With its bottle design seemingly inspired by Sputnik, all chrome and curves and black and red lettering, you may be forgiven for assuming Goral Vodka hails from Russia. Not so, it’s Slovakian, where distiller Jan Krak says he has “dedicated his entire life” to mastering the creation of vodka.
Goral is farily traditional in construct: made from winter wheat, column distilled 7 times, then filtered 7 times through a variety of materials.
The nose is pure, astringent with medicinal notes, and tinged with lemon — and the slightest hint of sweetness. On the tongue, the spirit strikes hot and hard, a layer of antiseptic, then one of gentle herbs. The finish recalls some ephemeral notes of vanilla, not so much sweet as it is wintry, an aftertaste of hot chocolate residue left in a cold mug on a snowy day. Good stuff.
A- / $24 / goralvodka.sk
Polish, mid-shelf vodka brand Sobieski moves up shelf this month with the launch of an extension to the line: Sobieski Estate Single Rye Vodka, made from “100% Dankowski rye locally grown in Poland which is hand filled and hand crowned by distillers.”
The new vodka arrives in California now, with a national rollout coming in 2016.
This is solid, old world stuff. Astringent and medicinal but bracing and fresh on the nose, there’s no mistaking this vodka’s origins in eastern Europe. The palate has hospital-driven bite, but it offers a lush body of gentle citrus, slight brown sugar/caramel tinge, and even some florals (late in the game). There’s an echo of sweetness on the finish, but it’s far from overdone, offering a gentle way out of what can be a moderately powerful experience from the start.
Whether you need a solid sipper or martini vodka or just want a versatile mixer at a respectable price, Sobieski Single Rye is a fantastic option.
A- / $28 / vodkasobieski.com
Ah, Sicily: Renowned for its Italian food, mafia culture, and, of course, vodka.
BiVi is made from Sicilian semolina wheat and bottled with local water and promoted by Sicilian actor Chazz Palminteri, so if you’re looking for a spirit that’s more Sicilian, you won’t likely find it. Still, it’s vodka, not grappa, so let’s see what our friends from off the Italian mainland can do.
On the nose it’s a traditional vodka, medicinal but tempered with some vanilla-focused sweetness. The body kicks things off with a lemon peel note before diving into a pile of fresh herbs. Strong hospital notes take over from there before, as with the nose, a sweeter character takes hold and cuts into the racy character with some notes of cocoa powder and caramel apples. The finish is clean, with an echo of the initial citrus notes.
B+ / $30 / iconicbrandsusa.com
High-end vodka has been making a move to the even higher end of late, and one of the forerunners is this intriguing option from perennial top shelfer Grey Groose.
The idea with Grey Goose VX is to take Grey Goose and spike it with “a hint of precious Cognac.” (Remember, after all, this is a French product.) What’s a hint? 5%, according to the bottle, leaving 95% remaining for good old vodka.
Grey Goose VX is clear, which indicates that it’s filtered the way white rum and some tequila is to strip out any color.
What’s inside, though, is clearly not just vodka, as that touch of Cognac makes a significant difference to the body — much like adding a dash of bitters to a cocktail takes the flavor in a whole new direction.
On the nose, it doesn’t let on much (particularly if you let it rest in the glass). There’s just a slight nougat and plum character atop what is already a somewhat sweet vodka to begin with. Novices may not notice the difference at first.
On the palate is where Grey Goose VX begins to shine and break away from its lineage. Here you see significantly stronger notes of white flowers, sultanas, cotton candy, and that distinct, raisiny, sugar-cookie sweetness that comes from good Cognac. It’s a surprising effect given the tiny amount of Cognac in the blend, and it just goes to show again how impactful tiny changes in a spirit’s recipe can be. The finish is satisfying and slightly astringent — the vodka coming back to the fore — but significantly shortened by the addition of the sweeter brandy.
With all of that said, while VX makes for a fine little spirit, one has to marvel at the price. This is 5% Cognac, and 95% vodka! $80 can get you some very good stuff that is 100% Cognac and 0% vodka — not the top shelf but damn close to it. It would not be out of line to suggest that you could recreate this mix at home with a regular bottle of Grey Goose and a nice bottle of XO that you add to your Martini by the drop. See where that takes you.
