Absolut Oak, or Absolutely Unnecessary?

aboakMajor brands are always looking for the next big thing.  In some cases it’s a novel flavor or a new expression of the latest barrel proof.  With the monstrous rise of popularity in whiskey, bourbon and other brown spirits clear spirits have started a decline.  Vodka in particular has started to slump (-0.3%) even in the face of an overall rise in the sale of hard liquor (1.3%).

This has hit the brand Absolut by Pernod Ricard particularly hard as they rely on vodka sales for a large portion of their portfolio.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the graph lines snaking both directions.  So what can you do?  Whiskey takes time to produce and the marketing turn from vodka to whiskey can likewise be a shift if you’re not already doing something similar.  Most of the major labels aren’t willing to sell in the face of such a boom so you can’t buy your way into popularity.

So someone, somewhere thought, “What if we made a whiskey flavored vodka?”.  Flavored vodkas have been a thing for a while now, and while they too are on the decline the idea isn’t without merit.

It runs into a number of difficulties at the outset.  You can’t make an *aged* vodka.  The regulations in the US and likely any number of other countries simply don’t allow for vodka to have an age statement.  Which is why you’ll often see non-whiskey products spending time “Resting” in a barrel.  Rested or Infused are the non-regulatory buzzwords that basically mean barrel aged without all the red tape.  Next, if you’re making a spirit from grain then putting it into a barrel, it’s really just whiskey.  Calling it a vodka means you spent the time on the still to take it all the way up to high proof before cutting it down with water.  You lose the “flavor, odor and character of whiskey” that you need for it to qualify under US regulations but you get a lot more mileage out of your spirit.

Something gets lost in the translation here.  People like whiskey for more reasons than just the smell of leather and the taste of cinnamon and vanilla.  There are subtle differences between vodka and whiskey that can’t really be explained by base ingredients.  It may be as simple as time and the x-factor present in a true barrel as opposed to a bag of toasted oak chips.  What you get with Oak by Absolut is really just what it says on the label.  Oak flavored vodka.

Whiskey snobs won’t be tempted, vodka drinkers won’t see the appeal, whiskey lovers won’t get anything out of this that they can’t get from a similarly priced bottle of whiskey.  At $27 a bottle here in Oregon this is way more than I’d pay for vodka and far less than I want to pay for bad whiskey.

 

Camp 1805 Distillery

220A customer recommended that I take a trip down the gorge to try out a new distillery in Hood River.  Camp 1805 is parked in a little industrial complex just a stone’s throw from the HRD plant right on the Columbia river.  Position wise you would not think that there would be much in the way of restaurant or retail in that part of the town.  Most of the commerce seems to go on in the south bank side as the town rises up the hill.

Given their location I suppose it was no surprise that they didn’t actually open until 3pm.  So the girlfriend and I made a day of it, driving down the gorge taking photos and exploring hidden gems until afternoon rolled around.  The site is actually a bar, which is different than many of the tasting rooms in Portland but encouraging as it means the bartender is going to be well versed in what kinds of cocktails go well with their products.

They were open promptly at 3, which is refreshing in this business where things can sometimes be lax.  Things were quiet since we were effectively waiting for them to open and it was the middle of the week.

The decor is very nice looking and new.  Their selection behind the bar was heavy on major labels with a good selection of mixers but lacking in the depth of a Kask or oven & shaker.

Their tasting flight included four offerings.  From what I gather their small batch nature means that the proof on some of these varies from batch to batch with 80 being the baseline and the end product going up to at least 93.

Endurance White Whiskey

Whiskey is a curious duck, the legal requirements say that it must be barreled but not that it must be charred or aged for any length of time.  For this reason white dogs always feel like a cheat to me.  This one spends all of a minute in an unchared barrel before heading to bottling.  The result is clean and has the flavors of the heavy wheat in the grain bill without the oak to temper or tame the alcohol flavors.  It wasn’t a biter for all that the version I was drinking was 93 proof.  I can see this getting much better with time and oak.  I’m not a big fan of white dogs so take my opinion with a lot of salt.  4/10

Mt Hood Vodka

A french wheat vodka purchased elsewhere and then cut with local water and bottled.  This was similar to a grey goose in both flavor and character.  At 80 proof I wasn’t surprised with the content but neither was I really blown away.  5/10 – nothing much new to see here.

