10 Unique Vodkas Reviewed

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10 Vodkas Reviewed
10 Vodkas Reviewed

At Drink Spirits we get a LOT of spirits to review, far more than it’s possible to cover. We recognize, though, that the people behind these spirits work very hard to bring them to market, and so we feel it’s important to cover as many as we possibly can. Assembling a blind tasting panel for vodka is like pulling teeth; although it’s the biggest selling spirit category, tasting vodka (which by definition is considered a neutral spirit) is sometimes a palate-crushing task, so we convened a special vodka session to address 10 of the interesting vodkas patiently waiting to be reviewed. We hope you’ll enjoy this look at 10 unique vodkas.

Reyka Small Batch Vodka (40%, $27) – this vodka comes out of Iceland and is made using a carter head still (the same kind of still that Hendricks Gin uses) and is filtered through lava rock. The nose on the Rekya Vodka is light and clean, with very few esters apparent and very subtle tones of vanilla and citrus. The entry is soft and smooth with light grain flavor that builds towards the mid palate, along with a light lemon undertone. The finish is fascinating – it brings on some powdered sugar and a little spice, and just when you think it’s over it circles back around with a nice pin prick of heat (much like a great Russian style vodka, but it a much more subtle and almost sly way). Reyka Vodka is a good, solid quality vodka, priced right, and delivers an enjoyable vodka experience.

Russian Standard Gold (40%, $50) –  fifty dollars is a lot to spend on a bottle of vodka, but Russian Standard has tried to up the value proposition with a lovely package that presents their vodka as a premium vodka. Made with Russian ginseng, the nose does have a slight earthy spice note to it along with the conventional citrus found in many vodkas. The entry is wonderfully lush and soft, and slightly cool with a terrific mouthfeel. The entry is slightly watery and blank but that quickly changes in the mid-palate with the ginseng spice that comes on strong and carries to a nice long, spicy finish. The ginseng spice is progressive, building after each sip.  Ginseng and vodka go together fantastically, and I like the heat and spice you get here from the ginseng much more than some of the spicy or flavored vodkas.  The opening is a little flat, but the great mouthfeel and the superb spice more than make up for it. Still, at $50 a bottle it’s really exclusively a vodka connoseur’s vodka.

Napa Vodka Distiller’s Blend (40%, $19.99) – grape-based vodkas have become popular over the last few years and they seem like a natural product to be manufactured in areas that have an abundance of grapes. It’s no surprise then to find a Napa Valley vodka made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes. The surprise here is that they’ve combined the grapes with winter wheat to make this vodka. The nose on the Napa Vodka is light and slightly sweet. The wheat notes are clearly present in the nose along with a slightly floral undertone from the sauvignon blanc grapes. These notes come together to make a slightly pasty aroma, but it’s not an unpleasant one. The entry is clearly wheat with a soft, round mouthfeel and grain flavor. The grape floral notes come in clearly in the mid-palate, but towards the finish the floral notes turn slightly soapy. Things really start to break down in the finish, which is slightly bitter and unpleasant. There is a nice cool ribbon of mint that’s thrown in there, but it can’t overcome the bitter notes. Napa Vodka has some fair elements, but they just don’t come together well. Perhaps if Napa Vodka went with a pure grape-based vodka like Finger Lakes Vintner’s Vodka they’d have something worth investigating.

Hangar One  Straight Vodka (40%, $29) – another vodka based from both grape and grain, the Hangar One Vodka combines pot stilled viognier wine and column still wheat vodka. The nose on the Hangar One Straight Vodka is sweet and slightly fruity with the slightest hint of cherry. There’s a slightly pasty undercurrent, but it’s not unpleasant. The entry is superb, fruity and floral, and soft with a very nice mouthfeel. The mid-palate picks up a nice spice note from the grain which complements the floral and fruit notes. We were almost a convert until we got to the finish. With a pitch-perfect ribbon of spice down the tongue, things turn soapy and bitter on the sides. It’s not a complete train wreck of a finish, but it’s enough to keep this very well-crafted vodka from being truly great, and makes us wonder if grape and grains really do belong in the same glass.

