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

Review: Stumbras Vodka

Stumbras Vodka CentenaryStumbras hails from a large conglomerate in the Baltic region, one of its concerns being distilling. This Lithuanian vodka comes from a distillery that produces a whopping 13 million liters of 350 different beverages each year. The company is the largest producer of spirits in the region.

Stumbras produces a variety of vodkas, including many flavored varieties. These two are both unflavored versions, distilled from grain and heavily filtered through sand, charcoal, and silver filters. Both are bottled at 80 proof.

Stumbras Centenary Vodka – The picture doesn’t do it justice, but that’s an actual stalk of wheat inside the bottle, not part of a picture on the label. Meant to echo the grain base of the spirit within, I have to admit I don’t get a lot of bready grain character here but rather a wholly Old World experience that feels like the kind of spirit a Siberian ice farmer would knock back by the bottle after a long day. That means big medicinal notes up front, though they’re not particularly pungent or overwhelming. There’s a slight lemon character to both the nose and the body, which gives the finish more of an easiness than you get with burlier Eastern European vodkas, although it still packs an acidic bite. Overall it’s simple, a bit rustic, and straightforward — but in vodka, that can work surprisingly well. A- / $16

Stumbras Pure Vodka – Pure is made in a similar fashion to Centenary, but is additionally filtered through platinum filters and rested for three days before bottling. No wheat stalk, either. I was surprised to discover the differences between Pure and Centenary, figuring these were really just repackaged versions of the same stuff. But Pure is softer and creamier, with distinctly less bite than the Centenary. The lemon is virtually gone here, replaced with touches of vanilla. The overall impact, however, is about the same, with Pure offering somewhat less bracing power but more long-term sippability. A- / $18

stumbras.eu

Review: Infuse Flavored Vodkas

infuse vodka

Oh man, I’m a sucker for a bottle of hooch with something floating around in it. Long shafts of herbs, whole pears… what doesn’t look amazing bobbing around inside a bottle of alcohol?

Infuse’s flavored vodkas all adhere to this conceit, each with something or other inside, proving, ostensibly, that natural elements are responsible for the flavors within the bottle and not chemical sludge out of a test tube.

Infuse Vodkas, made in California, are distilled from Kansas corn, then flavored with actual fruits and spices (everything goes in dried, so shelf life should be quite lengthy) instead of mysterious “natural flavorings.” There are at least six varieties on offer. We sampled four for review. All 80 proof. Thoughts follow.

Infuse Lemon Vodka – Pale yellow color. Tart lemon notes on the nose, fresh and clear like Limoncello. The body sticks closer to the vodka formula, with bracing medicinal notes cut with a touch of lemon peel. That body feels like it could have more of a fruit element to it to balance out the booziness, but otherwise it’s a solid and authentic rendition of a mild lemon vodka. Of special note: The long strips of lemon peel lose their yellow color over time, leaving what looks like limpid white linguine floating in the bottle. B

Infuse Mango Vodka – Again, a super-fresh and authentically tropical nose on this vodka, a moderately pale yellow spirit with three slices of (dried?) mango in the bottom of the bottle. It’s so fragrant it’s hard to stop smelling it. Fortunately the body doesn’t disappoint. Here the fruit and punchy alcohol notes are in balance, the vodka offering silky mango sweetness with a dusting of bite to back it up. This is nice enough on its own but would be gorgeous in a Cosmo-esque cocktail. A

Infuse Cinnamon Apple Vodka – The most visually appealing of the bunch, a whiskey-brown spirit with numerous apple slices floating at the top of the bottle. The nose is pure apple, with touches of cinnamon, just like grandma used to bake. Smooth as silk on the body — the vodka is really only evident on the finish, as the sweet, dessert-like character of the product takes center stage. Not exactly a mainstream combination that you’ll turn to nightly, but a fun change of pace to be sure. A-

Infuse Chili Pepper Vodka – Three lonely chili peppers float at the top of this (again) pale yellow vodka, the only hint that something spicy’s going on. Even the nose is not particularly pungent, the most clearly vodka-like — medicinal, but tempered with some sweetness — of the bunch with just a hint of red pepper on the nose. The hospital notes hit you first on the tongue, then the pepper arrives. It’s a pleasant heat — moderate, a little more biting than gentle, particularly if you take an especially large sip, which gnaws a bit at the back of the throat. I’ve never been a huge fan of pepper vodkas, but Infuse’s rendition is as good as any. Spicy Bloody Mary? Sure. Beyond that, I’ve no idea how to use it. Grows on you, though. B

each $28 / infusevodkas.com

Review: Red Eye Louie’s Vodquila

vodquilaIt’s another spirit mashup that I’m unclear who’s been clamoring for: Vodquila is… wait for it… vodka and tequila. That’s it.

