By Neal MacDonald, Editor
THE BOTTOM LINE RIGHT AT THE TOP
We compared Grand Teton Vodka directly to Chopin Potato Vodka (direct competitor), Grey Goose (common premium competitor), and Smirnoff (value brand). We find that potato vodkas in general are much more complex and add much more character to any drink. In most settings, the Grand Teton specifically is commanding in its presence - declaring itself over any other flavor at dilutions 3:1 and below. For the demanding sophisticate, this is a spectacular vodka, though it will be daunting to the novitiate. We give it very high recommendations for Vodka Martinis and similar styled cocktails. Also very high recommendation as a shooter. It is easily one of the best potato vodkas we've tried.
What's special about Grand Teton Vodka?
As of this writing, Proof66 has over 700 vodkas listed in our database (over 1,400 if you include flavored vodkas). Weird and traditional flavors; crystal bottles and value buys; organic materials and prehistoric water; celebrity endorsements and models in ads… there’s a little bit of everything. How does a new vodka stand out in that crowd?
Grand Teton Vodka is trying to stand out in the crowd and they’re doing it in a few very specific ways:
If you’re keeping track at home against, say, Grey Goose vodka (a likely competitor), the scoreboard looks like this:
French Pedigree and a Bird
Western Independence and Mountains
Last Competitive Entry: 2002
Current Multiple Major Award Winner
Not a bad start.
The Grand Teton Distillery was kind enough to send us a bottle to try out for ourselves, which is always the ultimate test. We tested the vodka directly against Grey Goose, Smirnoff, and Chopin to try and tease out the differences and match it up against likely peer groups in the market place.
What’s up with using potatoes for making vodka?
Vodka can technically be made from anything and come from anywhere. The only rule is that it get distilled up to 95% (190 proof) before blending down (to a minimum of 80 proof) and bottling. Because it’s distilled so high, it tends to strip out any other flavor leaving only alcohol… and, of course, whatever the water tastes like. This is why vodka brands go to such length to brag about the kind of water they use, which should have some mineral content to taste.
But there is some residual flavor from the base ingredient. The great majority of vodka is made from some type of grain—just like whiskey and beer. A small fraction of the market is made from potato. In general, this will give the vodka a slightly bitter, creamy taste much sought-after by adoring fans. Like the smoky “peat reek” of scotch whisky, potato can be a bit polarizing but for those who like it, they want nothing else.
Idaho, being abundantly blessed with good potatoes, is a natural source for a potato vodka appealing to these hard-core fans of the particular flavor. You probably couldn’t tell the difference if it’s swamped up in some kind of mixer but if you’re a Vodka Martini-phile you don’t need us to tell you there’s a gulf between potato and everything else.
What else is like it on the market?
Remember how we said that we track 700+ vodkas currently (probably more by the time you’re reading this)? Well, right now we recognize 31 potato vodkas. So only a bit under 5% or so of vodka on the market falls into this class. Of those, Chopin commands the most notoriety and market share. In its price range, there are a number of vodkas competing for market share… most notably Grey Goose, Circoc, and Belvedere are fighting for shelf space in this category. In the craft distiller world, there are a few different potato vodkas representing different regions. Blue Ice Vodka and Teton Glacier Vodka are similar styles from the region.
What does it taste like by itself?
In contrast to wheat vodkas, where a Smirnoff and a Grey Goose will have a bread-like sweetness, the potato vodkas have a-what we’ll call—“potato reek.” It’s briny, earthy, and smells a bit wet. The texture of the potato vodkas are quite different as well… a creamy texture. The Grand Teton in particular, has a profound potato reek (for vodka) and the same creamier texture, but the taste is remarkable. It’s fairy-like, effervescent, and vanishes off the tongue leaving an aftertaste of—we swear—butterscotch.
For our tasting (neat), the Grand Teton was easily the best of the group.
What does it taste like with a little ice and water?
A little water and a little chill can often signal remarkable changes in a spirit and vodka is no exception. In our tasting, we dropped in an ice cube, allowed for a little dilution, and tasted. We had one wheat and one potato vodka each improve dramatically—in this case the Grey Goose and the Chopin. The base flavor came out, a sweetness emerged. In the others (the Smirnoff and the Grand Teton), a bitter tasting note developed on the finish. Certainly not the base ingredient so some character of the distillation is coming through. To its credit, the potato-ness of the Grand Teton soared out in water plus a little sweetness… but the bitter finish also emerged.
