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

Drinkhacker’s 2014 Holiday Gift Guide – Best Alcohol/Spirits for Christmas

Can it be time for the holidays already? We’ve been utterly swamped in 2014 with new products for review, which makes this seventh annual edition of the Drinkhacker holiday gift guide — our “best stuff of the year awards” — all the tougher to produce. As usual, we are looking not just at what the very best release have been over the last 12 months, but also want to help you find the perfect give for your special someone, whether that’s whiskey, tequila, or any other spirit.

As always, the offerings below are but a small selection of our favorite spirits from the last year, but we definitely try to focus on products that are legitimately available. Got alternatives to suggest or gift ideas you think we missed? Chime in in the comments, please!

Happy holidays to all of you! As always, thanks for reading the blog!

Check this gift guide out in full-color PDF form, perfect for printing out and taking with you holiday shopping. Also check out our 20132012201120102009, and 2008 holiday guides.

woodfordBourbon – Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir Finish ($100) – Every year Master Distiller Chris Morris puts out a special release of Woodford Reserve — sometimes a wildly different one — and his 2014 experiment is the best he’s ever done. This bourbon takes woody WR and finishes it in fruity Pinot Noir casks, bringing out a whole new side of this Kentucky classic. Just as worthy are two other incredible bourbons from 2014, Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary Bourbon ($125) and Four Roses 2014 Single Barrel ($80). That’s really just a modest start to an amazing year for Bourbon. There are so, so many good bottlings out there right now. It’s almost hard to pick badly if you can’t find any of these three.

Scotch – The Balvenie Tun 1509 Batch 1 ($350) – The sole “A+” rating I gave to any whiskey all year went to Balvenie’s latest Tun release, Tun 1509 Batch 1. The prior Tun series, Tun 1401, also made appearances on our holiday list, but this year Balvenie quadrupled production in order to give more folks out there a shot at actually tracking this stuff down. The quality hasn’t suffered. Whether it’s for you or for dad, go for it. It’s worth it. Other amazing picks worth seeking out: Mortlach Rare Old ($110), Glenfiddich Excellence 26 Years Old ($500), The Exclusive Malts Ledaig 2005 8 Years Old ($110), and The Arran Malt 17 Years Old ($95).

Green Spot Whiskey USOther Whiskey – Green Spot Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey ($50) – This is an amazingly tough category this year, but ultimately I have to go with a whiskey that has enchanted me throughout 2014, the blissfully simple yet gorgeous Irish whiskey Green Spot, which finally made it to our shores this spring and currently stands as one of whiskeydom’s greatest deals. (Watch for Yellow Spot to slowly float over, too.) My close second is Hibiki 21 Years Old ($250). 2014 has been declared by others “the year of Japanese whiskey,” but it’s Hibiki, not Yamazaki, that is putting out the very best stuff right now. This year’s Parker’s Heritage Collection Original Batch Wheat Whiskey 13 Years Old ($90), a wheat whiskey, not a wheated bourbon, is also a standout, as is the ever-exciting Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old ($80).

Gin – Genius Gin ($26) – Who’d have thought 2014’s best gin would hail from Austin, Texas? Get the standard edition. The Navy Strength is less refined. Overall a weak year for gins, other recommended bottlings include Beefeater Burrough’s Reserve Barrel Finished Gin ($70) and The 86 Co. Ford’s Gin ($30/1 liter).

Vodka  Re:Find Cucumber Vodka ($25/375ml) – Vodka’s never a thrilling category (or much of a gift), but spending 25 bucks on this best-ever cucumber vodka is not a bad way to fill a stocking. Other top picks include the Vodka DSP CA 162 line (each $38), made by the former crew behind Hangar One, Santa Fe Spirits Expedition America West Vodka ($25), and Bluewater Organic Vodka ($27).

vizcaya-21Rum – Vizcaya VXOP Cask No. 21 Cuban Formula Rum ($40) – Fascinating rums have been in short supply of late (I’m presuming you can’t find a way to get Havana Club where you live), but this Dominican rum is a killer bottling. Also highly recommended is Bacardi’s boutique bottling of Facundo Exquisito ($120), which runs up to 23 years old.

Brandy – Charbay Brandy No. 89 ($92) – This craft brandy from Charbay, distilled 26 years ago, is a killer that can go toe to toe with any Cognac. Louis Royer Force 53 VSOP ($43) is also a fabulous spirit and a great bargain.

