A good friend and dedicated follower describes vodka as the veal of spirits. I can agree with this, and I can definitely appreciate using food descriptors to compare distilled alcohols :-) For those with a refined palate and a willingness to hold off on the mixers for a while, here are some vodkas you can absolutely appreciate neat (as seen above).
- Smooth Ambler Spirits Whitewater Vodka ($37) The only vodka in this collection that I don't currently own a bottle of, I featured it because of the research I've done regarding its flavor, it's complexity, and it's business ethos. I like what Smooth Ambler is doing here, in terms of fermenting their own wheat mash and choosing a very fine "cut" of the distillate. Too many distilleries nowadays use what is called "NGS" (Neutral Grain Spirits) that are massively produced off site in their vodkas (in fact, many off-the-bottom-shelf vodkas do this). They idea is that they simply distill the NGS spirit one more time in their own still, add their own flavoring, and call it good. None of the vodkas in this list do that. Expect tons of bright, fruity notes on this spirit, with a clean, mentholic top note.
- Ketel One Vodka ($20) This is my go-to top shelf vodka for most American liquor stores (because most of them are - let's face it - pretty dismal on selection). If you want something that has a complex flavor profile that says "Eastern European Bloc" and doesn't go down like hairspray, this is your spirit (made in the Netherlands). It's affordable and dependable. Ketel One (like most vodka distilleries) does their first distillation in column stills. However, the second (and possibly third) distillation is done in a good old-fashioned coal-fired copper pot still. Copper is the still of choice for most other grain spirits, and here I think it succeeds in removing a bit of the harshness you find in other mass-produced vodkas. Also pairs very nicely with vermouth :-)
- Loyal 9 Mint Cucumber Vodka ($28) This is a flavored craft vodka produced by the pioneering Sons of Liberty Spirits Company in Rhode Island. In addition to making it very hard to find outside of Rhode Island, there's the fact that this is without a doubt the best flavoring to ever be added to a vodka (a few other distilleries are attempting this, for those not living on the east coast). Forget your citron and your razmataz and your blueberry and just go with this one. The mint and cucumber produce a crisp, clean mouthfeel, and the vegetal nature goes really well with summer spritzers like a mojito.
- Boyd & Blair Potato Vodka ($35) The best vodka I have ever tasted. I know that won't impress many of you, but this is not a spirit to be ignored. If you think potato vodka is the exception, you'd be right... if you're talking about the U.S. import market. However, go overseas to eastern Europe and Russia and you'll discover that potato is the much more popular starch for fermentation. The difference in flavor is immediately apparent, with a rich, almost-white-dog-whisky-but-less-Kellogg's-corn-flakes flavor profile. If that's confusing, that's because it is almost impossible to find potato vodka in the U.S., and there's just no comparison. This vodka is produced entirely in a copper pot still by two dudes (named in the spirit). It has won numerous "world's best vodka" awards. Check it out - fantastic stuff.
Rum is the new tequila, or so you would think by the people who haul out the 1.5 liter stuff for their rum & Coke fests. Not content to be callously tippled by the Spring Breakers out there, these rums stand out from the pack for the subtlety, their craft influence, and their sweet-sipping, unspiced approachability.
- Martinique Clement V.S.O.P Rum ($30) Mentioned on this blog before, you just need to check it out. I'd be hard pressed to find a more singularly drinkable rum. I'm talking put-it-in-a-wine-glass-and-swill-it type stuff. Of course, those with class will slow down and appreciate this sipper, aged at least four years in Limousin barrriques and re-charred ex-bourbon barrels. I almost want to try it out on pancakes...
- Cruzan Single Barrel Estate Rum ($26) Cruzan's new, expanded product line-up is complete bullshit. I'm not kidding, don't even bother with it. Their website is likewise horrendous now, but back in my college days they had just one hit (which can still be found with some effort) - their single barrel estate rum. Almost as great as the Martinique Clement V.S.O.P with a spicier edge to it, this is perfect for sipping or mixing. It's in a different bottle now, but it's just as good as ever. Good luck finding it next to all the spiced and flavored sugar water that passes for their other rum now.
- Thomas Tew Rum ($31) Thomas Tew was a rum pirate who called Rhode Island home. Now he has a distillery that carries on the old-timey rum tradition in his name. Distilled in a small, copper pot still by Coastal Extreme Brewing Company, the master distiller takes great care to preserve just a bit of the feints (those heads and tails from the distillate "cut") that gave old time rum (produced by passionate but less educated types) a rougher, sour, tarry flavor. This rum is not "spiced", although it is dark (aged around 2 years in American white oak). It's also not for the feint of heart ;-) I call it a winner.
- Bruichladdich Cuvee 407 PX Single Malt Scotch ($150) That PX stands for Pedro Ximinez, and although that classic (22yo!) Bruichladdich malt shines through, it's the extra sherry maturation that is the star of the show here. More balanced than Bruichladdich's 19yo "Sherry Edition" concept, with a more delicate fig-date-raisin influence, the Pedro Ximinez expression doesn't get more perfect than this. I'm not kidding. Nobody does Pedro Ximinez better than Bruichladdich.
- WhistlePig TripleOne Straight Rye Whiskey ($100) WhistlePig produces a fantastic 10yo 100% rye, but the TripleOne (111, as in 111 proof) takes that whiskey and ages it an extra year in ex-bourbon barrels. The result is a definitive rye that enters the palate as a bourbon, then finishes all sweet and spicy like. Crazy stuff. Delicious stuff. The only rye I know that can ask $100 and actually be worth the price.
- Nikka Yoichi 15yo Japanese Whisky ($130) I recently reviewed a Suntory whisky, now that Japanese whiskies are getting a lot of attention. Still, assuming that Suntory produces the only good Japanese whisky would be a major mistake. Nikka has fashioned something astonishingly close to perfect with their 15yo expression, which combines dry almondy notes with crisp, fruity liquid texture. When I say "perfect", I mean you couldn't recreate this if you tried. Exceptional stuff; I'm not even really sure that humans made it.