There’s nothing surprising in the construction here: The bright idea was to mix 100% agave Highlands tequila with premium, imported, grain-distilled vodka. And to be honest, the whole idea baffles me. If you like premium tequila, you’ll dislike the idea of watering it down with vodka — essentially turning it into a mixto. On the other hand, if you’re a vodka kinda guy, well, you’re just going to hate having tequila in it.

The overall impact is about what you think it will be. The nose is heavy on the agave, lemony, with an undercurrent of sugar. On the palate, it’s that vodka-fueled sugar that hits you first. Your brain doesn’t know whether to prepare for a sweet, modern-style vodka experience or something else, but before you get the chance to make up your mind, the tequila hits. At first, it offers a strong herbal agave character, with more of that lemon, but then along comes a lightly spiced finish that’s absolutely loaded with sweetness — almost like a slice of cinnamon toast.

Vodquila grows on you over time. Or rather, it becomes more harmless and innocuous, much like any well-sweetened mixto tequila does, simple enough but probably regrettable later. Of course, Vodquila does have one trick up its Frankenbooze sleeve: At a price that undercuts every 100% agave tequila I’m aware of, it seems to be destined to find a home in novelty shots over sipping straight, which sounds about right to me.

C+ / $18 / vodquila.com

Review: Zing Red Velvet Vodka

Zing Red Velvet

This is begging for an animated GIF.

Some facts.

Zing is sold with a light on the bottom that either flashes or emits a steady red glow, making it immediately the most striking and most ostentatious bottle of flavored vodka you can have on your shelf. (It’s a frosted white when it’s turned off.)

Zing is sold in two and only two varieties: Straight/unflavored, and red velvet. Yeah, red velvet.

Zing’s creative director is Chris Brown. Yes, that Chris Brown. I guess he likes red velvet cake and red LEDs.

Made from a corn and wheat base in Rochester, New York (the holy land!), Zing is 4-times column distilled and “rigorously” filtered. The red velvet variety is artificially flavored.

The aroma of cake frosting and vanilla are striking right out of the gate. Whether this is red velvet or white buttercream is impossible to say, but it is hugely sweet and heavily flavored. The back end offers some light hospital notes typical of grain vodkas, with a vaguely lime-like finish. This all comes together in a sort of bizarre way, a bit like eating a handful of candy alongside the cake at your son’s birthday party. A bit much for me. Pass the crudite-flavored vodka, please.

70 proof.

C / $27 / zingvodka.com

Review: Marquis Vodka

marquis vodkaReal Polish vodka is becoming harder and harder to come by, but this new brand is the real thing, hailing from a distillery built in 1895 outside of Warsaw. Made in a 100-year-old copper column still from local rye, it is cut to proof with the distillery’s own water from a limestone aquifer. The black-frosted bottle is striking and a little off-putting with its gothness.

There’s a lot of character behind the black glass. The nose offers lemon, grass and heather, and — most curiously — notes of fresh carrot. On the body, it’s a mix of Old World and New: A modest medicinal character (nothing overwhelming) backed with quite a bit of sweetness. Vegetal notes, however, are what linger the longest, with the finish taking on a somewhat mushroomy and brooding character.

Interesting and unique, but that finish pushes me a bit too far into the savory for comfort.

80 proof.

B / $35 / marquisvodka.com

Review: Willa Vodka

willa vodkaA craft vodka made with Italian grain and water from Nantucket, where this vodka is created, Willa is part of the “low-cal” spirits trend. What that means in practical terms is it’s lower in alcohol — 70 proof vs. the standard 80 in the industry.

Very little about Willa enchanted me. The nose is charcoal and chalk, a kind of powdered mineral character that doesn’t really hint at anything of substance. On the body, it’s somewhat unctuous and sweaty, both in its structure and the aromas and flavors that develop as you sip it. The finish is thin (the 70 proof doesn’t help there), leaving a salty and unsatisfying aftertaste. Not much bite (which is the point, really). Pass on this one.

D+ / $30 / willavodka.com

Drinkhacker’s 2013 Holiday Gift Guide – Best Alcohol/Spirits for Christmas

Back again by popular demand, it’s the Drinkhacker holiday gift guide — or our “best stuff of the year awards” if you want to go that route. As usual, this list is filtered through the lens of the holidays, designed to help you decide what you might buy for the loved ones on your shopping list, should they be whiskey, rum, tequila, or other spirits fans.