Tequila – Roca Patron Reposado ($80) – The typically breakneck pace of tequila releases slowed down in 2014. Patron’s new higher-end bottling, particularly the reposado, was my favorite. Also standing out were Tequila Herradura Coleccion de la Casa Scotch Cask Finished Reposado Reserva 2014 ($90) and the festive KAH Tequila line ($45 to $60), which tastes as good as its bottles look. High-end mezcal fans should run, not walk, to Del Maguey Iberico Mezcal ($250).

Liqueur – Ancho Reyes Ancho Chile Liqueur ($33) – From the first time I tasted this, I knew it would be the Drinkhacker liqueur of the year. Ancho chile is so distinctive and unique, and these guys do amazing work with it in alco-form. Try it in, well, anything.  Other excellent giftworthy liqueurs include Perc Coffee Liqueur ($28), Barrow’s Intense Ginger ($31), and the new Wild Turkey American Honey Sting ($23) — technically a flavored whiskey, but which drinks more like a liqueur.

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: Leaf Vodka – Alaska and Rocky Mountain Expressions

LEAF_Vodka_MediaKitAssets_2SKUs

Does water matter? Sure, in marketing material there’s talk of hidden springs, deep ocean water, melted icebergs, rushing rivers, secluded family wells, and just about every other form of exotic water on earth… but how can you discern its impact on your vodka if you don’t have anything to compare it to?

Enter Leaf Vodka, which offers two expressions of vodka that are presumably made the same way, distilled five times from organic wheat in Temperance, Michigan, but which are brought down to proof with two very different types of water. In the green corner we have Leaf Vodka, made with Alaskan glacial water. In the blue corner: Leaf’s vodka made with water from the Rocky Mountains. How do they compare? Let’s find out!

Both expressions are 80 proof.

Leaf Alaskan Glacial Water Vodka – Clean nose, sweet on the body, but surprisingly refreshing. Some light, lemony notes emerge with time, which help to give the spirit a brisk, summery, mouth-cleansing character. While the residual, caramel-like sweetness may be a bit on the heavy side, it’s a versatile vodka that has ample cocktailing applicability and can do double duty in a pinch as a straight sipper, too. B+

Leaf Rocky Mountain Mineral Water Vodka – Racier from the get go, with a crisp medicinality on the nose and a bit of a charcoal-like edge. While it’s a step back from some of the more classic Old World vodkas, it nonetheless pays its respects to Mother Russia, with a minimalistic residual flavor profile that just nods at black pepper and a touch of brown sugar. B+

Does water make a difference? In Leaf’s case, there’s a clear distinction between these two spirits, and presuming there’s no doctoring aside from the water that’s added, it’s proof plenty that you should definitely be paying attention not just to the mash and the type of still they use to make your vodka, but the water source as well.

each $17 / leafvodka.com

Review: Blue Heron Vodka

blue heron vodka

As we reviewed earlier, Wilderness Trail Distillery produces Harvest Rum — “the Bourbon drinker’s rum” — in the heart of Kentucky. But did you know they also make a vodka? Naturally, “the Bourbon drinker’s vodka,” Blue Heron.

Made from a 50-50 corn/wheat mash and bottled unfiltered, this is a vodka with a clearly different focus. It’s far from “neutral,” but whether that’s a positive is open for discussion. Thoughts follow.

The nose is immediately woody, almost with a character of twine or hay. Over time, a corny character develops akin to a white whiskey (which, arguably, is what this is). But despite this pastoral setup, the palate initially throws you for a loop. A surprising contrast, it offers a sweet and slightly citrus-focused attack, before settling into a body that blends chewy nougat with a cornmeal mash. It’s interesting up until the end: The finish is a bit astringent, a funky fade-out that melds saccharine sweetness with those initial woody/earthy notes in a most unusual way. Sadly, this juxtaposition doesn’t grow on you over time, but rather becomes less and less engaging as you work your way through it.

100% heron free. 80 proof.

C+ / $28 / wildernesstracedistillery.com

Review: Re:Find Vodka, Cucumber Vodka, Gin, & Limoncello

refind Gin-Vodka

Distilled from grapes in Paso Robles, California, Re:Find is a boutique distillery that turns its “neutral brandies” into a variety of straight and flavored spirits. Distilled “from grapes” has certain connotations, but Re:Find is careful to note its vodka is not grappa, a specific type of brandy that is distilled from a by-product of winemaking. Re:Find is rather made from “free run” juice called saignee that is bled off during pressing, before red wine grapes are fermented — so it’s closer to an unaged brandy in composition. These are high-end grapes, which just so happen to be used to make wine at Villicana Winery — which is under the same ownership.

