You can keep your citrus, your chocolate, your Asian pear flavored vodkas. Sub Rosa strikes out for more uncommon ground, with two flavored spirits: Saffron Vodka and Tarragon Vodka.
Crafted in Oregon and available in limited distribution domestically, these are unique vodkas unlike anything else you’ve ever tried. All natural, high-end stuff, as Sub Rosa notes, no essential oils are used in the infusion: This is just herbs and spices suspended in vodka. Both come in hot at 90 proof.
Sub Rosa Spirits Saffron Flavored Vodka (Batch 6) – A curious color far unlike the wild orange of Boudier’s Saffron Gin, the light yellow/green color instead recalls Yellow Chartreuse. The nose: Surprisingly mild, vague spice character. On the palate, a shock to the senses: Completely savory, saffron, anise, and licorice notes — and none of the sweet finish, the norm for infused vodkas. The infusion includes far more than saffron — with cumin, coriander, and five other spices, this is closer to a gin than a flavored vodka, and I’d primarily suggest using it as a gin substitute. Not for the faint of heart, the savory character rumbles along with a long and lasting finish, fading away almost like a mild curry. I mean that in the best possible way. A- / $30
Sub Rosa Spirits Tarragon Flavored Vodka (Batch 5) – Slightly greener, with a clearer herbal character on the nose. Clear licorice character on the nose, and stronger on the body. (Fennel and mint are also used in the blend.) Tarragon is a relatively little-utilized herb, and that’s a shame. Here it offers the intrigue of a Thanksgiving meal, plus a return of some of that lightly sweet licorice kick in the end. Quite different than the Saffron vodka but equally delightful. A- / $30
Who is Brandon? Brandon is Phil Brandon, the founder of Rock Town Distillery, the first legal distillery in the state of Arkansas since Prohibition. Both are distilled from Arkansas red winter wheat and are bottled in hand-numbered bottles. Here’s how both — available regionally in limited markets — shake out.
Brandon’s Vodka – Incredible nut and butterscotch character on the nose. Almost dessert-like on the tongue, it’s hard to believe this isn’t a flavored spirit. The overwhelming notes of creme brulee, almonds, and dark chocolate are impossible to ignore, making this a love-it-or-hate-it spirit. What else to say? It has no medicinal character and no real bite to speak of, and I scarcely know whether to even categorize it as a vodka at all. 80 proof. (Batch 7, Bottle 32) B+ / $30
Brandon’s Gin -As odd as Brandon’s Vodka is, Brandon’s Gin plays it by the book: A straightforward infusion “vapor infused” with seven (unnamed but natural) botanicals. Juniper and citrus peel, plus a little pepper, start you off, and eventually those herbal characteristics fade and leave you with hints of Brandon’s sweet vodka, the obvious base for its gin. An exercise in contrasts, but one that works for the most part. 92 proof. (Batch 6, Bottle 221) B+ / $30
Spring44 (aka Spring 44) is a new line of vodka and gin out of Colorado. All are distilled five times from a multi-grain blend of wheat, rye, and corn (much like whiskey), filtered through a coconut husk filtration system, and blended with water from a 9,000-foot-high source.
We checked out all three of the distillery’s initial offerings. All are 80 proof.
Spring44 Vodka – I like this spirit a lot. A bracing nose offers light medicinal notes, and the body has astringency to spare. It is however balanced by just a touch of sweetness, giving it an interesting character while still living squarely in the realm of traditional vodka style. Spring44 isn’t a complicated vodka — it wears its medicinal character on its sleeve — but it is authentic and expressive. It’s a wonderful balance of old world and new. A-
Spring44 Honey Vodka – Kind of an odd choice for your first and only flavored vodka, but Spring44 obviously has a jones for honey flavor that it couldn’t ignore. Compared the the relatively restrained flavors of the straight vodka, the Honey version is huge and overwhelming. A light yellow hue indicates that plenty of honey goes into this blend, and while it isn’t immediately evident on the nose, it’s awfully big on the tongue. This honey notes here are earthy and, as is often the case with honey vodkas, on the funky side — not quite honey but not quite vodka, either. Where it lives is an odd middle ground between tradition and fun, and unlike the straight vodka, it doesn’t work as well. B [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]
Spring44 Gin – Spring44 uses 12 botanicals (including many Colorado natives) in this formula and does not reveal them. The character is also not entirely balanced, heavy on fruit flavors (I presume berries of various ilk are in the mix), with juniper coming up behind. Again, this just doesn’t work together the right way, both sweet and bitter but not in the way you might expect. The finish is off: A lingering flavor of berries left to macerate too long — a bit like an Eastern bloc fruit brandy — and not so much a gin. B-
about $22 each / spring44.com
When absinthe essentially went dark in 2009, it handed over the reins to a replacement in the fad liquor department: Tea-flavored vodkas. These bad boys just keep coming and, thankfully, each is just about as good as the last — a claim which absinthe was never able to make.