Backbone Rum

When I first tasted this I thought I was drinking whiskey.  The flavor is quite potent, which again might come from the higher proof nature of some of the offerings.  The flavor was good for a silver but not quite as soft as say Cpt. Morgan White. 6/10

Aged Rum

This is the true standout of the ones that I tried.  There wasn’t any information about it on their website so I’m stuck with what I learned while I was there.  Their backbone is aged in Yellow Rose Bourbon barrels until it is ready.  Barrel aging is a tricky process when you’re not using new barrels, the flavors in the wood already can play as much of a role as the size of the barrel in how long it needs to age to get the right flavor.  The batch I tasted was not really a dark rum but has some very good flavors to it.  8/10

Adventures in Marketing Copy

questionbottleThere are times where you will be wandering the aisle at the liquor store, surfing a distillery online or even just checking out the back of a bottle to see what the deal is with this spirit.  When you see a small block of text on the shelf it’s called a Talker and generally praises the quality and purity of the spirit.

For Example: (I found this one on DrinkupNy.com)

“This Vodka is produced from white winter wheat sourced directly from local farmers in the Western Rockies of Canada. After distillation, the spirit was shipped to the Distillery in California where it was cut down to proof with pristine water from a well in Mendocino County. Light bodied with a silky mouth feel, the Vodka is perfect for mixing, with subtle notes of grain, mineral and spice.”

Translation: We bought a tote of 190 proof vodka from our distributor and then cut it down to bottle proof with filtered tap water.  It tastes like wheat vodka.

This kind of thing happens all the time in distilling.  Lots of producers buy their base product from elsewhere or use someone else’s still to get the job done.  It’s not a sin, it’s just how the business operates when you can’t get the approval for a bigger still from the government or your current still can’t produce enough to fill your demand.   I know of a number of companies that hardly own any equipment at all.  Imbue Vermouth for example does not own a still, a vineyard, or a bottling plant but still manages to make a very compelling product that requires both wine, brandy and a significant amount of herbal infusion.

It’s not a big deal when someone does it, it’s when they feel the need to use a lot of adspeak to cover their process that things start to get murky for me.  This could have been their marketing guy, the ad man at drinkupny.com or anyone in between, but someone thought enough of their process to polish it a bit and put it out there like they were cutting the wheat by hand.

 

Basic Drinking: Moscow Mule

moscow muleFollowing up on my post about Core Drinks.

This evening we present the Moscow Mule.  A drink with a fine pedigree and a well known history.  The president and owners of Cock ‘n Bull Ginger Beer and  G.F. Heublein Brothers, Inc.

Heublein may not sound like a name to remember now but in the 40’s they were famous as the company that brought vodka to the american palate when they acquired all rights to the Smirnoff brand.  They are also responsible for the US distribution of other noteworthy brands like Don Q, Jose Cuervo and Guinness Stout.

In 1941 when Jack Morgan shipped his first train load of Cock ‘n Bull ginger beer to the east coast he celebrated in the bar at the Chatham Hotel.  Alongside him were John G. Martin of Heublein and Rudolph Kunett president of Smirnoff.

We can only credit divine providence (and a large quantity of Kunett’s product) with the resulting cocktail.

1.5 oz vodka
0.5 oz lime juice (half a lime)
8 oz Ginger Beer

Pour into glass, give a shot stir so as not to release all the bubbles and drop the spent half lime into the glass.

For some reason these are traditionally served in a small, handled copper mug.  The reasons for this are unclear and lacking this unique barware I’m forced to rely on my Working Glass for such a large drink.

Flavor wise I think you’re going to see a lot of difference based on the kind of Ginger beer you choose.  Cock n’ Bull, the original brand that started the drink is very much alive.  It’s cloudy, rich and spicy.  You can find it in grocery stores, liquor stores and even online.  You might also want to try Fever Tree or Reeds which comes in an Original and and Extra Ginger version.  Reeds is generally around.  I’ve seen it in a number of grocery stores. Fever tree tends to be a bit more select and while I’ve seen some of their products in stores you can’t count on the full line.

I made this one with a cock n bull and I have to say that it has some serious bite.  It’s not sharp like fresh ginger but it does have the burn and the spice of the true root.  The recipe on the side of the bottle is the one I’ve given above, but as I said this takes a larger glass seeing as you’ve got about 10 oz of drink there compared to the 6-8 you normally have in most cocktails.