A- / $80 / greygoose.com
Sweden’s Svedka is one of the top global vodka brands, driven by an affordable price point and some amazingly successful marketing. 5x distilled from Swedish winter wheat, it’s widely available to the point of ubiquity. Let’s look at three of the company’s expressions, including a couple of new monsters.
Svedka Vodka – This is the standard Svedka bottling — presumably the one that that robot lady likes so much. The nose melds marshmallow notes with hospital overtones, but ultimately it’s the sweeter notes that carry the spirit. The palate is quite simplified, with a modest sugar component and just a wisp of astringency that attempts to provide some balance. It never quite gets there, though, leaving this best suited as a mixer. 80 proof. B- / $14
Svedka 100 Vodka – This is the 100 proof version of Svedka, but otherwise unflavored and made the same way. The nose is strikingly similar — offering that same mix of sweetness and medicinal character. Where things diverge is on the tongue, with Svedka 100 building up to a rather pungent and punchy character that is, primarily, driven by its alcohol content. This has the welcome side effect of tempering the sugar in the vodka and giving the spirit some much needed gravitas. A considerable improvement and only a buck more expensive. B+ / $15
Svedka Grapefruit Jalapeno Vodka – Svedka makes 14 varieties of vodka, including 12 flavors. This new one is arguably the strangest, unless Swedes are munching jalapenos and swilling Squirt left and right without my knowledge. This flavored expression is all fruit on the nose — but more grapefruit candy than sour grapefruit juice. On the tongue it’s more of the same — remarkably sweet and sugary, offering citrus but nothing that’s particularly grapefruit focused. But what about that jalapeno, Drinkhacker? Well, the finish offers a little but distinct burn, but it’s nothing you can’t handle. That said, I couldn’t tell you whether it came from a pepper or a vat of mysteriously spicy chemicals, and you don’t care anyway. 70 proof. C- / $12
Quick: What’s a spirit made from agave? Tequila? Yes. Mezcal? Yes. Vodka? Yes!
RedTerra is an agave-based vodka, which is made especially discordant due to the heavy Russian imagery — red, black, and an eagle — used on the bottle label. But RedTerra starts with 100% real blue agave harvested in the Jalisco Highlands. It’s then traditionally (for vodka, anyway) column distilled and bottled in Portland, Oregon. (The reason it comes out as vodka and not tequila is largely the proof to which the liquid is distilled; it’s the same reason you can turn rye or wheat into either vodka or whiskey.)
The traces of agave in the finished product are fleeting, but they are there: On the nose this comes across with modest but spicy herbal overtones — a bit of eucalyptus and cayenne, then a rush of ethyl alcohol heat. On the palate, it’s gently sweet, showing a little brown sugar at first, then some more herbal hints as the body evolves on the tongue. This ends up showing itself as a dusting of nutmeg and some brown butter. Again, a hint of cayenne heat on the back — and a finish that definitely recalls the vodka’s agave origins.
If nothing else, it’s different — and accessible to both the casual vodka drinker and the tequila fan looking for something that pairs a little better with vermouth.
B+ / $40 / redterravodka.com
If nothing else, give Virus Vodka the award for packaging of the year. An Erlenmeyer flask? Genius, even if its footprint does take up more than its fair share of shelf space.
Virus is bottled in North Charleston, South Carolina, but aside from a goofy story about ancient vampire/zombie/werewolf viruses, there’s not really any information available on how it’s made. Six-times distilled, they say, from what? Who knows. (Presumably that means grain neutral spirits are the beginnings of the spirit, but that’s just an assumption.)
The vodka has a simple, basic structure. The nose: Sweet, with marshmallow and vanilla notes and a touch of ethyl alcohol underpinning. The body is equally sweet, just this side of “sugary,” with notes of over-ripe banana, coconut, and vanilla ice cream. The finish is, as expected, on the sweet side, but it fades quickly and relatively cleanly.
Ultimately, it’s fine as a mixer. Not a contender for straight sipping. And doesn’t taste like zombies.
B / $20 / virusvodka.com