We find the River Pilot vodka a very nice vodka, particularly in certain settings. One isn’t overly enthusiastic about the vodka but it carries its head high in a number of different settings. It’s highest and best use was mixed in a Pina Colada cocktail or similar fruit-forward vodka cocktails. Who should buy: those who are planning a major beach party with lots of tropical fruit! Who should avoid: penny-pinchers… the taste is good but it comes in at 2x and 3x of other vodkas that the miserly would be happier with.
We find the River Baron Spirit a finicky thing… fantastic in some settings and off-putting in others with a dominant banana character. It’s highest and best use was in a Cosmopolitan where it was absolutely stunning. Who should buy: Cosmo drinkers for sure and maybe for those boy bars out there who are looking for a baron to sweep them off their feet. Who should avoid: the cowardly. If different is bad, then this very different spirit should be avoided at all cost. Similarly, those who hate banana should avoid.
The Mississippi River Distilling Company loves to name its products in honor of the local history and geography… in this case, their clear spirits are River Pilot (vodka) and River Baron (vodka-like spirit). Both are made from a base of blended corn and wheat harvested within miles of the distillery. Both are on the premium side of pricing coming in between $25 and $30 so it competes squarely with the top shelf, Big Market vodkas of the world. It’s a classic example of small craft distillery vs Big Liquor. That’s exactly how we’re going to treat this tasting: lining them up against $12 Sobieski and $30 Grey Goose.
How Does do the Rivers Compare Straight Up to Grey Goose and Sobieski
Sobieski is a value buy made from Polish rye, priced for the masses but claiming premium taste. We find it to be a clean, light vodka with a very light burn and a spicy fade. Ice improves the finish remarkably to a smooth, clean tatse. An excellent buy, really, for the price. The Grey Goose is a wheat based vodka that created the premium market. We found our bottle to smell faintly of moss and finish with a light bitterness… the wheat grain is always a pleasure in vodka but here overburdened with the poor execution of the spirit. Ice improves it a great deal but the finish is like charcoal.
Moving over to the MRDC, the River Pilot is a corn-grain vodka and separates itself in that way from the rye of Sobieski and the wheat of Grey Goose. It’s on the nose with heavy, wet-grain/stone aromas with just a dash of popcorn. The taste on the palate is light and a bit oily with a bitter aftertaste… it has the deep resonance of what normal associate with esters in the spirit. The finish is gorgeous and probably a testament to the execution… but there’s some flavor coming off the still that isn’t appealing to us.
The River Baron—moving up in rank!—we come to the spirit that is a corn and wheat blend. If we’re right about the distillation technique of coming in less than the 190 of vodka, we expect far more grain character, though perhaps not quite the beer-like quality of moonshine. It’s definitely on the nose… but it’s almost like the grain is mixed with overripe banana. It reminds us of corn flakes with bananas in the morning. The taste is very interesting, very different. One would never think of vodka but it’s not the earthy character of baijiu or other earthier spirits. Ice makes the banana come out more. This might make a fascinating mixer but challenging as a sipper. The "otherness" of the spirit is off-putting to the uninitiated. One has to be prepared for it to drink it.
The Rivers in 7-Up
You’re in a club or otherwise in a hurry, sometimes you mix with what’s on hand. A good vodka should mix with anything. We grabbed the first thing handy and that was a can of 7-Up. We mixed in ratios of about 3:1 and drank to see how the individuality of each vodka shone.
The Sobieski tasted exactly like vodka in 7-Up. So did the Grey Goose… there was a mild difference between the two and the wheat out of the Goose may have added a bit more depth. No one would probably actually order this drink but it’s the kind of thing that’s drinkable and certainly the sort of stunt executed in home kitchens.
The River Pilot was surprisingly good in this drink… whatever was happening in the corn-grain vodka made this a very nice drink on the 7-up. Much better than the Big Brands. The River Baron, on the other hand. Smelled exactly like corn-flake bananas in 7-Up. No disguising it. This did not improve the drink even if it made it distinctive.
