Review: Crystal Head Aurora Vodka

Remember Crystal Head Vodka, the Dan Aykroyd-conceived spirit that wrapped UFOs, ectoplasm, and other planes of existence into the mythology of a bottle of 80-proof booze? Well, 10 years later, Crystal Head is back with a new, special edition called Aurora, complete with an updated skull bottle, and a revamped spirit inside.

Here’s how Aurora is different, in a nutshell, starting with the inventive showpiece of a bottle:

Distilled in Newfoundland, Canada, Crystal Head AURORA comes in a beautifully crafted bottle, which is an accurate rendering of the human skull. With an iridescent finish, the bottle was designed in celebration of the most vivid aerial phenomenon in the world – ‘the Northern Lights.’ To create the aesthetic of the lights’ mysterious visual properties, the skull shaped bottle is first placed into a sealed chamber and electrically charged. Two metals in powder form are activated seven times and released in the pressurized chamber. The powder is drawn to the electrically charged bottle – completely coating it. Then heated at high temperature, the powder melts, creating a uniquely iridescent metallized finish in which no two bottles are alike.

Inside, the spirit has also seen some changes.

AURORA is additive-free and made with high quality English wheat grown in the hills of North Yorkshire, and with pristine water from St. John’s, Newfoundland. It is five times distilled in a traditional column still prior to filtration. The vodka is filtered a total of seven times, the first three filtrations using activated charcoal – lasting six hours to remove impurities, next it is filtered three times over 10,000 Herkimer diamonds before finally going through a micro filtration prior to being bottled. Because AURORA was crafted with English Wheat, its flavor offers a drier, bolder, and spicier vodka than the Crystal Head original, made from peaches and cream corn.

Some how I missed that the original Crystal Head was made out of peaches and cream corn, but anyway, let’s taste Aurora and see how it acquits itself.

It’s good vodka, much like its forebear. The nose is clean but lightly medicinal, with hints of savory herbs, pencil lead, and a bit of rubbery band-aid character that emerges as the earlier notes fade. The palate shows an initial marshmallow sweetness, and a hint of rose petal florals, before settling into a somewhat astringent — almost bitter at times — groove. But this too fades away, leaving behind notes of rubber, some licorice, and dusky spices, almost coming across as Eastern spices at times. The finish is mostly clean, but does see a little of that band-aid note lingering.

All told, it’s a perfectly credible vodka — albeit a very expensive one — but what’s inside doesn’t nearly measure up to the wildly impressive bottle itself.

80 proof.

B+ / $60 /

Review: Charleston Distilling Co. King Charles Vodka, Jasper’s Gin, Vesey’s Bourbon, and Calhoun’s Rye

Charleston Distilling is a South Carolina-based craft distillery that takes a farm-to-bottle approach to all of its spirits, starting with South Carolina-grown corn, rye, wheat, and millet that are milled at its own millhouse in Summerton, South Carolina, and then distilled at its operation in downtown Charleston. Its whiskeys are aged in new, charred oak barrels.

Today we look at a spectrum of Charleston Distilling’s products, including a vodka, a gin, and two whiskeys.

Charleston Distilling Co. King Charles Vodka – Distilled from a mash of corn and rye. This vodka is distinctly weedy, with mushroom overtones and a corny, white whiskey character to it. A modest sweetness offers a brief respite from the funkiness at the core here, but it’s a tough road to overcome the heavy notes of forest floor and pungent grains. 80 proof. C / $25

Charleston Distilling Co. Jasper’s Gin – Somewhat mysterious, Charleston doesn’t disclose the mash nor the botanicals in the bottle. While there is ample evidence of underlying grains on the nose, there’s a hefty spice element here, showing hot pepper, ginger root, and lemongrass notes. The palate is juniper-moderate, with strong citrus peel, baking spice, and licorice elements, brisk and a little pungent, but surprisingly balanced among its constituent flavors. The finish is a bit ragged, but not unpleasant, making for a gin that would work in a more herbal-focused cocktail. 94 proof. B / $30

Charleston Distilling Co. Vesey’s Straight Bourbon – A wheated bourbon, though no age statement is offered. Youthful on the nose, but soft, it’s a quiet bourbon with notes of fresh popcorn, some cherry notes, and ample barrel char. The palate is heavier on the grain, as is to be expected from a young spirit, but there’s notes of fruit, vanilla, and nutmeg here, enough to temper that cracking barrel char, at least until the rather rustic, heavier finish arrives. Part of that is driven by abv; a little water isn’t a bad idea here, which tempers granary character quite well. 94 proof. Reviewed: Barrel #1-6. B / $57