Mostly available only in California, we got a look at four of the spirits in Re:Find’s lineup. All four spirits reviewed below are 80 proof.

Re:Find Vodka – A bit grappa-like on the nose, with some of that funky, twig-‘n’-stem character you see on this spirit, but it’s undercut with the lightest aromas of honey and marshmallow. The body offers more in the way of hazelnuts, banana, and vanilla cookies, which makes for an interesting counterpart to the funkier nose (again, much like a good grappa). There’s a lot going on in this spirit and while it’s initially a bit much when sipping straight, it does show lots of nuance and character, and it merits exploration both on the rocks and in more complex cocktails. A- / $35

Re:Find Cucumber Vodka – Interesting choice for your first flavor, but damn if a nose full of Re:find Cucumber doesn’t smell like you’re headed to a day at the spa. Crisp and authentic, this vodka offers pure and refreshing cucumber flavor through and through, with just the lightest dusting of sweetness on the finish to offer some balance against the vegetal notes up front. You get none of the earthy grappa character in the unflavored vodka here, just fresh cukes from start to finish. Impressive considering this is legitimately flavored with fresh cucumbers. Seasonally available. A / $25 (375ml)

Re:Find Gin – Triple distilled and infused with (mostly local) juniper berry, coriander, orris root, lemon & orange peel, grains of paradise, and lavender. This is an engaging gin, juniper-forward on the nose, with hints of lavender underpinning it. On the palate, things get a bit switched up. Here the lavender picks up the ball and runs, with the citrus notes coming on strong. It’s quite a trick, as the nose sets you up for a big evergreen bomb, then the body lets you down easy with a more sedate character suitable for the tropics. Re:Find Gin could benefit from a bit more complexity — maybe grapefruit peel or black pepper, or both — but as it stands it’s an engaging and quite drinkable little spirit. A- / $43

Re:Find Limoncello – Pale in color in comparison to many commercial limoncellos and translucent, Re:Find’s Limoncello looks and smells more like pure, fresh lemon juice — much more so than the stuff you typically see from Italy. Heavy on sour juice and bitter zest, this is intense stuff. If you’re looking for a sweet and lightly sour limoncello that will pair well with your berries-and-whipped-cream dessert, this isn’t the liqueur for you. If intense, almost raw, lemon character is your bag, give it a go… though you’ll have to visit Re:Find’s distillery to get some. B+ / $NA (375ml)

refinddistillery.com

Review: Platinum 7X Vodka

platinum vodkaAs the name implies, this low-cost vodka is seven times distilled, from American corn. There’s lots of sweetness up front on the nose alongside some raw alcohol notes, and little else of note. On the palate, sugar masks any impurities — or anything else of note — and the spirit finishes with little impact. Over time some light leather (or perhaps cardboard) notes emerge, but on the whole it’s completely harmless. Not a bad buy if you don’t mind a plastic bottle.

B- / $12 / platinum7x.com

Review: Menage a Trois Vodka, Complete Lineup

Menage a Trois Vodka Berry Martini HI Res Glamour Photo (1)

Menage a Trois is known for its cheap wines, but the company now also makes cheap vodka. (!)

Three expressions — one straight, two flavored — are on offer. All are distilled from corn and brought down to proof with “pristine California water.” The catch with the flavored vodkas: They’re all “triple flavored” with three different botanicals. Three! Get it!? Sure ya do.

Some thoughts follow. All are 80 proof.

Menage a Trois Vodka – Quite neutral, a touch sugary on the nose but the body is quite plain, with touches of marshmallow, a hint of popcorn, and some odd peanut notes that emerge on the finish. Otherwise, not a whole lot to it. Probably fine for making cosmos or punch. B

Menage a Trois Citrus Vodka – Infused with lemon, lime, and orange. Lime, lemon, orange — in that order. Extremely bright and quite sweet — but the finish takes things to an astringent, chewed-up-aspirin note. B-

Menage a Trois Berry Vodka – Infused with raspberries, cranberries, and pomegranate. So… healthy? Intensely cranberry, with raspberry notes building strongly on a finish that recalls cough syrup — but, I mean, really really drinkable cough syrup. B-

each $16 / menageatroisvodka.com

Review: Crop Organic Spiced Pumpkin Vodka

Crop Spiced_Pumpkin_Final‘Tis the season for all things pumpkin… which brings us to our first pumpkin spice-flavored vodka here at Drinkhacker, from (of all people) Crop Organic.