Ultimat Vodka (40%, $40)  – made from a mix of potato, wheat, and rye, this Polish vodka comes to the US care of the Patron company. The nose is pretty solid, slightly sweet, with clear grain notes and no harshness or strong esters. The entry starts out fairly soft and sweet and then builds quickly on the mid palate to a mix of wheat and black pepper. The pepper ramps up strongly in the mid palate and then finishes with a real crescendo. The finish is one of the spicier finishes we’ve tasted on a vodka. It’s no surprise that the makers of Patron fell in love with this vodka – it reminds us of the strong pepper kick of Patron silver tequila. At $40 a bottle, Ultimat Vodka is a little extravagant, but they’ve tried to make up for the price with a showcase bottle which looks dynamic but has one of the most frustrating tops on a vodka bottle yet.  Ultimat Vodka does a good job mixing potato, wheat, and rye into a vodka that’s almost custom targeted to the Patron drinker – someone who probably won’t mind spending $40 on a bottle.

Vivid Vodka (40%) – the vodka market is so vast, there’s certainly room for a porno vodka, isn’t there?  After all, Ron Jeremy has his own rum. Made at Side Pocket in Cottage Grove, Oregon, a contract distiller who also makes Vision Vodka, Spring 44,  Rogue Vodka (and many many others), the nose on the Vivid Vodka is light and slightly sweet. You can smell the grain but there are very few esters. The entry is soft and lightly sweet quickly building to a spicy pepper center. The mid palate is defined by spice with some focused heat in the center of the palate. The finish is long and spicy with an undercurrent of sweet.  Vivid Vodka is a solid middle of the road vodka that delivers a better experience than most other vodkas you’d find on the bottle service list in most clubs (i.e. Grey Goose or Skyy).

Spring 44 Vodka(40%, $25)  bills itself as a Rocky Mountain vodka and claims to use mountain spring water, but it’s also distilled at Side Pocket in Cottage Grove, Oregon. We actually called to confirm that Spring 44 actually trucks down spring water to be used in this vodka, and Side Pocket confirmed that they do. It’s a pretty amazing thing to do for a contract distilled vodka. The nose on the Spring 44 Vodka is very light with the slightest hint of lemon and without any vapors. The entry is very light, soft, and slightly sweet. It’s got a really nice mouth feel. Things get a little spicy in the mid palate and then a little hot. The heat lingers through the finish, which is slightly bitter, almost like the pith of a lemon rind. Compared with some of the other vodkas made at Side Pocket, Spring 44 isn’t among our favorites (so far that distinction belongs to Vision Vodka). The heat at the end of the mid palate and the finish just don’t go down well, and it doesn’t really balance out with the thin nose and light entry, leaving us a little cold on Spring 44 Vodka.

Absolut SF Vodka (40%, $25)  – we’ve always been big fans of Absolut’s base vodka, but the flavors haven’t always won us over (to be fair, most flavored vodkas don’t meet our expectations). Absolut SF combines grape, dragon fruit, and papaya into a pungent fruity mix. All three of these fruits are present in the nose with grape (like Welches grape juice) being the dominant note. The dragon fruit reads as slightly floral and the papaya is there but gets overwhelmed by the grape. As with most flavored vodkas, the flavors are right there on the entry again with grape dominating, and dragon fruit and papaya underneath.  Unlike some of the other flavored vodkas (like the Absolut Wild Tea Vodka), the base vodka hasn’t been obliterated and the grain notes from the vodka help balance out the sweet fruit.  Everything comes together nicely in the mid palate with some spice, and a little heat combines with the fruit. The grape notes subside just a bit and thing balance out. The grape is back for the finish and it sticks around for quite a while. Absolut SF has a slightly artificial quality to it, but again not nearly as bad as with some other flavored vodkas.  Absolut SF does a solid job of balancing out fruity flavors that often go awry in flavored vodkas and provides a nice option for people who enjoy flavored vodka.