Some of the versions of this have the ratio a bit closer to even.  2 parts vodka to 3 parts ginger beer.  Given that mix you’d get.

1 oz vodka
0.5 oz lime juice
1.5 oz ginger beer.

A bit short but if you’re using a smaller mug then a 3-4 oz drink goes a bit quicker and you can refill a bit more often.

Mr. Bartender gives a recipe of:

2 oz Vodka
2 oz Lime Juice
8 oz Ginger beer

I think in this case they’re simply upping the lime juice to compensate for the excess of ginger beer. It’s a similar ratio as above you’re just putting 4 times as much ginger beer and lime.  A much lighter drink that you might otherwise want.

This is not a drink that goes quickly.  The volume of flavor between ginger and lime is enough to give you time to pause between sips.  They don’t mesh but they do blend pretty well and being as a good vodka will disappear once it hits any sort of mixer you’re not tasting anything alcohol related on this one.

Wolverines! : The Red Dawn Cocktail

Red DawnRed Dawn

I named this little number after the movie but really it’s like a sunrise in a couple of respects.

6 oz Orange juice
1.5 oz Vodka
1 oz Grenadine
1.5 oz Cherry Liqueur

In tall glass with ice pour the ingredients over the back of a spoon similar to a float.  Start with Cherry, then grenadine, then vodka, then OJ.

Don’t stir or shake.

This isn’t a super advanced drink but it does carry some nice fruitiness in a morning beverage.

AM drinking really should be simple, you’ve just woken up and I’m not one to break out the shaker at the crack of noon.

Drink Upgrades: The Screwdriver

Following up my article on Basic Drinking, I present to you a basic guide on how to you can upgrade a very basic drink into any of a variety of  complex cocktails.

The screwdriver is one of the most basic of drinks.  Vodka and Orange juice in some proportion.  The drink is so simple that unless you’re actually tending bar even the proportions hardly matter.

This is basic orange juice.  Approximately 8 ounces.Orange Juice

From this simple citrus you can expand outwards in an almost infinite number of directions.

For our purposes the screw driver requires only that we add vodka.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Screwdriver

 

After 1.5 oz of vodka and a quick stir you have a screwdriver.  Quick morning pick me up, easygoing non-soda party drink etc.

For a slight upgrade there are a plethora of flavored vodkas on the market that can give this a kick into another direction.  A personal favorite is Whipped Cream Vodka which turns OJ into a creamcicle in pretty short order.  Raspberry, cherry, and even glazed donut vodka could also give you a nice turn on this level.

Harvey WallbangerThis picture doesn’t really do the Harvey Wallbanger justice.  A basic screwdriver with a float of about half an ounce of Galliano on top.

Galliano has a lot of flavor and when you float it, it becomes the first thing into your mouth.  You’re going to get anise, bitter, vanilla and a number of other things.  If that’s not your bag, then I would suggest adding it with the vodka and giving it a good stir.  You’re not going to notice the delicate flavors much in so much OJ, which might require you to drop the Oj down to 4 ounces or less if you want to get a good idea of the flavors.

At this point you’re looking at three ingredients.  Two of them as common as oxygen and one almost unknown.

If you’re looking for a variant here you could substitute anything with a strong herbal flavor.  Herbsaint, Benedictine, or Chartreuse would be good substitutes.  Alternately you could start looking at amaros things like Campari, Aperol, or Maraschino.

You could also go with flavors that really complement the orange, Triple sec, Grand Mariner, Ginger Liqueur or Curacao.

 

 

 

Once you’ve got a handle on flavors it’s a pretty simple matter to start blending similar ingredients into a more tasty whole.

The Graduate From humble beginnings the screwdriver gets mouthfeel, tart notes, astringency, sweeter notes and bitter licorice flavors and becomes The Graduate.

Make Your Own: Cosmo Mix

 

Cosmo

Welcome back for another wondrous takedown of the commercial drink mixers industry.  As I proceed along this search, I am ever more convinced that the entire idea of bottled mixers is an attempt to sell people something they don’t need by encouraging the idea that cocktails are hard.

This is chemistry at the most basic level, as simple as adding cream to coffee or lemon to tea.

If you look back at my MYO of Margarita mix you’ll find that even the most basic drinks seem to get clouded over with a one-bottle solution and then endlessly adulterated with cheap ingredients as the race to the bottom of the price table continues.

