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

Tasting the Spirits of Sweden’s Spirit of Hven

Hven Organic Winter Schnapps HR

The Spirit of Hven Backafallsbyn Distillery, or simply “Hven,” can be found on a small island wedged between Sweden and Denmark (it’s part of Sweden). Hven, pronounced “venn,” was established in 2008 as part of the new guard of Scandinavian distilleries, where it produces a variety of white and brown spirits, including some seasonal schnapps (for which Swedes go ga-ga).

At present, Hven’s products aren’t distributed in the U.S., but you can have them exported to you by our friends at Master of Malt, if you’re game to give them a try. The conical bottles alone are conversation pieces.

We sampled six of the company’s offerings. Thoughts follow. (Note: All prices are for 500ml bottles.)

Spirit of Hven Organic Vodka – Organic grains are pot distilled, then matured in oak barrels, then distilled again, resulting in a clear spirit. I’m not sure this unique production method would qualify as “vodka” in the U.S., but such is life. As vodka goes, it’s very different and unusual, with a nose of pineapple jam, menthol, orange peel, and slight oily fuel notes reminiscent of Pine-Sol. It’s all very strange, but the body is fortunately cleaner, with brighter lemon notes, sweet nougat, and a clean finish. The overall impression is closer to gin or genever than vodka, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on what you’re expecting. 80 proof. B / $53

Spirit of Hven Organic Gin – Made with the same process as the vodka (including oak aging and secondary distillation), plus the addition of fresh botanicals, which include vanilla, cassia, juniper, cardamom, calamus root, Sichuan pepper, aniseed, and Guinea pepper. Strongly herbal on the nose, with notes of lemon peel and licorice atop juniper. On the tongue it offers some sweet vanilla notes to counter the juniper, anise, and slight pepper character. The creamier body, brought on by the oak aging, works well with the gin, giving it a rounder, more mouth-filling character. Exotic yet also quite easy to drink on its own or as a cocktail ingredient. 80 proof. B+ / $54

Spirit of Hven Organic Aqua Vitae – This unique aqua vitae — essentially a flavored schnapps — is oak matured twice, both before it is distilled and after it is distilled in copper pot stills. Flavored with lemon and orange zest, along with caraway and St. John’s wort, this is a moderately gold spirit with a nose of dried herbs. A seemingly mix of random spice cabinet selections leads to a surprisingly delightful little concoction on the tongue. Lots of vanilla and caramel notes, with hints of gingerbread, hot chocolate, and marshmallows, leaving those herbal hints on the nose far behind. A bit of honey is added to this aqua vitae as well, which gives the spirit a unique but welcome touch of sweetness. All told, it’s a unique little spirit. Usually that’s a bad thing, but in this case, the results are surprisingly delightful. 80 proof. A- / $58

Spirit of Hven Organic Summer Schnapps (2011) – Presumably this changes from year to year, given the vintage date on the bottle, although most of the bottles I see online do not have a date indicated. This schnapps is flavored with bitter orange, rhubarb, elderflower, and apples and mixed with locally harvested botanicals before barrel aging to a modest amber. If you’re familiar with the Scandinavian essential spirit Aquavit, you’ll find these Summer Schnapps familiar. The nose offers a bittersweet rhubarb/cinnamon character, with a bit of a musty root beer note and a touch of dark chocolate. The body has more sweetness, at least at first, with orange and apple notes at the forefront. That sweetness turns bitter with more of that root character — licorice is a hefty here — and a wood oil, musky finish. Not bad for Aquavit, but nothing I’d drink during the summer. 76 proof. B- / $56

Spirit of Hven Organic Winter Schnapps – No date on this, but the fine print says it was produced in 2012. Produced as above, but flavored with oranges, cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom, then oak-aged. Fruitier on the nose, with more sweetness and distinct cinnamon notes. On the body, considerable a apple cider character emerges, tempered by wood notes. Very Christmasy… the cloves emerge as strong contenders after the spirit opens up in the glass. But as with the summer version, the bitter finish is powerful, almost amaro-like in its intensity. Curious stuff. 76 proof. B / $56

Spirit of Hven Seven Stars No. 1 Dubhe Single Malt Whisky – A much, much different animal than all of the above. Named for a star in the Big Dipper, this first in a series of single malts (6 more are planned) is aged in a combination of American, French, and Spanish oak, though no age statement is offered. The nose is classic malt whisky — the base grain, lumber, and coal fires. Rustic, but pleasing. On the tongue, it’s surprisingly delightful. The grain gives way to lightly sugared toast, orange peel, sesame seeds, and light nougat and even butterscotch notes, emerging in classy, layered fashion. Most curious of all: The moderate smokiness on the nose totally fades away on the tongue, ultimately revealing a young spirit that nonetheless displays amazing refinement. Released March 2013, 10,250 bottles made. 90 proof. A- / $154

backafallsbyn.se

Review: Liqueurs of Vietnam’s Son Tinh

son tinh boxAnd now for something completely different…

Son Tinh is a liqueur producer based in Vietnam. The company makes a wide range of spirits, including a shochu-style liqueur, bitters, and fruit-based liqueurs. At present the company makes 11 products, 6 of which we (miraculously) got to sample, delivered via an awesome, custom-made wooden crate straight from Vietnam!