This sweet tea vodka from Austin, Texas has a milder nose than most, but the mouthfeel is huge and the taste is, again, authentic — this blend claiming Nilgiri black tea, turbinado sugar, and Hill Country spring water in the mix. Sure enough, the darker sugar notes come through after awhile — especially as the finish lingers. My only complaint is a bit more bite than most of the other vodkas of this ilk — but that’s almost splitting hairs. This is certainly a quality product and a worthy part of the category — and cheap, too.
A- / $15 / treatyoakrum.com
You read that right, and now you have proof that, yes, anything and everything short of asparagus has been used to flavor vodka.
Burnett’s is not exactly an artisan, Square One-style producer of delicately-flavored organic vodkas. It’s a mega-bottle shop best known for its pre-mixed cosmos and mojitos. Now, for its whopping 24th vodka flavor it has gone into the sweet shot: whipped cream.
The spirit, well, it smells exactly like whipped cream. Naturally flavored, it really fills the room when poured into a glass. As you well might expect, it is extremely sweet — on the edge of cloyingly so — but the taste, as with the nose, is authentic, sugary, and just like a fluffy puddle of whipped cream slathered atop your raspberry Napoleon. Outside of chocolate-based dessert drinks I have no idea what you would do with this — the cocktails I tried with it were, to put it mildly, undrinkable — but if you need to put whipped cream flavor into an alcoholic concoction, well, look no further.
Meanwhile, my mind is wandering…. Mmmm, asparagus vodka.
B / $10 / burnettsvodka.com
Skyy already makes a fine citrus vodka, so why mess with things by introducing a Blood Orange version? Because it’s even better.
The juicy blood Orange is the king of citrus fruits, and sure enough it makes for a mighty fruit-infused vodka, too. This one if amazingly fruit-forward, really lush with authentic orange notes: Tart and very sweet. That slight hint of strawberry and pineapple adds to the experience, giving this an almost tropical bent to it.
Flavored vodkas are usually hardly anything to get excited about, but this one’s worth stocking.
A / $18 / skyy.com
Italy and vodka: Two names that, well, I’ve never heard together before. I Spirit bills itself as “the original Italian vodka,” and I’m hard-pressed to argue with that self-assessment. The distillation base includes both grape and grain components, distilled five times in both copper and column stills, then blended with water from the Dolomites to 80 proof.
Results: Despite a harsh, medicinal nose, I Spirit is quite pleasant on the palate. Those medicine aromas are minimized on the tongue,and what’s behind is a mix of earthy, grain-driven character plus some sweetness, presumably a by-product of the white wine component which is distilled down to make the vodka. Secondary characteristics includes a hint of lemon and citrus peel, but on the whole it settles down with a short and surprisingly neutral finish. Works in a martini, no problems.
B+ / $40 / ispiritvodka.com
For its fifth city-themed, limited edition vodka, our friends at Absolut have brought us something awfully close to home: Absolut SF (because presumably “San Francisco” was too long for the bottle).
Three fruity infusions are added to this special bottling: grape, papaya, and dragon fruit. No huge explanation for the flavoring agents is offered; however, grape is obvious and the papaya and dragon fruit, I am guessing, are a nod to the city’s heavy Far East, Southeast Asian, and Hispanic population. I’d have gone with a little lychee in there, but that’s just my bias.
As for the spirit itself, the grape is hard to miss, but it’s dialed back quite a bit vs. the over-the-top jelly-like vodkas that dominate the liquor store shelves. Papaya and dragon fruit are elusive but come across more clearly on the nose. The body unfortunately is a bit muddier than that, with the tropical notes at war with the powerful grape essence. Some inharmonious, woodsy flavors, common with all Absolut bottlings, are evident as you sip it.
