Local Liquor Taste Tests
Vodka has been much maligned of late. Try ordering it at a craft cocktail bar and witness the disdain. But how wrong can a grazillion Cossacks be?
Vodka is classified as "neutral spirits," but local distilleries are putting some thought and nuance into it that you won't find in, for instance, Smirnoff Fluffed Marshmallow Flavored Vodka. Christine Sismondo, author of the alcohol-history America Walks into a Bar, did her own blind taste test recently and was "blown away" by the difference between the (no-candy-added) big brands versus the carefully crafted. Moreover, she says of vodka, "It's clean and it's honest. It says, 'I just want to get high. Fast. And maybe even go back to work without anyone smelling it on my breath.'"
So, to the local vodka taste test, conducted at Liberty with the vodkas identified only by number and chosen at random. The honorable Andrew Friedman presided.
Legacy Organic Vodka from Bainbridge Organic Distillers, Bainbridge Island: Made with organic Washington State wheat and water poetically drawn from "deep aquifers located on the sheltered west side of our island," Bainbridge Legacy boasts of being "crisp and pure," with "the slightest hints of vanilla, citrus peel and cereal biscuit." The distillery is run by a father-and-son team.
Unfortunately, the vodka from their island scored at the bottom of the heap, with tasters reporting a "chemical" nose and a "bitter aftertaste." One exclaimed, "It burns!" while another tender soul said, "This upsets me."
However, it's worth noting that two tasters did choose Legacy Organic Vodka as their favorite. One of them praised it as "potatoey, earthy, slightly dank, moist, brown sugar," while the other Bainbridge-lover was apparently struck dumb with joy, saying nothing and leaving no verbiage behind on the tasting sheet.
Skip Rock Vodka from Skip Rock Distillers, Snohomish: Made in Snohomish with a nice view of the Cascades, Skip Rock is distilled from potatoes. Its makers describe it as "rich and creamy." Tasters found it highly controversial.
Skip Rock was both loved and deplored for its unusual bouquet—some smelled honeydew and cucumber, some rice and nori, while others detected "furniture polish" and "outside Galerias on Broadway after the fire." It was generally agreed to be the least traditional in the test. "That's not vodka!" one person shouted, getting into the spirit of things. But, another noted with some admiration, "It did what it wanted to do"; likewise, Skip Rock was praised for possessing "gusto." A comparison to jenever, a Dutch predecessor to gin, was also made.
Overall, the polarization brought about by this vodka seems to indicate that you'd really have to try it yourself, unless you abhor innovations in vodka altogether. Or if the descriptions "Guantánamo Bay" (yikes) or "vodka at a spa" (good?) put you off it.
Mischief Vodka from Fremont Mischief Distillery, Seattle: The master distiller of this vodka from the Center of the Universe comes from Depression-era moonshine-makers, and the shiny copper stills were handmade by another family that's been in that business for 50 years (which isn't that long if you think about it, but it makes for nice website copy). Fremont Mischief uses organic grains and artesian water and so forth.
Mischief's logo, on the other hand, looks all tarted up for Belltown (or Fremont on the weekends)—it's a capital M with little devil horns at the top but a halo up above. Naughty! But nice! Unfortunate!
Coming in right in the middle of the pack, Mischief Vodka notably earned poetic praise from Charles Mudede, who chose it as his favorite: "This is the kind of vodka you want your lover to drink, so you can taste its remains during a kiss." (It was my favorite as well; to me, it tasted traditional-style and calming, like a short recreational stay in a nice hospital.)
Ketel One Vodka from Double Eagle Brands N.V., everywhere: Ketel (that's KAYE-tull) One comes from more than 300 years of family booze experience (making Fremont Mischief look like quite the New World upstart). According to its website copy, "Nosing Ketel One Vodka will return hints of citrus and honey" (maybe this was translated from Dutch?).
The secret big-name brand was hated-to-loved two-to-one, with most people rightfully casting it somewhere in the middle. Several tasters described its nose as an "alcohol" one, unable to conjure anything further. It was called "simple," "clean," and "antiseptic." A taster who claimed to have lived in Russia for a long time chose it as his favorite. "It's a solid object," another noted somewhat cryptically.
Peabody Jones Vodka from Woodinville Whiskey Company, Woodinville: Woodinville Whiskey Company claims a former Maker's Mark master distiller as mentor, and they want you to think of their whiskey as a friend (hopefully not your only one). Their vodka, Peabody Jones, is named after a fictional zany explorer and made with wheat from a nonfictional family farm in Quincy. Peabody Jones was our friend and the crystal-clear winner—not one taster ranked it last, and hordes loved it the best.
P.J. was found to be "warm and roasty," with "balanced caramel and butterscotch undertones." One taster called it "oaky." (Sounds like whiskey.) It was also deemed "silky and inviting." (The Beverage Tasting Institute, for its part, detected "roasted pecan brittle, circus elephant hay, and molasses." CIRCUS. ELEPHANT. HAY.) Even those who liked another vodka better had to admit it was "nontraditional but good!" Also noted: its "marshmallow" nose. In the end, apparently, everyone just wants a marshmallow.