Review: Prairie Organic Gin and Cucumber Vodka

Prairie_GinPrairie Organic Vodka, a clean, corn-based spirit from Minnesota, has been with us for the better part of a decade. At last the company is out with two line extensions, a gin and a cucumber-flavored version of the original spirit, both organic releases. Thoughts on both follow forthwith.

Prairie Organic Cucumber Flavored Vodka – Take Prairie’s corn-distilled vodka and add “garden-fresh cucumber flavor” and you have this spirit. Cucumber is becoming increasingly common as a vodka flavor, and this rendition is both straightforward and perfectly credible — largely authentic with almost nothing in the way of secondary flavor notes at all (aside from some subtle sweetness). Nothing shocking, just a quiet recreation of cucumber sandwiches, hold the sandwiches. 70 proof. B / $26

Prairie Organic Gin – Prairie doesn’t publish its botanical list, but alludes to mint, sage, and cherry (!) on its bottle hanger, along with the usual juniper. On the nose I get a lot of floral, almost perfumy notes, along with touches of cinnamon and mulled wine. The body is a bit more traditional: Juniper comes up first (barely), with citrus peel notes… but there’s also gingerbread and honey on the finish. Pleasant enough, but it doesn’t quite muster enough in the body department for my tastes. 80 proof. B / $26

prairievodka.com  [BUY THEM NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Kinky Blue Liqueur

Kinky-Blue-originalBarely a year ago, Kinky, a hot pink Alize knockoff, first crossed our desk. Now, the club-friendly concoction is out with a second version, Kinky Blue. Which is not pink, but blue.

Again, this is technically not a liqueur but a flavored vodka, 5x distilled and flavored with blue things — “tropical and wild berry flavors,” according to the bottle.

The nose, however, is not nearly so distinct. Deep whiffs reveal almost nothing — it could be any berry-flavored vodka… raspberry? Schnozzberry? The body is equally vague. Many a flavored vodka has this same bittersweet note of Kool-Aid powder and tonic water, though few are quite this blue. There is a hint of pineapple on the finish that brings on a touch of interest, but it’s a long way to go for flavors that are done better in other, less silly spirits.

34 proof.

C- / $20 / kinkyliqueur.com

Review: Spirits of Santa Fe Spirits

santa fe apple brandy

Santa Fe Spirits is based, you guessed it, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Founded by Colin Keegan in 2010, the company now offers a range of five spirits, all with a southwestern bent and primarily column-distilled. We tasted four of them (all but the aged, single malt whiskey). Thoughts follow.

Santa Fe Spirits Apple Brandy – This was Santa Fe’s first product, made from New Mexico-grown Mountain West apples, including some from Keegan’s own orchard. Barrel aged “for years.” Big, punchy nose. It’s got mashed apples, sure, but lots of wood, and some coal fire character to it. The body is on the oily side, burly with overpowering wood notes and a big, tannic finish. Overall: A curiosity that never quite pulls it all together. C+ / $45

Santa Fe Spirits Wheeler’s Western Dry Gin – A newfangled infusion and the most avant garde of the bunch. This gun includes only botanicals that are sourced from within 30 miles of the distillery: white desert sage, Cholla cactus blossoms, osha root, Cascade hops, and local juniper. My first cactus-infused gin! The nose is a delight. Quite citrusy, like Meyer lemon, with distinct sage notes. On the body, those hops come through right away, while the sage and citrus character lingers. All of these things balance quite well, though the hops tend to dominate a bit too heavily. 80 proof (it could have stood to be 86, in my opinion). B+ / $32

Santa Fe Spirits Silver Coyote Pure Malt Whiskey – Made from 100% malted barley and bottled as unaged white dog. A lighter style of white dog, relatively restrained (comparatively) with a curious mix of grain and slate notes on the nose. The body isn’t overly complex, wearing its maltiness and youthful barley notes on its sleeve, with a lightly vegetal finish. Think green beans and sweet potatoes. Or competently made white lightning, anyway. 92 proof. B+ / $30

Santa Fe Spirits Expedition American West Vodka – 6 times distilled from a corn base. Interesting nose here, supple and sweet but not overdone. It’s not at all “corny,” but the aroma is almost like a nice bit of cotton candy or marshmallow. On the body, similar notes prevail, with a subtle fruitiness that recalls apples and banana. The finish has a touch of medicinal burn, but by and large it’s a smooth operator that offers a modern profile balanced by a restrained and refined backbone. 80 proof. A / $25

Note: This quartet is available in a four-pack of 200ml bottles. Total price: $55.

santafespirits.com

Review: Slovenia Vodka

slovenia vodka

Yes, it’s from Slovenia. No, it’s not weird to ask. In this day and age, names mean nothing.

