By Neal MacDonald, Editor
Bottom line: of all the flavored vodkas to buy, why buy a huckleberry vodka?! The answer is not to remind a lost child of the highlands of home: the taste is candy-like and very nice but not immediately redolent of mountain-fresh huckleberries. It’s a sweeter vodka that we feel is designed for sweeter settings. We find that in vanilla it is phenomenal and otherwise can be drunk just about right out of the bottle but is particularly effective when topped with soda water. For fans of berry flavor looking to break out of the normal mold, this is an excellent reason to branch out.
Now for the details.
You may be asking yourself: what the hell is a huckleberry? It’s a very small, purplish-red berry that grows wild in sandy, poor soil in the American west particularly at high altitudes and then in the New England area of the northeast. Despite great effort, it has never been successfully domesticated and cultivated so it’s always picked wild. A great favorite of bear, it also has a wide mountain heritage of tarts, pies, jams and a flavoring for many different sweeteners. It’s about the size of a green pea.
Do you like your products all-natural and made by hand? Then pay attention to this! Koenig gets their huckleberries from Hell’s Canyon in Idaho: a place that earns its name due to dust, heat, rough terrain, and lack of civilization. The huckleberries are picked by hand, flash-frozen, and then hauled out by mule to be eventually brought to the Koenig Distillery in Boise, some 150 miles or so away. These huckleberries are the only flavor added to the vodka before being bottled and shipped. It can’t get any more natural unless the berries were speared by unicorns and the juice collected in thimbles carried by fairies and brought to the distillery by magic.
We like this idea. In a world of flavored vodka where the trend seems to lean towards more outlandish and unnatural flavors, finding something that one can actually recognize is a welcome relief.
For some, the dream of drinking something so rare and generally unobtainable is enough. For those who wonder about the actual taste, we thought to try it in cocktail settings against other popular and more well-known flavors. There aren’t many huckleberry vodkas on the market but we used other more natural flavors in different settings to suggest to people where they might likely want to shift gears away from their standby and towards something new.
- Stoli Razberi—these are very popular flavored vodkas in the world market creating all kinds of cocktails and the closest peer to the huckleberry flavor.
- Absolut Citron—another very popular vodka that is mandatory at most bars. This takes us to the citrus side of the equation.
- Effen Cherry—moving over to a popular fruit flavored vodka made specifically for bartenders, we wanted to see how things would hold up for the Idaho folks.
- Regular Koenig—why go flavored? What if you just tried Koenig vodka straight and left the flavoring out? This is not quite fair because neutral Koenig is a pure Idaho potato vodka but they blend the potato with 50% corn grain for their flavored and that subtly adjusts the flavor profile. Still..
Read on to see our results!
Neat and Very Lightly Chilled
Preparation: pour into the glass with a little ice, give a light swirl, and drink. Top with soda water to taste.
Vodka, in our opinion, should be good enough that you don’t have to shoot it. But seldom is it taken neat and sipped like cognac. We often see it on ice or in soda water (which makes a fine skinny drink). Flavored vodkas are by definition something should work wonderfully well as a supremely easy drink to fix by dropping it in ice and soda. Did they come through?
Koenig Unflavored Vodka: very clean, light aroma… it has the creamy whiff of potato without some of the earthy characters we’ve smelled in others. The vodka is very sweet with an almost grape-like creamy finish. The finish is warm rather than scorching with no needle on the tongue. When people say “smooth,” that’s typically what they mean. It’s an excellently crafted vodka. Some elite might think it lacks a bit of character precisely because it is so “smooth.”
Absolut Citron: Absolut has a reputation for having excellent and authentic flavors. The aroma on the citron is very much of candied lemon. Not lemon but candied lemonhead lemon. This is most definitely lightly sweetened. Again, the flavor is mostly in the aroma but there is a citrus on the palate and a smooth finish. For 80 proof, it finishes more cleanly and smoothly than the 75 proof Stoli but that’s probably a function of the sweetening element.
Mixing with 3 parts soda water, the lemon comes through in a subtle way but the taste develops a sordid kind of funk on the finish that was off-putting. Not a drink we’d go back to.
Stoli Raz: Thankfully, this smells mostly like real raspberry rather than raspberry-flavored candy. This is a sweeter, almost raspberry-jam aroma but still real raspberry. There is a divide in flavored vodka between sweetened and unsweetened and this is definitely unsweetened. We like that. The “pour out of the bottle and drink straight” crowd might disagree. The critics and pros tend to like the unsweetened flavors, however, and that’s probably why this ranks so highly. As a mixing vodka, the flavoring is all in the aroma and very little in the taste. The finish is a little hot.
Mixing with 3 parts soda water, the raspberry aroma sings through very nicely. The taste is very interesting. Again, there’s no sweetness so it’s all in the smell and a subtle finish of berry. It’s like those very faintly flavored health waters that are infused lightly with some kind of fruit. This seems very appealing to the healthy-set.