Charleston Distilling Co. Calhoun’s Single Barrel Straight Rye – 100% rye, bottled from a single barrel, sans age statement. Nice depth of color here, but the nose is a real oddball, with notes of candy corn, spun sugar, and overripe banana and stone fruit. The palate is somewhat more traditional, though it’s also quite sweet, bold with butterscotch, but touched with a bit of mushroom, burlap sack, and that rustic granary note. The finish is sharp, with a hint of gunpowder, which sprinkles some spice and heat atop the otherwise sugary proceedings. The more I sip on it, the more I enjoy it. 100 proof. Reviewed: Barrel #6. B+ / $56

Review: Vinn Distillery Vodka, Baijiu, Whiskey, and Blackberry Liqueur

Vinn Distillery is a family-owned distiller based in Wilsonville, Oregon, where it makes all of its products from non-GMO rice. That includes vodka, whiskey, baijiu, and a blackberry liqueur. How far can a little rice go in today’s distillery universe? Let’s dig in to the full lineup.

Vinn Distillery Vodka – Reportedly the first rice vodka produced and bottled in the USA. The nose is heavy with musty grain notes, a surprise given the base of rice, but the palate shows more promise. Here, a bracing astringency finds balance in just the right amount of marshmallow sweetness and a little lemon. The finish is bright and fairly clean, with only a hint of that grainy note that mars the nose. 80 proof. B / $38

Vinn Distillery Baijiu – Punch up the cereal-meets-mushroom note in the vodka by a factor of 10 and you’ve got this baijiu, which is always a funk-fest in the making. The nose of a tire fire and musty attic don’t do many favors from the start, but the palate is mercifully lighter than that. Here it comes across more like a white whiskey, with a more lightly toasted cereal note that lingers for minutes. Notes of soy sauce and canned green beans give the finish, well, something unique. 80 proof. C- / $54

Vinn Distillery Whiskey – The first rice whiskey produced and bottled in the USA, aged in #4 charred miniature barrels (the first batch was held in mere one liter barrels; no telling about the current one). It’s on the young side, for sure, but surprising throughout, with a nose of spiced nuts and butterscotch, at play amidst notes of solvent, the whiskey showing its youth here the most stridently. The palate is a bit of a surprise, spicy and quite nutty, with a bold butterscotch sweetness that makes the spirit feel more mature than it otherwise might. In time, some of the more astringent notes burn off, leaving behind a surprisingly rounded and sophisticated finish. An impressive craft whiskey, particularly considering it’s made entirely from rice. 80 proof. B+ / $30 (375ml)

Vinn Distillery Blackberry Liqueur – Finally, this liqueur is made from Vinn vodka, plus Oregon blackberries and cane sugar. It’s also brought down to a more typical abv for liqueurs. Sweet and fruity, there’s no real essence of whiskey here, as the blackberries and sugar do all the talking. The fruit isn’t particularly distinct as blackberry, as the syrupy sugar character really does most of the heavy lifting. That said, as a creme de mure cocktail ingredient goes, it’s a perfectly acceptable expression. 56 proof. B / $NA

Review: Hangar 1 Rose Vodka

Who says there’s no innovation in the world of vodka besides simply dumping in random flavorings until something that tastes like a Jamba Juice comes out?

Hangar 1 Rose is a bit of a new animal: Hangar 1 straight vodka blended with 5% California rose wine. (That’s right, it’s “ros-ay,” not rose petals.) We got a sample, so let’s give this oddball creation a taste.

First off, the nose is initially closer to vodka than wine: tight and astringent at first, with a gentle floral character that emerges after a few seconds. Give it time in glass and notes of strawberry and raspberry emerge, eventually dominating the aromatics. On the tongue, the rose wine element is immediately evident, again heavy with both strawberries and flower petals. At just 30% abv, however, the body of the spirit is quite thin, giving it a somewhat gummy texture at times. Moderately sweet, with a touch of nutmeg evident, the finish is moderately clean but, again, quite floral.

Hmmm, maybe it is “rose” vodka after all.

60 proof.

B / $23 /

Review: The Street Pumas Vodka, Gin, and Rum

Now here’s something unique in the world of spirits: The Street Pumas line of liquors combines imported spirits with… wait for it… comic strips.