River Pilot and River Baron take on Goose and Sobieski in a Cosmo
We’re man enough at Proof66 to admit we like a well-made Cosmopolitan. We do wish it didn't have to be pink. Nonetheless, we executed a classic with 2 parts cranberry; 1 part vodka; ½ part triple sec; and a dash of lemon juice shaken on ice and served up. The Sobieski made a classic tasting version (lemon is always better than lime, in our humble opinion) that no one this side of Sarah Jessica Parker should turn down. Nothing makes a clean cocktail like good vodka. The Grey Goose, again surprisingly from our initial taste, made an even better tasting version of the Cosmo… maybe not worth the extra spend but still good. Cleaner.
Moving on to the River Scions from MRDC, one wonders if they’ll be as clean and pure with the heavier grain flavors, particularly with the Baron? The River Pilot (vodka, remember) made an even "excellenter" Cosmo; apparently the corn grain makes a very good mix with the cranberry and citrus of the drink. Just gorgeous. Maybe a bit of sweet tart: "Put a blue umbrella on it and get it from a pool boy and I'll be gay all day long." Can the Baron hold up the trend? Thank the river lords the banana is muted on the nose or the palate (maybe a bit browned). The earthy grain is and provided a kind of bass note to the drink. It’s as if someone cranked up the bass on the five-band equalizer of the base. We’re guessing that sweetness is the key for bringing out the better qualities of the Baron.
River Scions in a Moscow Mule vs Grey Goose and Sobieski
Thinking this through, we wanted to test in a spicier, sourer drink. That could mean only one thing: a Moscow Mule. Ours was deliberately heavy on the vodka with 2 parts ginger beer (we used Goslings); 1 part vodka; a dash of clarified lime juice (we used Stirrings), poured on ice and served.Once again, we worked from Sobieski up wondering if the River Scions could hold their mixing chops. The Sobieski predictably made a very nice "drinkable" drink. Again, we have to emphasize the excellent value of this vodka. The Goose was right there as well… maybe a mild difference but hard to tell. Excellent drink.
The River Pilot (vodka, remember) corn grain was an interesting blend with the spices of a ginger beer… it sang the bass note we noted in the Cosmo but hear it was not necessarily wanted. Where the Cosmo was a dub step that demanded bass this was a square dance where it fit oddly. Clean, vanishing flavors are the order of the day in a Moscow Mule. The River Baron aroma sang through the ginger with its Banana drumbeat… but this was decidedly unpleasant. The interesting difference of the spirit holds the attention but it mixes poorly with the spicy ginger.
River Scions in a Pina Colada vs Grey Goose and Sobieski
We wanted to make something that would absolutely showcase the River Scions and we elected for a tropical drink that begged for banana. It was inspired by the Pina Colada but we had no coconut. So we used 2 parts pineapple juice; 1 part vodka; and a ½ part blend of peach schnapps and blue curacao. With the Sobieski it looked a mossy green and smelled like pineapple. The resulting taste was unimpressive… a tribute to our ad hoc cocktail-making skill. But still… good spirits should carry a bad cocktail. The Goose made a better drink… it’s still not a great drink but it’s a brighter, more cheerful version.
Now the River Scions. The Pilot (vodka) made a buttery-smooth profile that was quite likable. Here, that corn/popcorn flavor was excellently complemented by the lousy mixture of our cocktail. This was a drink that could plausibly be ordered in a retail venue. The Baron thumped in with the characteristic banana aroma but here it wasn’t so unusual (as we’d hoped). Weirdly, the grain flavors of the spirit were an antidote to the pineapple flavor. The one cancelled out the other. River Baron is apparently pineapple juice’s kryptonite. This was very striking… it’s not a bad drink in some respects but the character is off. We can’t imagine this in a pina colada where the pineapple is the star of the show.
by Neal MacDonald, editor
[Disclaimer: we received a bottle of both River Pilot Vodka and River Baron Spirit free of charge for review purposes. All other products mentioned here were acquired on our own.]