Made from 99.9% winter wheat and 0.1% non-pearled buckwheat (“for smoothness”), pot-distilled, and brought to proof with Slovenian Alps water, Slovenia Vodka has a curious pedigree. The money behind this new brand comes from, in part, chef Peter X. Kelly, dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, and actor Bill Murray.

So that’s the story. How about the spirit?

The nose starts off classically, with medicinal character backed with a bit of smoke — or smoked meat — character. Pungent and powerful, it leads into a body that is surprisingly quite different than what you might expect. Here you’ll find much bigger sweetness, vanilla and butterscotch notes, with the hospital notes coming along in the finish. It’s a curious, but not unlikable, experience, careening from savory to sweet and back again. That said, the lack of focus is a bit strange, though some could argue this just adds complexity to an oftentimes simplistic spirit.

80 proof.

B+ / $30 / sloveniavodka.com

Tasting Chopin Vodka: Potato vs. Rye vs. Wheat

chopinkit

Curious how the base carbohydrate impacts the way a straight vodka tastes? Well, Poland-based Chopin is here to illustrate. It’s one of the few companies that make a multitude of straight vodkas from different base products. In fact, it now makes three: one from potato, one from rye, and one from wheat.

While I’ve tasted (and reviewed) both the potato and rye versions before, this is the first time I’ve sampled all three side by side (and the first time I’ve had any of them in many years). I sampled the trio blind, so as not to be tainted by preconceived notions, with thoughts below. But never mind my thoughts — this is a great little experiment to try for yourself at your favorite watering hole.

Each is 80 proof.

Chopin Potato Vodka – Similar nose to #1, with just a hint more power. On the body, it offers a punchier mouthfeel with a more savory character, and a somewhat earthy, mushroomy component on the finish. Still on the light side, but with more heft. The most “old world” vodka in the lineup. My favorite here, by a slight margin (and a significant departure from my opinion of it back in 2008). A-

Chopin Rye Vodka – Clean, slightly sweet nose, with a breezy, almost tropical nuance. Very clean, light body, with a slight astringency on the finish. Flavor profile includes very mild tropical character, and a kind of doughy finish. Easily the lightest spirit, in both body and character, in this lineup. B+

Chopin Wheat Vodka – Sharper nose, with more of a lemon curd character to it. The body hints at orange juice, adds more sweetness in the form of a nougat, almost chocolate character. Stylistically it’s the most “modern” of the bunch, with the cleanest finish. B+

each about $28 / chopinvodka.com

Review: UV Sriracha Vodka

UV_Sriracha_BottleAs we reported in December, the world of flavored vodka has delved into the full-on lunatic, with the launch of UV’s Sriracha-flavored vodka.

Officially notated as a “chili pepper flavored vodka” made with all-natural flavors, the spirit really looks the part, bottled in imitation of the iconic condiment, packaged in a red bottle with a green stopper. (That said, unlike actual sriracha, the vodka itself is clear. The bottle is what’s tinted red here.) Now, chili-flavored vodkas aren’t a new thing… but sriracha? Let’s see whether UV has managed to recreate a boozy version of the real deal.

The nose is surprisingly engaging — lightly spicy, with notes of tomato juice, olives, pickles, and — oddly — fresh lettuce. On the palate, sweetness arrives (much like in actual sriracha) to balance an initial rush of heat. The body retains a lot of that Bloody Mary character you get on the nose with peppery tomato juice up front, but the sweetness here is a little distracting, coming off as artificial, failing to integrate well with the hot side of things. That said, I think actual sriracha has a bit of the same problem, too.

Overall, UV Sriracha doesn’t exactly aim for the stars, and the vodka is a qualified success. I can’t say I’ve ever encountered quite this collection of flavors in a single product. It may not exactly be sriracha with a boozy base, but it’s probably as close as it comes if you’re one of the legions of fanatics who love the stuff. And since it’s not much more expensive than a real bottle of sriracha, anyway, it’s arguably worth the investment for novelty value alone.

60 proof.

B / $12 / uvvodka.com

Review: 1.0.1 Vodka

1.0.1 vodkaMade in California and pronounced “One-O-One,” this new vodka is distilled from corn (to keep the spirit gluten-free) and filtered five times before bottling.

Billed as affordable alternative to $30-plus ultra-premium vodkas, 1.0.1 fits right in with its oversized, frosted bottle.

The spirit itself, however, is considerably different than most of those big brands. Here, big notes of marshmallow and chocolate-covered caramels waft out just from opening the bottle. Rich and dessert-like on the nose, I also get the slightest hint of quince or Asian pear in the nostrils too. The body is a rich dessert from the start. More marshmallow, more caramel, and a long, sweet finish with a slight smokiness on the back end. The end result is not at all unpleasant, but it lacks the punch and zip of more traditional vodkas, as 1.0.1.’s traditional medicinal character has been seemingly filtered away.