While we’re primarily known for hyper-specific, luxury items like a 22-year-old micro barrique cognac or corn-infused mezcal, Brooklyn-based importer, PM Spirits has just launched The Street Pumas, a line of premium well spirits.

The line includes vodka, London dry gin, and rum, with a blended Scotch whisky that is currently crossing the ocean as we speak. For his first line of custom spirits, founder Nicolas Palazzi collaborated with celebrated comic book artists and writers to create a complementary graphic novel that would double as labels for the bottles. Set in the near future, Nicolas and his team are portrayed as booze-slinging badasses determined to deliver killer juice no matter the obstacle. The one-liter bottles depict a different scene from the comic adventure, highlighting the gang’s battle against the forces of THEY.


Here we look at the first three products from the Pumas — everything but that blended Scotch, still on its way.

The comics have not been reviewed.

The Street Pumas Vodka – Distilled from potatoes in Poland, then shipped to Jerez, Spain, for proofing. The vodka is exceedingly mild, almost to a fault. The nose is barely there — a touch of sugar, some lemongrass, and just a bit of medicinality to spice it up. The palate is similarly mild, not as sweet as you might think — more chocolaty, than sugary — with a brisk, slightly biting finish. While there’s not much to hang on to, it’s nonetheless a solid mixing base thanks to its neutrality. 80 proof. A- / $30 (1 liter)

The Street Pumas London Dry Gin – Italian-born neutral grain spirits are sent to Belgium, where they are infused with juniper berries, coriander, angelica, lemon peel, and sweet & bitter orange peels. Very fruity and somewhat floral on the nose, the sweeter orange notes overwhelm the juniper and other botanicals. The palate is very heavy on the lemon, with orange a strong secondary note. Again, the juniper is largely absent, giving this gin more of a citrus vodka character — though one that’s not at all astringent or pushy. Probably a tough sell for any cocktail where juniper is expected (I wouldn’t describe this as a London Dry by any stretch), but it’s versatile in more modern mixology. 80 proof. B+ / $30 (1 liter)

The Street Pumas Rum – Distilled from molasses in Panama “at a site that shares lineage with the iconic distilleries of Nicaragua” and proofed in Jerez. Definitely the most aromatically strong spirit in this bunch, this is a bold and funky white rum, unaged and rather raw, though with some time emerge notes of ripe banana, coconut, and some walnut oil. The palate has a surprising complexity, offering lots of coconut and banana, some chocolate and a soothing vanilla finish. That raw hogo character, so evident on the nose, is really an afterthought here, showing a slightly vegetal character that lingers just a bit, giving it a little more of a chew than you might expect. 84 proof. B+ / $30 (1 liter)

Review: Aermoor Vodka

Hailing from Hilton Head Distillery in South Carolina, Aermoor’s claim to fame is that it is “the world’s first cloud-sourced vodka.” What’s that mean? Says the company, “It is proofed using water from our atmospheric water generator, which pulls water vapors out of Hilton Head Island’s humid air, filters, and collects them.”

In addition to that, the spirit is pot-distilled from sugarcane (49 times according to the company, which would be unheard of for a pot still, but anyway…) and has no sugar added (well, after distillation, anyway).

And here’s how that all turned out.

The nose of the vodka is funky, heavy with mushroom and some green, weedy notes. It has a lot in common with an unaged rum, particularly an agricole, with a certain sugary pungency and a kind of smoky meatiness to the aroma, punctuated by notes of mothballs. The palate sees a modest improvement, kicking off with a surprising sweetness (though, again, no sugar is added), along with notes of banana and butterscotch. That’s muddled, unfortunately, because of lots of leather and woody tree bark notes that give the vodka an astringency, and not in a classic, Old World, medicinal way. Instead, the spirit comes across primarily with a dusky funk of cabbage and pork rinds, finishing on notes that are skunky and overpowering at times.

80 proof.

C- / $33 /

Review: Stolichnaya Stoli Gold Edition Vodka

Stolichnaya Gold — “Stoli Gold” — is a small step up from standard Stolichnaya (and not nearly as pricy as Stoli Elit), and recently the brand redesigned its packaging — and its production process. This isn’t the first time Stoli has updated Stoli Gold… in fact, it used to be called something entirely different.

First conceived as Stoli Cristal in 1989 to add a new dimension to the category, the expression name was changed a decade later as a nod to its final filtration stage through coils of gold thread. Stoli Gold’s redesign includes the bottle, label and production process and is aimed at elevating the consumer experience at shelf in the off-trade and at high-end clubs and lounges in the on-trade. The product is now available in 750 mL and 1 litre sizes in top USA and global markets, along with select duty-free retailers.