Square One Cucumber Vodka (40%, $30) – one of the most difficult things to do with a flavored vodka is deliver flavors and aromas that aren’t artificial; 90% of the entries in the flavored vodka space fail at delivering anything natural or fresh. Square One Cucumber Vodka succeeds where other vodkas fail. From the first nosing it’s clear that Square One has managed to capture the essence of a cucumber. The nose is a perfect balance of the crisp vegetal center of a ripe cucumber with just the right amount of bitter undertone from the peel. With eyes closed, it’s easy to think you are actually smelling a freshly cut slice of cucumber. Digging underneath the cucumber aromas, the base vodka is there but without any esters. The entry is cool with cucumber flavor that is strong right from the opening note. In the mid palate, the base rye-based vodka shines through with a nice even black pepper spice. At the end of the mid palate the spice begins to chill out and the cucumber returns for a long and gradual finish which captures both the spice from the rye and the cucumber flavors.  Square One Cucumber Vodka is one of the better flavored vodkas on the market. It delivers fresh flavor while not abandoning the core vodka flavor experience. It’s quite simply the best of both worlds.

Portland 88 Vodka (44%, $20) – made at New Deal Distillery in Portland, Oregon, this vodka manages to balance out small craft distilling with an affordably priced vodka (one of the most affordable of the craft distillery vodkas on the market) . Although the proof is higher than all the other vodkas we’ve reviewed (it’s 88 proof to commemorate the company’s inception in 1988), the nose is as soft and clean as any of the vodkas we’ve tried. The nose has a slight limestone-like note to it with a slight powdered sugar undertone. Portland 88 isn’t vapory and has no citrus in the nose. The entry is very soft, round, and sweet with the slightest core of white pepper spice. It’s wonderfully balanced right from the start with a delightful mouthfeel. The core spice from the entry opens and envelops the sweet notes without obliterating them. It’s almost like the sweet and the spice trade places for a mid palate transformation that’s spectacular. The finish is long and balanced with nice spice and sweet in even amounts. Portland 88 ultimately cleans up, leaving your mouth slightly dry with the slightest cooling. New Deal’s Portland 88 Vodka is proof that craft and commercialism can unite in a vodka that shows care and craftsmanship but is also extremely affordable and competitive to other major vodkas on the market.

  • I’m glad you were honest in the reviews and not just pushing the brands. I’m also very happy to see the relatively obscure brands being mentioned (Finger Lakes).

    How about a review of Twenty 2 Micro-distilled from Maine? It’s unique because they only get ~210 bottles per batch and it’s an extremely quality-intensive operation from start to finish.

  • emtilt

    In the first paragraph, you describe your review process as a “blind” panel. Can you elaborate on your process? Is it a true double blind test? Does it remain blind through the writing process, until the very end when brand names are injected, or is it only blind during the actual tasting?

    • More on our process here: http://www.drinkspirits.com/about/

      The short version. Tasting notes are done blind or double blind when possible and the spirits are then re tasted for review with the brand known to the writer who brings together the tasting notes and ratings from the panel to write the article.

  • My brain literally hurts. The stupidity of the vodka industry physically hurts my brain.

    A carter-head still. For a non-flavored vodka. The sole purpose of the carter-head still is to charge the basket receptacle with botanicals, to make gin, absinthe, or (potentially) flavored vodka. I thought that’s what had been done here at first until I realized the Reyka marketers were touting the carter-head still as something that would actually make their vodka more ‘pure’. What the everloving fuck? They’re counting on people being completely ignorant of how the still works and merely associating the magical word carter-head with ‘moar bettar spirit’. How can a ‘master distiller’ even bring himself to spout this kind of stuff?

    This is ALMOST as stupid as the new ‘super-luxury’ German vodka filtered through gold particles I saw the other day. I shit you not, they ‘filter’ it through gold.

    And people wonder why drinkers are prejudiced against vodka drinkers and vodka manufacturers..

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  • Fred Frederickson

    If you get a chance, try Middlewest out of Columbus Ohio. I think it’s a bit of misbranding to call it a vodka because its so distinctive that its really better called a white malt whiskey.

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  • Dave

    Why only 9 bottles in the photo?

    • Hangar One was a small sample bottle so we didn’t include it in the photo… Good eye 🙂

  • Tim Pachla

    I’ve tried several vodka’s and for the price I highly recommend Finlandia. It has a good taste and not much of a bite, but it’s own unique flavor. My heritage is Polish and I do like the potato vodka’s, but to each his own and I go with the Finlandia as my favorite.

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  • rjpdx

    Portland 88 is great, but New Deal’s namesake is even better. Sip it chilled. So smooth and great subtle flavor.