Crop has a well-deserved reputation as a purveyor of high-end organic spirits, and despite the novelty nature of anything pumpkinesque, Crop somehow hits another home run with this hip flavor.

Appropriately burnt orange in color, Crop Spiced Pumpkin offers a quite sweet nose with a fragrant, cloves/cinnamon/vanilla spice to it. The body has the inimitable pumpkin spiciness to it — difficult to put into words, but distinctly nodding toward holiday tipples. That said, it is extremely sweet, to the point where you’ll have no idea whether you’re drinking a flavored vodka or a dense, sugary liqueur. From the orangey appearance, observers would be well justified in assuming you’re sipping on Grand Marnier.

Clearly one would never do that — save your intrepid critic — as this is a mixer through and through. With that in mind, Crop has provided a number of recipes for your enjoyment. See below.

70 proof.

A- / $25 / cropvodka.com

Recipes!

Crop Organic Pumpkin Ginger Cooler 
(Arley Howard, Top of the Hub) 
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 lemon slice
Nutmeg
2 parts Crop Organic Spiced Pumpkin Vodka
1 part ginger liqueur
1 part sour mix
Ginger ale

In a highball glass, muddle brown sugar with lemon and a sprinkle of nutmeg. Add ice, Crop Organic Spiced Pumpkin Vodka, ginger liqueur, and sour mix. Shake contents and then top with ginger ale.

Plymouth Rock Julep 
(Nick Nistico, Premier Beverage Company) 
2 parts Rye whiskey
1 part Crop Organic Spiced Pumpkin Vodka
1/2 part cinnamon syrup
5 dashes Bitter Truth Aromatic Bitters

Swizzle all ingredients with ice and then top with crushed ice.  Garnish with a candy-corn pumpkin and grated cinnamon.

Pumpkin Cocktail 
(Nick Nistico, Premier Beverage Company) 
1 part Crop Organic Spiced Pumpkin Vodka
5 dashes bitters

Top with pumpkin ale.

Pumpkin Collins 
(Nick Nistico, Premier Beverage Company) 
2 parts Crop Organic Spiced Pumpkin Vodka
1 part fresh lemon juice
1/2 part simple syrup

Shake with ice and strain over fresh ice. Garnish with a lemon wheel dusted with cinnamon.

Review: AVIV 613 Vodka

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Sorry, Easter egg hunters, AVIV 613 Vodka is not named after the area code for Ottawa, Canada. It is rather named for the city in which it is made — Tel Aviv, Israel — and a purported 6/1/3 proportion of ingredients used in its production. I wouldn’t dare try to explain this unique process, so I’ll let AVIV 613 do the job:

Yossi Gold, our master distiller, arrived at the precise formulation of AVIV 613 after three years of trial and error. He begins with wheat and barley distilled three times. To that he adds thrice-distilled alcohol from a mash made from olives, figs, dates, grapes, and pomegranates. He tweaked the quantities of the ingredients, along with the proportions of the alcohol, until he reached the exact flavor notes and strength of each he wanted.

Remember that the distinctive sweet finish of AVIV 613 comes from flavors that are not added to the vodka, but which evolve from the perfect blending of grain and fruit alcohol. Water from the Sea of Galilee, the lowest freshwater source in the world, contributes to it’s unique taste and smoothness.

Distilling AVIV more than 4 times removes too many of its natural flavors. We distill the grains 3 times and the fruits 3 times before they’re blended and distilled 1 more time. Then AVIV goes through 6 filtration processes to make it ultra clean and smooth.

The nose is not any more clearly distinctive than any number of modern, moderately sweet vodkas. You can smell sugar up front on the nose, alongside mild charcoal and flinty earth notes. The sweetness fades with some aeration, leaving behind some more generalized hospital notes. The palate is less sweet than you’d think, with a pleasant silkiness to the body. Given all that goes into the mash, there’s strikingly little flavor to contend with — and certainly no olives or pomegranates. Rather, it arrives alongside quite mild notes of butterscotch, licorice, and a bit of cake frosting on the finish. It’s apt enough for stirring into a cocktail, but hardly something you’d expect to have come from the Sea of Galilee.

80 proof.

B+ / $35 / avivvodka.com