While the cityscape motif on the front of the bottle is eye-catching, I’m less enamored of the day-glo protest signs that serve as a backdrop (etched on the reverse of the bottle so it’s seen through the glass). I know all too well our activist heritage here, but I don’t want to have to think about it while I’m drinking.
B+ / $20 / absolut.com
How do you cut the calorie level from a flavored vodka? Throttle down the alcohol level and cut out the sugar.
The first idea is probably not a bad thing. The second one is what kills the deal. Firefly Skinny Tea opts for artificial sweetener instead of sugar, and to say that mars the “sweet tea” effect is an understatement. It starts out all right, with a big brewed tea nose and character, but then the artifice comes on, coating the mouth and leaving a cloying finish. I couldn’t shake the aftertaste — literally for several minutes I was tasting this gummy, rubbery gunk that I just couldn’t get out of my mouth. The only solution: Another sip. That’s a vicious cycle you got right there.
With a mixer like lemonade this might be more palatable, but as it stands, it, like so many things in life, it’s a tradeoff that just isn’t worth it. What are you saving for your trouble: In a 1.5-ounce shot, a whopping 27 calories. Kick out a crouton instead and stick with the Firefly classic.
C / $18 / fireflyvodka.com
The Pucker brand of liqueurs has been with us for years — you can’t make the infamous appletini without its Sour Apple — and now Pucker is making its way into flavored vodkas, too: Higher proof level, clear spirit instead of day-glo, spiked with natural flavors.
We tasted the “Grape Gone Wild” version — three others are available: apple, citrus and cherry — to see how the company was making the great leap forward into the world of flavored vodkas.
Results: If you like candy, you’ll love Pucker Flavored Vodka. The grape flavor is Jolly Ranchers all the way — Concord grape jelly with an extra teaspoon of sugar on top. The candy store aroma fills the room when the bottle is opened.
Give Pucker some credit though, for all the tooth-aching sweetness, it has managed to make a flavored vodka with no bitter, medicinal finish, always a problem when the “flavored” part makes its exit and the “vodka” (often the rotgut stuff) inevitably takes hold. Pucker Vodka doesn’t have any real bite or funk to it, the finish more like one of your better cough syrups than Robitussin.
That’s a good thing, right?
B / $17 / facebook.com/puckervodka
Wow, a powerful gut-puncher of a vodka from Michigan, artisanal, organic, and all that good stuff. Distilled from local (Michigan) red wheat, plus a little rye and barley from Minnesota, it goes through a continuous column still, purportedly a total of 88 times.
It translates bizarrely: Not into a smooth operator with all the nuance filtered out but rather into one of the most intensely flavorful vodkas I’ve ever encountered. The character is filled with mint and nut flavors — pistachio, hazelnut, and almond melding into the distinct impression of Amaretto and Frangelico liqueurs. The body is huge, dessert like, and filling.
The finish is rough, driven in part by the 88 proof alcohol level but more, I imagine, from the exotic mashbill that goes into this spirit. I love that producers are working with local, organic raw ingredients, but my feeling is that Lixir would actually do better if it was making a whiskey, where flavors like this would give it a head start.
B / $40 / vlixir.com
The speakeasy craze has migrated from the bar world to spirits makers: From New York’s Prohibition Distillery comes this new vodka, Bootlegger 21. Its Old School aspirations aren’t easy to miss: From the retro paper label to the etched, green-glass bottle, Bootlegger will look right at home next to your rotary dial telephone.
It takes some time cutting through the rhetoric about how Prohibition inspired this product — which was actually created in 2009 by a couple of industry upstarts — to figure out how it was made. Distilled from corn in the New York Hudson Valley, it is distilled six times and bottled at 80 proof.
The results are at least better than you could probably get from real bootleggers. Funky and rough, the corn base is evident, giving Bootlegger a kind of white whiskey character that makes it far from “neutral” spirit. Medicinal character is the main impression, cut with some very light sweetness. There’s plenty of herbal character in there too, but it’s muddy and a little out of balance all told, the finish as lasting as it is biting.
Aka Bootlegger 21 New York Vodka.
B- / $36 / prohibitiondistillery.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]
The tzar of Russia’s vodka… where might it come from? If Emperor’s Brand (which brought us Giorgio G Cognac) is right, it’s… France.
Winter Palace and Emperor may not be the original deal, but at the very least they are inspired by Old World recipes, both distilled (six times) from French wheat and cut with water from the Cognac region of France. Both are bottled at 80 proof.