Koenig Huckleberry: having a comparison of well-respected flavored vodka to set against, we move to the Koenig (which we should note is the lightest proofed at 70). The aroma is very much authentic huckleberry jam. We know this because we had a jar of real huckleberry jam to compare it with (Huckleberry Haven jam from Kalispell, Montana)… authentic because it only contained huckleberries, corn syrup, and pectin. One of the major differences between the jam and the vodka, though, was a sour/tart smell coming from the jam that wasn’t present in the vodka… so the vodka actually smelled more like jam than the jam in some respects. Tasting it was almost like a dessert—it definitely tastes sweetened and lighter than the competition. In fact, it was only slightly less sweet than the jam but tasted every bit as good. It could almost be a ready-to-drink cocktail coming out of the bottle. The berry flavor is definitely authentic.
Mixing with 3 parts soda water, like the Stoli the Koenig huckleberry sings right through. It smells as sweet as huckleberry soda. The taste is almost like huckleberry soda as well—not as sweet but still sweet. This is one that would appeal to those who like soda pop but are looking for an alcohol alternative. It tastes way, way better than most carbonated wine coolers and similar that we’ve tried: elegant but still sweet. This is the one we’d go back to.
What have we learned? The Koenig is the sweetest of the lot while with the Stoli and the Koenig both have a kind of candied authenticity. Both have flavors powerful enough to get through soda and, we predict, most cocktails as well. The “winning” vodka is probably a palate preference to sweet and not sweet between the Stoli and the Koenig (both killed the Absolut). For both sipping and mixing in soda, we give the slight nod to the Stoli.
Preparation: 2 oz of vodka; ½ oz lime juice (we used lemon because we prefer it); ½ oz cranberry juice; 1 oz orange liqueur (we used Cointreau). Proportions vary widely depending on what recipe you choose. Shake on ice and serve up; garnish with a lemon twist.
God it’s gotten hard for gentlemen to order this drink with anything approaching masculinity. Still, this is not a drink for the weak and very flavorful. It’s a mandatory must-try for any citrus- or berry-flavored vodka.
Absolut Citron: this is the mandatory drink for Absolut Citron… it’s practically designed for it. The aroma is all berry and lemon: beautiful. Well-made (as ours was), it has a sweet lemon-berry on the palate and a warming vodka finish.
Stoli Raz: the raspberry, one would guess, would push the lemon to the background and bring out the berry… which should be good because cranberry and raspberry often go together. And indeed, the aroma is almost undetectable in the drink with the raspberry overmatching the cranberry like King Henry in his court with one of his many wives. The taste it outstanding. Even if you miss the lemon, the acid cuts the sweet and the rink slides down like a penguin on an ice floe.
Koenig Huckleberry: one would predict this would be the sweetest of the three… but the huckleberry is loud in this drink. You can smell it from 5 feet away. Amazingly, the lemon does come through and complement the huckleberry where the Stoli buried it. Drinking it, though, it’s too sweet. At least for our taste. The sorority girl set that loves sweeter drinks would very likely adore this drink. And even the martini crowd would find a warming and slightly bitter vodka finish.
What have we learned? Those who worship at the altar of the classic Cosmopolitan will not be swayed: the citron is the citron and it brooks no substitute. But for those stretching out, the berry vodkas do add an interesting dimension with, once again, the sweetness of the palate dividing the crowd. Again, we say that the Stoli Raz finishes a bit more cleanly with a bit more flavor.
Preparation: 2 oz vodka; 4 – 6 oz lemonade (we used Simply Lemonade not from concentrate). Serve on ice; garnish with a lemon twist.
Clearly a drink for the afternoon, mixing with lemonade is a very, very common drink recipe across all the different marketing websites. We chose ours at ratios that would still showcase the vodka but be nice on a hot day.
Absolut Citron: lemonade plus lemon vodka? You guessed it: all lemon all day. Even at our ratios of 2:1, it’s easy to forget there’s alcohol in the drink. If you definition of “good” is “I can’t taste the vodka,” then this is a good candidate. Hard to know what you’re drinking in addition to the lemonade—it’s like the plumbing: essential but largely invisible. But with the vodka it tastes more bitter and finishes poorly relative to just lemonade.
Stoli Raz: raspberry and lemonade is another classic mixture and one that begs for a picnic. The smell is not disappointing at all: a nice bend of berry and lemon. The taste is not good, sadly. There’s a striking bitter quality to the drink that is intensely disappointing, particularly after the strong aroma. Is it the lack of sweetness?
Koenig Huckleberry: this is the best smelling of the lot: huckleberry tinged with lemon. And yes, it is the most successful tasting of the lot. It has the lightest added bitterness… but it’s still there. This is simply not a good drink.
