I usually skip the vodkas at our local ABC store. Mostly of grain-based origin and bearing only a hint of flavor diversity amid the overpriced top shelves, this liquor doesn’t so much go with everything as need something for cocktail flavor. The only bottles of interest I’ve found to date have all been potato vodkas, those descendants of the mythical, original vodkas of yore, drank by fur-clad Russians and hardy Poles.
Here, though, are three vodkas worthy of a taste. Not grain-based, nor potato-based, these are interesting on the palate and, in my opinion, worth their price. There’s not a stinker among them. I think you’ll find at least one worth experimentation in your favorite vodka cocktail.
Tito’s Handmade Vodka, Fifth Generation, Inc., Austin, Texas. 80-proof, $22/750ml (Virginia ABC). This is my control against which I’ve compared and contrasted the other two. Well-regarded and amply available, Tito’s has graduated from small batch obscurity to eponymous must-have. It smells slightly sweet, betraying its 100%-corn origins. After 6-time pot-distillation and carbon filtration it’s surprising any corn sweetness makes it through. The flavor is also sweet, though not so much as, say, a bourbon, and is very soft on the palate. Think the exact opposite of Jack Daniels’ cutting sharpness. This soft sweetness in combination with a good dry vermouth lends itself to a fine, if mild vodka Martini. Low quality or old vermouth shines through Titos’ softness, though, so be forewarned: don’t go cheap. Tito’s aftertaste remains pleasant as it fades.
If Martinis pique your curiosity, but the thought of near-straight liquor puts you off, a Tito’s Martini with a lemon twist may be your entrée.
(Worth the short read, Tito Beveridge’s story about how he got into the vodka business kinda makes you proud to enjoy his product.)
Kopper Kettle Vodka, Belmont Farms of Virginia, Culpeper, Virginia. 80-proof, $20/750ml (Virginia ABC). Distilling doesn’t get any more local for me. These folks are just down the road a stretch. Another 100%-corn vodka, I knew I had to put it up against Tito’s as soon as I saw it on the shelf. Its scent is sweeter yet than Tito’s, though not off-puttingly so. The flavor is more corn-forward on my palate, and slightly more harsh, though still sippable. This one would make a more interesting vodka Martini than Tito’s. (A blander affair than its sibling the gin Martini, a Martini using this vodka will give you something to savor without resorting to olive brine for interest.) There’s no mention of how many times the spirit is run through a pot still, and their filtration method is a “secret,” but my guess is one to three fewer rides through than Tito’s. The aftertaste is also slightly more harsh than Tito’s, not surprising for fewer distillations. It matches the initial flavor. Their filtration could also lend to this difference. Though less soft and mild than Tito’s, Kopper Kettle is pleasant and more memorable and, as mentioned, a worthwhile mixer.
I used Kopper Kettle’s vodka to mix a Vesper, my go-to Friday evening reward. My first reaction was, “oh, my.” In my opinion there’s no substitute for a good potato vodka in a Vesper. It stands up to a juniper-forward gin. Tito’s, like grain vodkas, falls down in this respect. And yet Kopper Kettle’s liquor ably stood up. What a pleasant surprise.
Also worthy of note, Kopper Kettle distills what they’ve trademarked as “Virginia Whiskey.” Resting first on charred Virginia oak and applewood, then on traditional charred American oak, this whiskey has a unique, pleasant flavor and can be enjoyed neat or with a few drops of water. I keep a bottle in my repeat collection of bourbons and ryes. Recommended.
Jen’s Vodka, Cassinelli Winery & Vineyards, Church Hill, Maryland. 80-proof, $30/750ml (distillery MSRP). Triple-distilled from 100%-grapes and carbon filtered, this vodka brings to mind its fruit origin. In a blind test we could pick this vodka from among the three by scent alone. Sweeter than either Tito’s or Kopper Kettle, it’s not quite as soft on the palate as Tito’s. I’d call it about the same in this way as Kopper Kettle, but its flavor and aftertaste keep those plump grapes in mind until well after it’s in my belly. If I had to put a word to this liquor, it’d be “juicy.”
I’ve already made a handful of Vespers with Jen’s and good local gin, MurLarkey ImaGination from MurLarkey Distillery in Manassas, Virginia, and its sweetness neatly balances that gin’s juniper-forward flavor. This vodka makes for a nice sipper as well as a good citizen in your favorite cocktail, as long as its sweetness is kept in mind and balanced. Also of note is its beautiful Art Deco bottle art. Unique. (Click the image for a larger view.)
Of these three I’d recommend Jen’s for straight sipping. Keep a bottle in the freezer and pour just a couple ounces at a time, and enjoy. It’s very smooth, with enough interest of flavor to make it memorable. Or mix it into a cocktail and see what happens. Ditto Kopper Kettle’s vodka.
Jen’s caught my palate by surprise, and I’ve had my eye and mind on it ever since. My pal David gifted me this bottle and I need to thank him again for the experience. It’s always a pleasure to try something new and find it to my liking.