Frequent readers of The Pour Fool may remember that I have admitted to pretty much outright scorn at the whole idea of Vodkas that are made as nothing more than a neutral spirit intended to do absolutely nothing but inject some alcoholic content into your lemonade or tricky cocktail. I’ve never understood that and have wondered for decades why those folks don’t just buy a bottle of Everclear and be done with it. In the early part of my adulthood, in Virginia, my Dad and his buds consumed only those Vodkas and, in fact, once tossed a collective hissy fit when one of their number came back from a business trip to Poland and brought a bottle of potato Vodka with him. These dashing young urbanites were in my family’s basement in Chicago, shooting pool and having a cocktail hour, an interlude devoted to bad billiards skills, dirty jokes, and drinks sweeter than the Coca-Cola that they all deemed “too tame”.
My Dad’s friend Bob poured about two ounces of the Polish stuff into his highball glass, took a sip, and immediately make the Bitter Beer Face. “What the f__k?” he sputtered, “I can taste the Vodka! You’re not supposed to be able to taste Vodka!”
This is the culture from which the Universe rescued me and I am eternally grateful.
Vodka, my Dad’s pals notwithstanding, can and usually does have wonderful flavors, especially if you get hold of a good one, but our long national habit of trying to, in effect, stick with soda pop – only with “adult content – resulted in the preeminence of those neutral types like the giants of my youth: Stoli, Seagram’s, Fleischman’s,Smirnoff, etc. You won’t find any of those here and, in fact, in this era when the nation’s best-selling Vodkas include names like Tito’s and Ketel 1 and Grey Goose and UV, it always shocks me when someone sends me one of that style to review. I received two for this Round-Up and neither is here. And none like that will ever appear in The Pour Fool.
My current favorites are Stein, made in the tiny hamlet of Joseph, Oregon, from estate-grown rye, and Reyka, a gorgeous little item made in Iceland, which is immensely flavorful but elegant and subtle; the virtual opposite of the spicy, earthy, complex, emphatic Stein. You can read about the Stein here, but it doesn’t fit the Value Category for Vodkas in this post. Reyka does, happily, and a segment from the original review follows.
I’ve also tossed in one flavored Vodka, something which I try to avoid, but this one happened to be especially good and,as I’ve already reviewed the Prairie Organic Cucumber Vodka, that genie is out of the bottle, anyway.
This is a wonderful, surprising, and crazy-affordable gaggle of 2014 examples of the greatest gift we have ever received from the Russians, give or take the odd Nureyev or Nabokov or Chekov or the genes that produced Helen Mirren. These can all work as sippers – straight from the freezer or (preferably) lightly chilled. But all add different, exotic,and sometimes delightfully perverse elements to cocktails and that exploration is all part of the fun!
THE VODKAS: Clearly Different
REYKA SMALL BATCH VODKA
Product of Iceland About $20 Rating: “Best Booze Buy“
(from my seattlepi.com review) “…warm and inviting and reminiscent of cinnamon rolls baking in a hot oven, rose petals, new-mown hay, pipe tobacco, and stewed berry compote. It’s an intoxicating scent that miraculously carries over to the palate, presenting in a sweet, toasty, fruitcake-like note that transforms into mixed berries, spice cake, and caramel – all of these whispered, not shouted. And all this from just the masterful and judicious use of its grains – the very character that traditional Vodka makers deliberately filter out…I can’t tell you what a freakin’ pleasure this is to sip. Notice I said “sip” and not “drink”. Tiny sips literally explode onto your tongue, creating all the flavor of an entire mouthful of some other Vodkas. It’s a very sensual, engrossing beverage; something which I can absolutely imagine sipping in Iceland’s fabled geothermal pools where shivering tourists go to soak against the frigid Icelandic winters. The warming sensation that spirits are deemed to provide just feels different here, starting as warm trachea and suffusing your whole body within seconds, much the way first-timers describe the effect of aquavit…It’s not at all hyperbole to say that I’m as impressed by Reyka as by any beverage I’ve reviewed since the start of “The Pour Fool”. ” Since that review, Reyka has won the Gold Medal and was named World’s Best Vodka at the prestigious International Wine & Spirits Competition, 2011, and Gold Medal at the International Craft Spirits Awards as Best Vodka of 2013. THis is one of the world’s best values in truly fine Vodka and every bit as good just for sipping as it is as a mixer.
SNOW LEOPARD VODKA
Product of Poland About $36 Rating: “Exceptional“
I included Snow Leopard here because A) it is a damned sight better than other Vodkas that will run ya $20 – $30 more and B) a hefty chunk (15%) of each bottle’s profits is donated to the Snow Leopard Trust, to try to save the world’s remaining 3,500 of these magnificent animals from extinction. Taking that donation out of the sticker price, SL costs just about exactly $30, making it one of the best values in premium-quality liquors of any type. This is a lush, mouth-coating Polish Vodka, made from spelt, that ancient forerunner of wheat and barley that offers an assertive nutty flavor that comes shining through in this Vodka. Subtle spices lurk in the background, along with a wonderful, distinctive overtone of caramel and coconut. It is insanely smooth, attributable to its six distillations and the chewy persistence of the spelt, and tastes like it should cost a whole lot more than $30. Yeah, this will flex your plastic a bit more than a couple of the others but, if you have a yen for the best of things you eat and drink, you will eventually seek out the newish Snow Leopard because very few Vodkas anywhere are as fine and opulent as this.