The offerings below are but a small selection of our favorite spirits from the last year, with an eye toward things you might actually be able to find on the market (no Pappy on this list… what would be the point?). 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!

Also check out our 2012201120102009, and 2008 holiday guides.

Parker's_ALS_Promise of Hope_Bottle ShotBourbon – Parker’s Heritage Collection Promise of Hope ($90) – Hard to go wrong with Bourbon this year, with so many good bottlings to pick from. But for its sheer holiday appropriateness (and quality), I have to go with the new Parker’s Heritage release, bottled in honor of Parker Beam. If you buy a bottle, a full $20 will go to ALS research, which Beam was recently diagnosed with. Other ideas? Where to start: Hillrock Solera ($90, an utter knockout), both Four Roses releases — Single Barrel ($80) and Small Batch ($90) — and Wild Turkey’s new Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Small Batch ($50). On a budget? Try Rough Rider ($33), Jim Beam Signature Craft 12 Year Old ($40), Burnside Double Barrel ($44), or even the controversial Stagg Jr. ($50). But one of my favorite bourbons of the year is also one of its cheapest: The Hooker’s House single-barrel monster of a bourbon, finished in Pinot Noir barrels ($36).

Scotch – Laphroaig Cairdeas Port Wood Edition 2013 ($75) – Slimmer pickins in the world of Scotch this year, as prices have gone and quality has noticeably begun to decline. But this gem from Laphroaig, which is almost pink in color and is exquisite in its balance, is easily my top pick — and still widely available. Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 9 ($250) and Ardbeg Ardbog ($120) are also still on the market, as is Isle of Jura “Juar” 1977 36 Years Old, which can be had for significantly less than its $950 list price. Budget shoppers (well, as “budget” as Scotch gets these days) should not overlook Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve ($87), a new limited edition blend that looks as good as it tastes.

Other Whiskey – WhistlePig “The Boss Hog” Rye 12 Years Old ($150) – I’m adding this new category this year because there are so many other worthy whiskeys on the market that don’t fit into the Bourbon or Scotch mold. It’s hard to pick a favorite here, as Collingwood 21 Year Old Canadian Rye ($70) and Powers John’s Lane 12 Years Old Irish ($65) are neck and neck in quality. But the seductive Boss Hog gets my slight nod for 2013’s most memorable alternative whiskey. Budget-minded shoppers needn’t look beyond Pike Creek Canadian ($37).

master of malt cream ginGin – Master of Malt Worship Street Whistling Shop Cream Gin ($68) – You won’t find a more unique gin for sale this year, or perhaps ever. I’m shocked it’s still on the market. Also worth a look for the juniper fan in the fam: The Russell Henry lineup (3 different gins, $38 each) and the German Monkey 47 ($61, 500ml).

Vodka – Pau Maui Vodka ($30) – An enjoyable vodka distilled from pineapples, giving it added conversation value. Also enjoyable (and giftable) are Absolut Elyx ($50), and 666 Vodka ($28).

Rum – Ron Barceló Imperial Premium Blend 30 Aniversario Rum ($120) – It’s been a rather quiet year for rum, but this rarity is easily on top of my list (and still buyable). Also hunt for Gosling’s Old Rum ($70) and Kirk & Sweeney 12 Years Old ($40).

Brandy – Louis Royer Cognac XO ($140) – Amazing stuff, and my only top-shelf Cognac pick for the year. For something more exotic (and inexpensive) try Encanto’s Acholado Pisco ($35).

50594 Brown FormanHerradura Coleccion ImagesTequila – Tequila Herradura Coleccion de la Casa Port Cask Finished Reposado, Reserva 2012 ($90) – Tons of great tequila releases to choose from this year, but my top pick has to go to this unique Herradura bottling, finished in Port casks. This came out in early 2013 but has a 2012 date on it… mind you don’t accidentally pick up the less masterful 2013 release. Also worth considering: Qui Platinum (“white”) Extra Anejo ($60), Tapatio 110 Blanco ($42, 1 liter), and 901 Anejo ($50).

Liqueur – Art in the Age Sage Liqueur ($30) – Try out this unique liqueur as an alternative to juniper-focused spirits for the gin lover on your list; it really switches up a martini or G&T. Also worth a look are Jack from Brooklyn Sorel Liqueur ($40) and the new Luxardo Aperitivo ($20).

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!

AND: Get the gift guide in high-res printable PDF format, ready to take to the store!