Serious Eats: Drinks
Can Flavored Vodkas Actually Taste Good?
When it comes to the world of flavored vodka, I usually stick with the king: gin. However, every now and then there is a place on my bar for the other stuff (usually when a party looms). While many of the options range from the sickly sweet to the disgustingly bizarre, there are actually some pretty tasty and unique options out there if you know where to look.
Cold River Blueberry Vodka
The surest way to a delicious flavored vodka is to start with a delicious base spirit. Maine Distilleries takes exactly this route. They start with Maine-grown potatoes from the Green Thumb Farms in Fryeburg, Maine. After fermenting and distilling the potato wine, it's time for the flavoring to enter the party. They steep Wyman's wild Maine blueberries in alcohol for several days, then filter out the berries and add a small amount of sugar and water. This blueberry liqueur is mixed into the vodka, and voila! The final product has about 1% sugar (compared to an average of 12-15% sugar in other commercial flavored vodkas), and gets bottled at a full-strength 80 proof.
But how does it taste? Just like the unflavored Cold River Vodka, this spirit has a tremendous presence in the glass, aromatic and full. The scent of blueberries is clear and fresh, with just a hint of sweetness and the earthiness of the potato. On sipping, it's freshly baked blueberry muffins with a touch of honey and lavender. It has a hint of sweetness that marries perfectly with the natural bitterness of the berry and the heat of the alcohol, and the finish is clear and cool. This is the right way to make a flavored vodka.
Żubrówka is a traditional Polish vodka flavored with wild bison grass (also known as sweet grass). Unfortunately, it has been forbidden fruit for American drinkers for decades due to the naturally occurring toxin in the grass, coumarin. Since the ATF banned the importation of Żubrówka in 1978, there have been imitation versions of the vodka using artificial flavorings available, but they are pale imitations of the real thing, and precisely what we want to avoid in seeking out a flavored vodka worth our time. Thankfully, Żu Żubrówka has come to the rescue. Żu was completely reengineered from the ground up to create a traditional tasting Żubrówka without any of the health risks of traditional production, using natural herbal extracts to mimic the bison grass's flavor profile, and adding it to a quadruple-distilled Polish rye vodka.
Drunk straight, Żu is like a meadow in a glass: all sweet grain, freshly mowed hay, wild flowers, and citrus. There's also a nice pistachio note which carries through to the palate, creamy and smooth. The finish is definitely sweet but not cloying, and wafts away with a hint of lemon. One traditional way of serving Żubrówka is mixed with apple juice, and it's a revelation. I don't usually go in for sorority-style drinks, but this simple combination unlocks new spices in the vodka—cinnamon, clove, allspice—and instantly transforms your apple juice into spiced Polish cider. Perfect for a sunny afternoon as the summer fades into autumn.
Well, the name pretty much says it all; this is bacon-flavored vodka. I included it in this roundup as an outlier, trying to push the boundaries of what is possible in the world of flavored vodka. Bakon from Black Rock Spirits does just that, but unfortunately it falls a bit short in execution.
Opening up the bottle is like setting off a bacon smoke bomb in your bar, but with the dreaded lighter-fluid artificiality of liquid smoke. Drank straight, it's a pretty rough ride, but as the press kit makes clear, this is a vodka born to bloody. Mixed in the classic brunch cocktail, it does indeed come into its own, with the rich tomato and Worcestershire umami creating an almost convincing meatiness to the drink.
I feel like if you really want the bloody bacon combo, you would be better served simply garnishing your favorite hangover cure with a strip or two of the real thing, or fatwashing some vodka with rendered bacon fat. However, when I recently brought the bottle to a lunch party as the center of a build-your-own bloody bar, it was gone in record speed. It is, after all, bacon vodka.
What is your stance on flavored vodka? Have you found any real winners?
Bakon Vodka sample provided for review consideration.
About the author: Andrew Strenio is a lover of all things potable. Since sneaking his grandmother's bourbon balls, he's moved on to touring distilleries and sipping snifters. He works by day making documentary television and films for an independent production company in Brooklyn.