What have we learned? Oddly, all-natural lemonade mixes very poorly with vodka. And it’s not the flavoring: we tried it with regular vodka and the bitterness comes out, ruining things. Perhaps it’s the lemonade that just flat-out mixes poorly with ethanol. Ignoring the bitter finish, the Koenig mixed easily the best of the lot with the lemon. They complement each other like tango partners. But it’s a poor use for an excellent vodka.
Preparation: 1 oz flavored vodka; 1 oz vanilla liqueur (we used the very good but terribly hard to find Kajmir); dash of simple syrup (we used agave syrup). Shake on ice and serve in a shooter.
We just got done saying you shouldn’t shoot your liquor and then come right back with a shooter. Well, the fact of the matter is this: people love to take shots in bars. Additionally, many of the marketing websites suggest mixing with vanilla. How well does the flavored vodka play with others?
Absolut Citron: throwing it back, it’s lemon scented vanilla. Not a bad little shooter but a little hot.
Stoli Raz: wonderful aroma… these flavored vodkas sure all smell nice. Vanilla and raspberry complement each other like a good sherbet. Throwing it back, delicious. Lot of vanilla but a little something extra from the raspberry that makes a pleasing afterglow kind of finish.
Koenig Huckleberry: drinking this was sheer honeymoon nights on red satin sheets in an open-air bedroom on a private island on a warm Tahitian night under the full moon. Yeah: it was that good. Maybe we need to get into this shooter thing. Sweet vanilla with berry tinged perfection. It’s one of those shooters that we like to call foreplay in a glass.
What have we learned? Where the sweetness can perhaps be a bit off-putting in sophisticated cocktails it is outstandingly successful in shooters. We taste scores of different cocktails but this one of the very small handfuls that make us scramble to write it down and keep it. Obviously, Koenig wins this round with lots of room to spare… we might be finding that it mixes better with herbs than fruit.
Preparation: 2 oz flavored vodka; 1 lime quartered into wedges and muddled in the tin with ½ - 1 oz simple syrup and fresh mint leaves. Shake on ice and pour into a tall glass; top with soda water.
Berry vodkas are also popular in mojitos (though Puerto Ricans are horrified at the notion and would insist on rum). Our preparation is a bit non-standard in that we’re using Brazilian Caipirinha techniques by muddling limes as well as mint.
Absolut Citron: being devotees of mojitos and caipirinhas both, the taste was quite unusual. The flavors are clean citrus and mint without the molasses of rum or the green earthiness of cachaca. It’s good and refreshing. This is the refreshing summertime afternoon drink we were hoping for out of the lemonade but didn’t get. Again, one would have a hard time picking out a citron vodka specifically but as plumbing it works quite well.
Stoli Raz: and here comes the berry! Lime and raspberry don’t go together quite as well as vanilla or lemon but it’s still a pleasant change of pace. The taste, though, is even better than the citron. Now the élan of the berry makes up for the lack of depth that might be offered by cachaca or rum. It’s very well balanced and almost exquisite. It moves the drink from the hot afternoon to the evening night club with ties and cocktail dresses.
Koenig Huckleberry: can the Idaho huckleberry keep up? It’s good… the huckleberry is delicious! But the sweetness is a touch overpowering, which may be the trait of this vodka. Here we would suggest dropping the syrup altogether or perhaps adding more soda. Re-making the drink with just the tiniest dash of syrup, it’s much better. (Making it without the syrup at all was not good.)
What did we learn? First, berries go great in Mojitos, have at it (sorry Puerto Rico). Second, you need to know what vodka you’re working with. It’s easy to go overboard on sugar in these drinks but it’s necessary to have some to balance out the sour from the lime. We find the Stoli a little easier to work with even if the Koenig has a better flavor.
In summary, all three of these flavored vodkas are well-executed examples of the craft espousing different styles. Of the three, the Absolut Citron was disappointing in that it was boring at best or unhelpful at worst. The Koenig was none of these things. As of the time of this writing, the Stoli Razberi was the #13 rated vodka in our entire database of hundreds and hundreds of vodkas (mostly due to very strong showings in the 2012 and 2013 San Francisco Competition): very stiff competition for the Koenig. The huckleberry was able to keep pace in most settings if fall a touch short in the final analysis. This was due to a sweetness of the spirit that we think many might actually find more appealing than the competition. In certain settings, it was exquisite: particularly when mixed with vanilla. We think that for more “essence style” drinks—meaning cream, vanilla, perhaps chocolate—and others where berry can enhance the flavor it will show very well. We can recommend it for people looking for a reminder of the taste of the mountains in sweeter settings.
[Disclosures: we received a 750ml bottle each of Koenig Potato and Koenig Huckleberry vodka for review… all other ingredients mentioned were acquired on our own.]