getting people liquored up. FAIR (technically “FAIR.” with a period) bills itself as the first Fair Trade-certified spirits manufacturer. Based in France, the company offers a vodka and two liqueurs. We tasted them all. Thoughts follow.
Much has been written about AnestasiA to date, so I won’t belabor obvious points. This weird and wacky spirit is far from the beaten path. I’m sure there are tons of club kids who’ll find this to their liking. I found it strange to the power of 100.
AnestasiA is marketed as a “Sensational Spirit” which pleasantly tingles in your mouth. Initially I thought this meant it was a carbonated/sparkling vodka, but that’s not the case. In fact it is a flavored vodka that “consists of naturally occurring ingredients and flavorings that are commonly used in the food industry.”
That flavoring primarily appears to be a member of the menthol family. Continue reading
This spring we were fortunate to try a new concept in vodka from Sweden’s Karlsson’s Gold: Single vintage, single potato variety vodka. Tasting various vintages and various potato varieties among each other, the differences were shocking. And now Karlsson’s is back, with a 2009 vintage made from a different potato: The Solist variety. Continue reading