LOTUS SUPER PREMIUM VODKA
Product of Italy About $20 Rating: “Highly Recommended“
Lotus is actually the rebranding and rethinking of a Vodka line made by a San Francisco company, Delicious Brands, who produced it in the US as an “enhanced” spirit. It was originally White Lotus, a “vitamin vodka” with added vitamin B3, vitamin B5, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin C, and other stuff, and Blue Lotus, an “energy vodka” with added caffeine, taurine, guarana, and flavorings. The mind reels, doesn’t it? But the brand was forced out of business by the FDA, during a virtual purge of enhanced beers and spirits, just as the uber-successful Vodkas were launching a fund-raising campaign to allow Delicious to keep up with growing demand. Investors, scared off by the FDA’s meddling, pulled out and down goes Lotus. Today, the brand is being relaunched – from Italy. Originally made from wheat, Lotus is now produced from European corn but is still infused with ginseng and guarana and now claims “gluten free” as a primary virtue. My interest is far more fundamental: “Does it Taste Good?” Answer: Yep. Good, far silkier than the original, and really interesting. It’s soft and nicely spicy and shows pretty grace notes of chamomile, buttermint, lemongrass, and a faint but unmistakable touch of sweet corn. All in all, the change from SF to IT seems to have been all to the good, especially for lovers of fine Vodka.
MÉNAGE à TROIS VODKA
Product of California About $24 Rating: “Highly Recommended“
Of everything reviewed here, this is the mixing champion. Ménage à Trois is actually a winery which started as a fine wine operation in Napa Valley before the blinding realization dawned upon the owners that their little bottle of blended red was outselling everything else they make, leading to the shocking conclusion that people will buy more wine if it costs less. (Really, I’m SHOCKED!) This same principle led them to price their new Vodka at a very sane sub-$25 point, which is what you should pay in the normal place where you live, since we pay about that here in America’s Stupidest Liquor Tax Base. PR details are notably scant, in the tradition of their parent company, Trinchero Family Estates (apparently these guys have a lot of secrets) but I detect some oak-derived vanilla, here, along with a subtle stratum of baking spices and a fruitiness that’s equal parts citrus peels and ripe tree fruit. For all that, this is wonderfully subtle and lays back beautifully in a cocktail, whispering its flavors instead of screaming. As with the Lotus, this is made with corn as a primary ingredient and the silkiness testifies to its presence with every mouthful. It’s fine as a sipper but, for a Bloody Mary or a Vodka Tonic, give me this stuff every time.
NEW AMSTERDAM VODKA No. 525
Product of California About $14 Rating: “Exceptional“
Again, as with their lovely Gin that I reviewed earlier, I’m going to note that New Am is made by Gallo, which makes the fact that I actually like this something of a minor miracle. I’m not a confirmed Gallo Basher, as I certainly (and correctly) am with Anheuser Busch, but I also don’t wave pom-poms for ’em, either. But here’s this rather magical bottle of really inexpensive, top-shelf Vodka that’s as smooth as a televangelist and bustin’ with sweet-ish spicy notes that complement the vanilla, lemon, orange, and grass at the core…and it costs under fifteen bucks? There’s the silver lining in Gallo’s little dark cloud: they can afford to sell their wares for less – and do. I know about a dozen bartenders who absolutely swear by this stuff and I do, too. In terms of Bang For Buck, New Amsterdam is very hard to beat.
NEW AMSTERDAM PINEAPPLE VODKA
Product of California About $14 Rating: “Exceptional“
Although you could just sit and sip this stuff over ice or from the freezer (and I have and it was shockingly enjoyable), the real expression of this comes in a Mai Tai or Sex On The Beach or Helsinki Mule or the classic French Martini…any drink in which pineapple plays a prominent role. This is exactly like a very nice grain Vodka with fresh pineapple given a good long maceration in it. It suggests sweetness but finishes dry and I found a dazzling combination for it that is as close as I ever come to having a real cocktail: NA Pineapple, Lemoncello, Dark Rum, and club soda, with a twist of lime. My gorgeous Domestic Partner pronounced it “lip smackin’ ” and so have three or four other people. And the key is this New Amsterdam. If you like cocktails with solid fruit flavors, this is the best favor I can possibly do ya: GO to your local booze barn and pick up this. Your cocktail hour guests will swoon.
SPRING 44 VODKA
Product of Colorado About $25 Rating: “Best Booze Buy“
I reviewed this rather magical stuff in The Pour Fool back in 2011. You can click to it here but, for those in a hurry, here’s a excerpt: “…I’ve tasted and reviewed about a half-dozen artisan Vodkas in the past six months and Spring 44 was easily the most vibrant, the purest, the most emphatic and intense. It’s made from and wheat, corn, and rice and, far from filtering out and minimizing those wonderful grain flavors, as traditional Vodka makers labor to do, Spring 44′s artisans celebrate its elements; move the lush, unspoiled grain flavors to the forefront and use a careful, adroit blend of the wheat’s nutty character, the rye’s peppery goodness, and the corn’s pungent sweetness to make a tapestry of flavors that has as little to do with your Grandpa’s bottle of Stoly as pygmies have to do with the NBA…Spring 44, in my opinion, stands at the very forefront of the American artisan Vodka movement…” Three years later, Spring 44 Vodka is even better. This is a dazzling Vodka from an emerging superstar distillery.