I’m sure that in the days of Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic when complicated Tiki drinks using multiple exotic and difficult to find ingredients were popular it was perfectly normal to buy a mix for a Mai Tai or a pina Colada.  Where I begin to break down is when classic cocktails seem to need this imaginary leg up, everything from the Mojito, Old Fashioned, Cosmopolitan, and even the Whiskey Sour seems to get shoved into a bottle for the no-brainer cocktail.  If the flavors involved were real instead of being just corn syrup and additives I would buy them in a heartbeat but fresh juices don’t keep well and many of these mixers are non-alcoholic so they are replicating the flavors of triple sec without the alcohol which means your cocktail is now leaning heavily on your main spirit.

Consider the Cosmo, that most beloved of Sex and the City girls everywhere:

1.5 oz Vodka
0.5 oz Cointreau (Triple Sec)
1/8th oz Lime Juice
1.5 oz Cranberry Juice
Twist of Lime Zest

Drop the Cranberry and swap the vodka for tequila and we’re right back in margarita territory.

I can’t imagine it’s hard to find good cranberry juice.  There are literally dozens of brands both excellent and mediocre on the market.  The issue could be that we are  running up against our old enemy the cheapskate.  When people get sticker shock on a 350ml bottle of Cointreau they might opt for a cheap bottled alternative, but even some of the low end triple sec’s are fine in small amounts like we’re using here.

Unlike the margarita, I can’t recommend mixing up a bunch of this in advance.  There’s simply not enough to this that isn’t going to require some form of more precise measurement.  If you wanted to do up an entire pitcher all at once the following would get you about 16 servings.

1 – 750ml bottle of vodka
25 oz cranberry juice
8 oz Triple Sec
1 medium sized Lime

Mixing becomes something of a problem but if you add enough ice and stir vigorously for about 2 minutes you’ll get the right temp and dilution.

 

Distillery Crawl Portland

Ed Note (This info is obviously a little out of date,

This is my own personal route that I travel on my birthday week every year with a select group of friends.

I usually buy the Distillery Row Passport which for $20 covers all the tastings I would normally have to buy as well as some nice around town coupons.

I go on a saturday starting at around 11am.  Depending on the crew and how well we’ve eaten we might start the tour with a stop at the Beaverton Farmers market which is almost right off of 217 and has a fantastic BBQ guy who does a wonderful burnt ends plate.

Stop 1 is Clear Creek Distillery , 2389 NW Wilson St., Portland, OR

A great place to begin any tour, it’s almost all alone on the west side so we hit it first and get it out of the way.  The tastings here are also free so it’s a nice place to stop just about any day they’re open.  Clear creek runs a wide variety of Fruit Liqueurs, grappa, eau de vie and brandy in both pear and apple.  They also release a small batch whiskey called McCarthy’s which usually sells out in about a month after they release it in march.  The part I like is that while you only get 5 samples if you bring friends you can pass them around a bit and get a little of everything.

Stop 2 New Deal Distillery 900 SE Salmon

We cross the river and head to the first of our east bank locations.  New deal makes some good stuff too.  I like their #1 gin, Hot Monkey pepper vodka and ginger Liqueur.  They’re also always doing something new so it’s worth a visit any time.  I pick up my passport here more often than not.  The last time I was there you got a free shot glass as part of your tasting which brought my count of them up to 3.  They’ve moved since the last time I was there, can’t wait to see their new location.

Stop 3 Vinn Distillery 833 SE Main St. Ste 125

Practically right across the street from New deal this tiny hole in the wall is a tasting room for a distillery in wilsonville.  They make a traditional rice Baijiu and rice vodkas.  They weren’t really to my taste, I may stop in again this year to see if they have anything new but I doubt i’ll linger.  Give them a shot, the rice vodka is a nice change for the gluten free crowd.

Stop 4: Bunk Bar 1028 SE Water Ave

A bit of a divergence from the straight line but this is the point in the tour where the drink starts to catch up with breakfast.  Bunk bar is a wonderful little spot where you can get a pork belly cubano, Roasted Poblano Torta or even a PB & J, side of debris fries and even order a decent cocktail.  Their shelves are pretty well stocked, lots of local stuff and even a few things like Maraschino liqueur that you don’t often see.  Their menu drinks are often Beer+ which doesn’t help me much but they all sound interesting at the least.  Grab a sandwich and go or sit and let the last 3 places settle before heading out again.