Here’s a look at the nearly full lineup. Son Tinh’s liqueurs are slowly making their way to stores — the company did win Distillery of the Year at the New York International Spirits Competition in 2013 — with wholesale pricing of between $9 and $16 per 450ml bottle. Availability is expected in late 2014.

Meanwhile, thoughts follow.

son tinh minh mangSon Tinh Nep Phu Loc – A clear sticky rice liqueur similar to shochu. Fragrant, grassy nose. Moderately sweet on the tongue, similar to a western-style vodka, with some marshmallow/nougat notes and a slightly earthy undertone. Simple and quite pleasing, could be used interchangeably with either shochu or vodka as a base spirit in cocktails. 76 proof. A-

Son Tinh Minh Mang –  A light amber herbal liqueur that boasts 19 ingredients, matured from 3 to 5 years before bottling. Intense and immediately pungent, with a nose of bitter roots, dirt, and Thai basil. The body hints at sweetness before delving back into a hefty bitter character, dense with licorice, burnt orange peel, and more tough root character. A bit of a tough slog, even for amaro lovers. 76 proof. C

Son Tinh Nhat Da – A dark brown herbal bitters matured from 3 to 5 years, the name means “one night.” Complex nose of coffee grounds, licorice, tar, and burnt lemongrass. The body is overwhelmingly bitter (plus a touch of that unavoidable sour edge), offering intense licorice and absolutely blackened coffee character. Strong and punchy, it never lets up with even a hint of sweetness to even things out. I’d say you’d get used to it, but you won’t. 76 proof. C

Son Tinh Chanh Leo – Passion fruit liqueur. Pale gold, some edgy sour fruit notes on the nose. The body is full of sour apple and pear notes, with candied lemons and dried mango character. It’s a bit scattered, falling back on a brewed tea character before a modestly bitter finish takes hold. 54 proof. B-

Son Tinh Mo Vang – Apricot liqueur. Deep amber, with musky perfume on the nose. A taste on the tongue arrives with a rush of sugar… before cascading into an intensely sour experience. The apricot is initially vivid, but leaves an aftertaste of bitter roots and fruit vinegar. 54 proof. B

Son Tinh Tao Meo – Rose apple liqueur, based on the rare fruit of the rose plant. On the nose, a mix of fruit and flowers, as the name would imply. More perfume than fruit, and blessedly dialed back on that sour character. What remains is a somewhat Madeira-like spirit with notes of raspberry and rose petals. 54 proof. B+

sontinh.com

Review: The 86 Co. Aylesbury Duck Vodka and Ford’s Gin

The 86 Co., based in New York, is a sort of negociant of the spirits world. crafting spirits in cahoots with other distillers and distilleries from around the world. The company launched a barrage of four spirits in 2012, including the two we’re profiling below.

aylesbury duck vodkaAylesbury Duck Vodka – Distilled from Canadian winter wheat, bottled in California with a touch of Mendocino well water, then named after, yes, a duck. Modestly filtered only to remove particulate matter. I really like this vodka. The nose has earthy overtones, playing things safe. But the body’s quite a different animal. It’s sweet without being sugary, much in the way an fresh apple is sweet. The character is actually more akin to crisp pineapple, offering tartness and bite with each sip, with a finish that brings across notes of vanilla and milk chocolate. Medicinal hints creep up on the very back end of the finish. This is a fun and surprisingly modern vodka that exhibits that rarest of character traits in a world of overblown sugar bombs: restraint. 80 proof. A- / $26 (1 liter)

fords ginFords Gin – Named because it’s a collaboration of The 86 Co. with Simon Ford, but oddly lacking an apostrophe. Column-distilled from English wheat in London, this is the only gin in memory that doesn’t just outline its botanical bill, but tells you exact percentages of each ingredient in the infusion blend. Here, they are: Italian juniper (49.5%), Romanian coriander (30.5%), Haitian/Moroccan orange peel (3.2%), Turkish grapefruit peel (3.2%), Polish angelica (3.2%), Indonesian cassia (2.1%), Chinese jasmine (3.2%), and Italian/Moroccan orris root (2.1%). There’s only one real eyebrow-raiser there — the jasmine — but these otherwise typical ingredients come together quite well in Fords. Despite the hefty juniper component, this isn’t a particularly green-tasting gin. It’s readily evident on the nose, before offering notes of rose petal, sandalwood, and sage. The body pulls out the cinnamon (cassia) fairly quickly, and the palate grows with more lemony (or grapefruity) notes as the finish builds. Here, that earthiness comes back a bit, alongside straight-up juniper, before finishing clean. The gin is finished with that Mendocino water in California before bottling at 90 proof. A- / $31 (1 liter)

the86co.com