Did the tzars drink vodka from this exact recipe? It’s tough to say, but they wouldn’t have been living badly if they did.
Winter Palace Premium Tzar Vodka – A smooth, very lightly sweet vodka, silky and lush. Clear vanilla notes, which lead to a cinnamon and light cocoa finish. I’d have suspected doctoring but Winter Palace boldly exclaims it contains no additives. Hell of a job on this one. A / $35
Emperor Vodka – This one has Napoleon on the label. Who knew he’d be a vodka man instead of a Cognac drinker? This one is a tougher, more old school vodka, with a real bite to it and a finish that heads not into sweet territory but bitter. Emperor is Ketel One to Winter Palace’s Grey Goose. Tasted side by side just to make sure my taste buds weren’t playing tricks on me — seriously, two French wheat vodkas, water from Cognac, distilled six times, frosted glass bottles, and they’re supposed to be different? I would swear that they are. B+ / $35
The folks at Sidney Frank — the company that made billions by giving us Grey Goose — is back at it. Its new vodka is a bit of a curiosity: It doesn’t actually say “vodka” on the label, it says “organic spirit.”
What is an “organic spirit?” It’s organic vodka (column distilled from organic winter wheat and cut with water from the Snake River aquifer and bottled in Rigby, Idaho), flavored with “a proprietary blend of organic ingredients.”
Those “organic ingredients” are not disclosed, but it’s pretty clear from sip one of American Spirit that they include sugar and plenty of it. American Spirit is silky and smooth, and that’s because it is incredibly sweet. Sugar up front and lasting — for a long time — on the finish. It’s a really tricky (and pretty intelligent) move, as the sweetness pummels your taste buds and latches on for good. You get some bite in the mid-palate, but it’s fleeting and fades in a flash.
I hate to use the term “panty peeler,” but those not in the know who try American Spirit will be amazed that vodka can be so exceedingly smooth. The rest of you, well, you’ll either appreciate what a little sugar (organic, of course!) can do for vodka… or you’ll lambast the thing as a dirty trick.
80 proof. Available May 2011.
B+ / $24 / americanharvestspirit.com
Holland’s Effen expands its line of flavored vodkas — the black cherry version is insanely popular — with this unlikely extension: Cucumber Vodka.
Effen isn’t the first cucumber flavored vodka on the market — Square One makes a good one — but this isn’t half bad. Read the fine print and you’ll see that Effen Cucumber is actually “cucumber and vanilla flavored vodka,” a smart move considering how sharply flavored cucumber can be.
That vanilla gives Effen Cucumber a temperament that it may not otherwise achieve: The cucumber nose and flavor — authentic and crisp — is cut with dessert-like sweetness: The vanilla is distinct but really quite mild, and it’s surprisingly complementary with the cucumber notes.
The finish needs work. It is earthy and bark-like, more evocative of the produce section than I’d like. Certainly worth a try as a mixer — maybe in a Bloody Mary? — as there’s on the whole something worthwhile and charming here.
B+ / $25 / effenvodka.com
I’ve never met a tea-flavored vodka I didn’t like, because I don’t think it’s possible to make a bad tea-flavored vodka.
At popular request I sought out a bottle of Deep Eddy Sweet Tea Vodka, which is distinguished by its all natural ingredients, 10-times distillation, and sweetening that uses clover honey instead of high fructose corn syrup.
Does all of that matter? Deep Eddy, straight outta Austin, Texas, is indeed a fine product, but I’m not sure it’s ultimately better than Firefly, Jeremiah Weed, or Plantation River in the taste department.
The big departure here is that — while the nose features, like all of its compatriots, lovely and authentic sweet tea character that exudes real, brewed tea — there’s a distinct cocoa character on the palate that complements the sweetness in the spirit. Is it the honey that’s responsible for it? You really can tell the difference vs. corn syrup — or even sugar — as the honey leaves a slightly earthy, veggie aftertaste in the mouth. The finish, perhaps a touch more bite to it than the competition. Otherwise, you’d have trouble telling this apart from many other sweet tea vodkas, not that that’s a bad thing.
Good stuff. More complex than the rest of the crowd… and very good, though not clearly “better” than the rest of this increasingly crowded category.