With dilution and chill, we go with competitors Goose and Chopin ahead of Grand Teton.
How does it do in a Vodka Martini?
Nothing really matters until you try it in a martini. We made ours dirty: 3:1 vodka to dry vermouth and a dash of olive juice. It turns out, if you’re going to make your vodka martinis dirty, then the drink absolutely demands a potato vodka. Each of the potato vodkas greatly outperformed the wheat—no question. The brine mixes beautifully with the creamy earthiness of tuber. Of the Chopin versus Grand Teton, it’s very close. The Teton is far more complex—lots of flavors going on. With the Chopin, it’s cleaner, more one note, but a nice note. It’s an aria versus a chorus.
In a dirty Vodka Martini, we give a tie between the Chopin and the Grand Teton but both far ahead of grain vodka.
How about in designer cocktails?
We went high class: 3:1 vodka to St Germain elderflower liqueur with a natural lemon twist and a dash of peach bitters, well shaken and served up. It’s designed to explode with flavor. Can these vodkas both complement the flavor explosion and still stand up for themselves as individuals? This is a drink that demands a little black cocktail dress but it’s what’s inside that counts. With the Grey Goose, it’s all dress. There may be a lovely lady inside there but the garment hid everything. The potato vodkas showed off the flavors in all their buxom glory. But where the Chopin was good, the Grand Teton filled out that dress in a Kate Upton way. The drink is full where the others are merely promising. What we’re learning is that Grand Teton delivers massive complexity… for the enthusiast who wants multiple layers of flavors and sauces and aromas that are to be contemplated at length… this is your vodka.
In our Elderflower Citrus Special, the Grand Teton carries the drink.
What about a big old tonic water sort of drink?
Moving from martini styled cocktails to mixers, we made up a drink that was 3 parts tonic water to 1 part vodka with a splash of X-Rated Fusion liqueur for a little color and excitement. To the point, the ratios were exactly reversed. Could the vodka stand out at this level of dilution? Once again the potato vodkas showed through much better. The wheat is good but good for mixing… no distinguishing characteristics. They’re back-up singers: necessary but unremarkable. In our own blind trials and random presentations, we could distinguish potato from wheat even at these ratios at about an 80% success rate… which is pretty good for vodka. Of the two, we say once again that Grand Teton is the far more complex vehicle. It sings; it soars; it represents. It puts its stamp on a drink unabashedly, unashamedly, and unmistakably.
Drowned in tonic water and liqueur, the Grand Teton wins again.
What if I just put it in cranberry juice?
Here’s our heaviest dilution yet: 3 parts cranberry juice, 1 part vodka with a squeeze of lemon. Going beyond this level of dilution would be ridiculous and you can probably safely use bathtub alcohol. This is stretching the character of vodka to its very limits. You can definitely find the potato reek, though it might be contraindicated with cranberry and lemon. If one doesn’t wish to taste alcohol, then the Goose is the winner. Both potato vodkas are fighting with the cranberry rather than copulating with it. But that’s if you squint your eyes and concentrate really hard to try and detect the flavors. In most cases, we have hard time believing anyone would notice.
Here, we say the Goose wins but it really doesn’t matter. Fine vodka is not to be mixed at these ratios unless you also like burning $20 bills at the same time.
If I order it in a Vegas nightclub, will I look cool?
No. There’s not enough name recognition—and not enough hip hop endorsement—to make you cool in these settings. Where it will serve you well, is at the martini bar in a major metropolis of the Rocky Mountains, where the CEO of some major tech company closing a billion dollar deal on an IPO, looks over and recognizes you as a discriminating connoisseur worthy of approach, conversation, and Linked-In exchange. At $18—half the price of your typical Chopin or Grey Goose—this signals you as thrifty and discerning. And the vodka is delicious. Anyone who knows that will want to know you.
Do I have to go to Idaho to get a bottle?
Right now, yeah. But the thing is, do you want them to scale? This is a true craft distillery hand-making every drop. As soon as you can order this in every airport bar across the country, it means they had to automate the manufacture. Then what happens? Do you get the same vodka? We guess probably not. So go to Idaho, buy a case, and nurse it through the year.