Stoli Gold harnesses some of the world’s rarest elements to produce a sublimely rich vodka. While winter wheat is predominantly a dryland crop, the Gubernator Dona winter wheat grown on this single estate is carefully irrigated from an ecologically pure aquifer lying at a depth of 185 meters to ensure optimum soil moisture conditions and high-quality yields. Next, the Alpha Grade spirit is blended with water filtered through shungite, one of the rarest and most remarkable minerals on earth, found only in a remote part of northwest Russia. This blend is then filtered in the traditional Stoli way before the final filtration through coils of gold thread to subtly amplify the depth, enhance the softness and harmonize the emerging liquid.

So there you have it: Winter wheat, distilled and filtered through gold coils. And shungite, people! Let’s give this premium vodka a try.

The nose is quite clean, modest in its medicinality, but lightly fruity, with hints of apricot and peach, giving the vodka an unusual liveliness that is seldom seen in an Old World spirit. The palate is sweeter than rack Stoli — though, to its credit, Stoli imprints NO SUGAR in all caps on the reverse of the bottle — with more of that apricot showing, alongside some hints of cinnamon sugar and a squeeze of grapefruit. The finish is clean but lasting, showing off a slight mint character. All told, the elements come together quite beautifully, and though it’s always hard to get too excited about vodka, Stoli Gold is a decidedly solid spirit that is, fortunately, affordable enough to be a mainstay on your back bar — and will look good, too.

80 proof.

A / $29 /

Review: Bedlam Vodka

Graybeard Distillery can be found in Durham, NC, and it makes a single product, Bedlam Vodka, which is distilled from rice “with a deep Irish heritage.” The concept behind the vodka: Avoiding harshness. Per Graybeard CEO Brandon Evans. “After years of dissatisfaction with many vodka’s on the market, we came together to create a spirit based on our philosophy that vodka need not burn.”

Results: Bedlam doesn’t “burn” in any overwhelming sense, as it is softened by breakfast cereal notes and a notable sweetness. The nose is so grainy as to evoke a white whiskey, somewhat musty, with a few scattered notes of lemon peel. The body is fairly harmless, again with light citrus notes but with a considerably heavier cereal component. The finish is lightly sweet but bready, with a sweet baked goods element (think doughnuts) to it.

So, yes, Bedlam has successfully removed the bite from its vodka, but that is really to its detriment, as what’s left behind is somewhat saccharine and a bit dull. Really, if you take the burn out of vodka, what do you even have left?

80 proof.

B- / $22 /

Review: Misadventure Vodka

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Need further proof that vodka can be made out of anything? Misadventure Vodka, crafted in San Diego, is the self-proclaimed world’s first vodka made from excess baked goods. That’s right, all those doughnuts and croissants, instead of hitting the trash, are sent to Misadventure’s pot stills to be turned into vodka. The spirit itself is distilled 12 times (odd for a pot still, but whatever), “crafted to remove gluten,” and bottled at 40% abv. It’s a very noble and worthwhile cause, but how does it taste?

In sampling Misadventure, I wish I had better news to report. Sadly, the nose is quite off-putting, musty with notes of canned vegetables, old wool, and wet laundry left in the machine for a week. The palate sees a lot of the same characteristics, but folds in notes of day-old bread, dish soap, and grainy moonshine. At long last, the finish is pungent and skunky, continuing a theme that I needn’t beat to death, I trust.

I wish that good intentions were all it took to make a delicious spirit. Unfortunately, in the case of Misadventure Vodka, the name is, remarkably, all too accurate.

80 proof.

D- / $22 /

Review: Clique Vodka

Clique Vodka really promotes its Russian connections (despite being produced next door in Latvia). According to its website, this wheat-based vodka is the result of “Russian production standards of distillation and the highest level of Russian equipment.” I guess with vodka, and maybe only with vodka, those are two things to brag about. While the contents of the bottle are clearly presented as Old World, the packaging sure looks like something out of a nightclub I’d never get in to.

The nose on Clique Vodka is a little sharp and initially dominated by band-aid notes that sweeten quickly with just the slightest amount of lemon drop. The palate doesn’t have nearly as much of the medicinal punch as I’d expect from the nose. It’s soft and almost restrained, becoming more crisp on the tongue as some sweetness arrives with a creamy vanilla note. The finish is clean with cracked black pepper and a hint of lemon zest. All in all, Clique is a vodka that can hold its own against other wheat-based vodkas on the market, many of which are higher end brands at twice the cost, like Ketel One.