Stop 5: House Spirits 2025 SE 7th Ave

A bit further out than the next stop would suggest but I have a reason.  House carries a wide array of spirits, everything from gin to aquavit to a white dog whiskey.  Their tasting tends to be a little more varied than some of the other places which specialize a bit more in one kind of spirit or another.  Additionally this is the point where heat, botanicals and liquor start to cause burn out.  Go light here, taste what looks good but don’t get carried away there are still a couple more places ahead.

Stop 6: Eastside Distilling 1512 SE 7th Avenue (at Hawthorne)

Best for last (so to speak).  Eastside has continued to impress me every time I go.  Over the holidays they had egg nog, holiday spice liqueur, and peppermint bark, On top of their line of already very drinkable rums, bourbon and vodka.  Try everything, you won’t be disappointed.  I’m a big fan of their double barrel bourbon and their burnside bourbon as well as the rums.

Stop 7 Pacific Pie Company 1520 SE 7th Ave (Last Stop)

Literally next door to Eastside Distilling is a pie shop.  It’s probably 5-5:30 by now, you’re toasted lightly from the heat, sauced and full of lord knows how many herbs, botanicals and crazy concoctions.  The best thing for you is Pie.  Their menu changes regularly but they offer a majestic line of both sweet and savory pies and pasties.  If you can get it I recommend the strawberry margarita pie or the chocolate bourbon hazelnut.  In addition their bar offers a lovely line of cocktails featuring the best of everything i’ve listed so far.  For $8 you can get anything from a Tom Collins with Aviation Gin to a Bondi using Hot Monkey Vodka.

Alternates for this coming year:  I’ve still got a few months planning to do so i’ve been poking around to see how I might change things up.  The following are options that i’ve seen around town.

Breakfast: Leave much earlier and stop at the Oven and Shaker 1134 NW EVERETT.  They have a brunch menu which starts at 11:30.  Not ideal time wise but a ham plate, gravlax or pizza with duck eggs sounds delightful.  And they have some cocktails there like the French 75 that would make for a nice opener.

Westside additions: Bull Run Distilling 2259 NW Quimby Street

Only about 6 blocks from Clear creek I found out about these guys at a friend’s birthday when someone presented him with a bottle of their Temperance Trader Bourbon

Rogue Distillery 1339 NW Flanders St,

One of the bigger names in the local brewing scene they still make rum, whiskey and gin which might make them worth a try.

Review: Volstead Vodka (House Spirits)

Periodically I like to pick up a passport and do the portland Distillery row.  Usually around my birthday, a couple of friends will pile into a car with a designated driver and we’ll make a point to hit everywhere that we can.

I’ll post the route I usually run along with a timetable another time since I think if you haven’t done it at least once you’re missing out.

On my first trip through I somehow missed the brightest star in the bunch which is House Spirits.  My second time through I did catch it and I found there a vodka unlike just about any other I had tasted.  Softer than Crater Lake, smoother than Stoli and with none of the offensive marketing BS of Svedka or Grey Goose.  That spirit is Volstead Vodka.  Made with the very sweet bull run water and filtered over charred coconut husks this thing is a monster of a good vodka.

Volstead old

The first bottle I bought, I refused to let my buddy mix it with anything and we sat around doing straight shots of this until we had demolished most of the bottle.

When I heard that it had finally come back in stock with a new label I dropped everything I was doing and went to grab another bottle.  It was 5:45 and their tasting room closed at 6.  I had already exhausted all of the local liquor stores so I knew the only chance I’d have to get a bottle was to hit their tasting room directly.  Thankfully I had another friend with me who was as excited as I was about this vodka and he drove like a madman to get us there before they closed.

volstead new

I really like the older apothecary style bottle with the cork rather than the screw cap but you still can’t beat the fact that at $19.99 a bottle this stuff blows the doors off of just about anything else on the shelf.

You can find House Spirits products in at least 15 states and from a number of online retailers, I didn’t have any luck getting volstead from any of the retailers listed on the House spirits website but keep trying, it’s only been back for about 2 weeks now so it may just take some time to get around to all the places.

My rating: 5/5 Shakers.

Buy it if you like vodka, if you want something to mix that doesn’t burn out your nostrils or if you want to fill out a bar with good inexpensive liquor.