A- / $19 / deepeddyvodka.com
No one loves grape vodkas more than the Australians. Today we look at not one but two such bottlings. (They share another kinship, as both are imported by the same company in the U.S.)
CooranBong Australian Vodka (Aborigine for “water over rocks,” we’re told) is a Barossa Valley grape vodka, distilled a whopping 10 times and bottled in what looks like a Gewurztraminer bottle. The results are mightily impressive: For fans of “smooth,” bite-free vodkas, CooranBong is killer. That ultra-distillation process clearly has done some magic. This vodka is one of the most neutral and taste-free vodkas I’ve ever encountered. That’s not a slight — vodka is supposed to be neutral, after all — but it may be a negative for fans of bigger, rounder vodkas with more character. CooranBong has a thin, easy body — no creamy, mouth-filling roundness here, a faint medicinal odor, and an almost spring water-like finish in the mouth. For mixing I can’t imagine a much better spirit. Straight drinkers are advised to use caution: This stuff goes down like water. Fitting. A- / $30 / cooranbong.com
Bombora Vodka (Aborigine for “reef”) is quite dissimilar to Cooranbong. Pungent on the nose, Bombora offers big notes of lemongrass, dried herbs, and bitter vegetation. Sounds nasty but imagine carrying a spinach pie through a field of heather. OK, that sounds gross, too. Bombora makes one struggle for words, but it is nothing if not a unique vodka, rich, funky, with an aftertaste that evokes the back room of a Moscow speakeasy. Maybe the floor of the back room. Something unique, with all the connotations that word brings. B- / $25 bomboravodka.com
Skyy’s latest infused vodka is really reaching deep into the produce aisle: Dragon fruit is the flavor of the day.
I am unsure if, outside of playing Fruit Ninja, I’ve ever consumed a dragon fruit, so it’s hard to say how authentic this flavored vodka is. Skyy notes it is also known as the “strawberry pear,” and those seem like apt descriptors. The vodka is naturally flavored with actual dragon fruit, according to the company.
Skyy Dragon Fruit is quite sweet and strawberry is indeed the overwhelming characteristic. Cherry is pretty hefty here, too, giving the vodka a bit of a medicinal tone, but at least it’s not overwhelming. The finish is surprisingly rough for a 70-proof vodka, leaving a bitter taste in the mouth. That doesn’t really balance the sweetness, though: The two are quite at odds with each other as they squabble for dominance.
Probably a great vodka for a punch or a novelty drink (“Dragon martinis all around!”), but not Skyy’s best infusion. (That’d be Passion Fruit.)
B / $13 / skyyinfusions.com
This could be a first for vodka makers: A company releases a second, unflavored vodka, different only because it was produced with a different base grain.
Chopin is a relatively uninspired potato vodka, and now the company is back with a vodka made from rye. Chopin “Red Label” is crafted from 100% Polish rye and it couldn’t be more different from its big brother.
Chopin Rye features a big body, with intense spice on the palate. There’s a mountain of earth here, a mushroom-like quality that is uncharacteristic of rye spirits and gives Chopin Rye a surprising depth. It is also a very strange way for vodka to taste. I’m a fan of vodkas that move beyond “grain neutral” and exhibit a real and unique character, but this one almost has too much to go around. All I can taste is barnyards and mushroom fields when sipping Chopin Rye, giving this vodka a rustic feel that is at odds with its elegant ideals.
Bizarre yet oddly compelling in its own strange ways. An outlier oddity for vodka fanatics.
On sale March 2011.
UPDATE: I’m wrong. Van Gogh introduced an unflavored vodka from a different base grain in 2009. We even reviewed it, then promptly forgot about it.
B+ / $30 (est.) / chopinvodka.com
Can you find Moldova on a map? (Hint, it is neither an island nor part of what was Yugoslavia.) Never you mind, sir, for the vodka made there, Exclusiv, is imported to our shores.
Distilled from wheat, this is simple, Old World vodka without a lot of fuss. Intensely medicinal on the nose, it offers simple character on a medium body, just a touch of sweetness, and a clean, bracing finish. Almost no secondary flavor profile here. Maybe a touch of lemon oil. If you’re looking for a fairly inexpensive vodka — er, “vodca” — that can be a workhorse for cocktails — and they’re out of Smirnoff — Exclusiv will get the job done admirably.
And, by the way, Moldova is here.
B+ / $19 / exclusiv-vodka.com