Even better, a bottle of this on your home bar might make you look 10 years younger!

80 proof.

A- / $16 /

Review: Nemiroff Vodka and Honey Pepper Vodka

Nemiroff, Ukraine is the home of Nemiroff Vodka, a relatively quiet brand that has nonetheless been around since 1872. A typical eastern bloc product, it’s best known as a duty free vodka brand, where it seems to sell through the roof.

Today we look at the distillery’s two expressions, a classic, unflavored vodka, and a honey pepper version, which is purportedly based on an old Ukrainian recipe.

Both are 80 proof.

Nemiroff Vodka – Antiseptic on the nose, with some sweet elements evident underneath. A bit peppery on the nose, classically hospital notes dominate, tinged just so with lemongrass, until a surprisingly sweet finish emerges. Or, given those hints on the nose, perhaps not so surprising. A perfectly acceptable vodka for just about all of your mixing needs. B+ / $18

Nemiroff Honey Pepper Vodka – Flavored with “chilli pepper” and natural honey, giving it a whiskeylike color. The nose is heavy with honey, with notes of baked apples and an undercurrent of that medicinal quality. The palate is much the same — bursting with honey character, sultry apple fruit, and just the slightest hint of red pepper on the finish. If the “pepper” is scaring you off here, don’t be afraid. It’s silky and flavorful, and it won’t hardly burn your precious throat. Beautiful, really. A- / $18

Review: Chase Vodka, Smoked Vodka, Orange Marmalade Vodka, and Elderflower Liqueur

Chase is a vodka, gin, and liqueur producer that focuses on “field to bottle” production from its farm in Herefordshire, England. Somehow this has resulted in about a bazillion products, and though the primary crops here are potatoes and apples, Chase’s products range from raspberry liqueurs to marmalade vodka — four of which we are looking at today.

Let’s dive in.

Chase English Potato Vodka – The straight stuff, “created in its entirety – from seed to bottle – on our Herefordshire family farm.” You don’t grow potatoes from seeds, but let’s not split hairs. This is a vodka that is at once traditional and unusual: There’s a slightly sweet mustiness on the nose that bridges Old and New World styles, but the palate is something else, with immediate notes of grapefruit and banana that eventually fade into hospital-class astringency. The finish has some bite to it, but also a chewy fruitiness that again recalls banana (at least the skins), fried dough, and, ultimately, a tar/tobacco character on the very end. It’s really weird, but somehow it calls to me… like a David Lynch movie. 80 proof. B / $35

Chase English Oak Smoked Vodka – “We leave water from our borehole in the smokehouse until it picks up a delicate smoked flavour, then blend it with our award winning vodka to achieve a sweet, smoky finish.” So basically we’re talking about smoked water blended with vodka. It’s surprisingly subtle on the nose, a bit smoky, but also showing notes of mint, graphite, and some burnt sugar. The palate sees a flood of chimney smoke, a heavy-char character that secondary notes struggle against. The finish finds just a bit of floral character poking through the smoke overload, but said florals struggle mightily against all the lingering ash. For Bloody Marys, I guess? 80 proof. B- / $39  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Chase Orange Marmalade Flavored Vodka – An orange vodka by any other name? This one is “marinated with marmalade and ribbons of peel from Seville oranges, then distilled again with orange peel from Valencia.” The results are impressive, as good as it gets for citrus vodkas: Soulful on the nose with deep tangerine and mandarin orange notes. On the palate, lots of pure navel orange character but imbued with an earthiness that adds depth. Where other vodkas would normally be sweet to the point of being saccharine, Chase finds a way to fold in layers of leather and cedar box. Worthwhile even on its own, but clearly a mixer at heart. 80 proof. A- / $35

Chase Elderflower Liqueur – Chase’s take on elderflower, made with its own vodka as a base. Clear and authentic, with a floral sweetness on the nose that’s unmistakably elderflower. The palate is quite sweet — perhaps a touch over the top, but not embarrassingly so — with those golden waves of citrusy, sultana-like elderflower syrup washing over you on the lengthy, enduring finish. Slightly herbal and a touch spicy with some spearmint notes, it is a bright and complex liqueur that’s every bit as good as St-Germain. 40 proof. A / $44