80 proof.

B / $20 / 101vodka.com

Review: Ketel One Vodka (2014)

ketel one 2014 bottle

The Netherlands-distilled Ketel One was one of the brands that drove vodka’s rise to super-premium status, and it’s been 6 years since we took a look at this iconic, venerable brand.

Recipes and production methods change, over time. So how has Ketel One fared in the last half-decade as its found itself attacked by competitors? We took a fresh look at a recent-vintage bottle.

I tasted Ketel One before reading my prior review. The vodka is cleaner than I remember, with distinct lemon notes on the nose backing up some hefty hospital character. The body is crisp and sharp with classic medicinal character, and also mildly lemony with a slight backbone of vanilla. Lovely balance on the whole, making it easy to enjoy straight or in any number of cocktails. A clear go-to that deserves its spot on the back bar.

I didn’t catch the menthol notes this time around, but more importantly that ashy charcoal character was wholly lacking in this 2014 bottle. All in all, Ketel One remains a top choice for a high-end vodka, and in fact may even be getting better.

A / $20 / ketelone.com

Review: Exclusiv XO Napoleon Brandy-Flavored Vodka

exclusiv brandy vodkaFlavored vodka gets a whole new whaaaaaa? factor with the release of Exclusiv XO Napoleon, a brownish-colored vodka that is made “with natural brandy flavor and caramel added.” This may look like brandy — and that big “XO” on the front has to earn the award for the most misleading liquor designation of all time — but rest assured it’s really a flavored vodka, colored brown.

The company offers this by way of an explanation, “This is the first vodka of its kind, which uses 5-18 year old brandies to create an authentic XO flavor. Our goal in creating this product was to give our brown spirit drinkers an affordable taste alternative.”

Sadly, Exclusiv, which makes a perfectly credible straight vodka in its Moldova home base, has created a misguided monster with XO Napoleon. It certainly looks the part, a lovely iced tea-brown in color, but from there things just get weird. The tea character carries over into the nose, which comes across like weak Lipton spiked with Sweet’N Low. That’s a close approximation of the body, too — plus a little bit of dried leaves, a bit of sweetener, and a bit of rubber. There’s literally nothing here that resembles brandy in even its most simplistic, basic rendition. If you told me this was another tea-flavored vodka (a trend which seems to be winding down), I’d believe you, but I’d tell you I’d had better. For something that’s meant to approximate a brandy — no matter what the price — this simply doesn’t work.

While Exclusiv’s idea of bringing brandy, or at least the idea of it, to the masses for $10 a bottle has some semblance of a good idea within, its execution is basically a disaster. The fundamental flaw with XO Napoleon: There are plenty of $10 brandies on the market that are actually made out of brandy and which are far more interesting than this.

70 proof.

D / $10 / exclusiv-vodka.com

Review: Russian Diamond Vodka

Russian Diamond VodkaRussian Diamond would like to turn your attention to the Italian fabric labels (hey, it’s felty!) and the 57 filtrations it goes through before bottling. What I want to alert you to is that Russian Diamond is really Russian vodka. With Stoli made (at least in part) in Latvia and Smirnoff made primarily in the U.S., finding real Russian vodka isn’t the easiest thing to do any more.

Made in an old distillery (it’s been modernized) outside of Moscow, Russian Diamond is about as authentic as you can get. That said, Russian Diamond is a melding of Old World processes and New World sensibilities. After all, according to the company’s press release, the filtration system alone includes “multiple fabric filters that smoothen [sic] the taste, biological filters, such as needles of Siberian pine tree and larch tree, herbs and grains, which enrich the drink with the powers of the nature itself.” (The vodka itself is distilled from wheat and rye and incorporates local water from Moscow’s Mytischchi springs.)

What then does it taste like, you ask? Good question. The nose is a standout, offering crispness and a clean character, while not being harsh or overly medicinal. This is a tricky feat to pull off, as most vodkas either veer too far into hospital notes or drift wildly into the bakery with a strong, sugary character.

On the palate, it’s admittedly sweeter than I’d like, further evidence that very few spirits makers are immune to the increasing sweet tooth of the worldwide palate, particularly in the U.S. The vodka offers notes of chocolate, butterscotch, and touches of lemon/lime on the finish. The bracing character of the nose is largely absent on the tongue, but the sweetness does make for an interesting counterpoint to its racier nose.

Works for me.

80 proof.

A- / $25 / russiandiamond.com