Sometimes buying vodka is about looking cool; say, in a bar with lots of people in “hoochie gear” on the prowl and you really need them to know that you bought something pricy, prestigious, and popular. Then, there are other times when buying vodka is about being cool; say, in your home when you’re mixing a drink for someone you met at the club last week and you want them to be surprised at your good taste and sophistication.
Smugglers’ Notch Distillery Vodka is all about that second phase of being cool.
Because of the wide-ranging field of choices, the vodka world is often as much about the story as it is about the spirit. The origins of a particular vodka can be one of the more compelling stories in the business. Just like coffee drinkers like to think about a particular shady hillside in Colombia, wine drinkers a given region in France, and eHarmony users dream of an Ivy League doctor from Connecticut landed families, Smugglers’ Notch delivers a similar kind of story with the origin of their vodka.
The vodka is crafted at the Smugglers’ Notch Distillery in Vermont. Here, Ron Elliott and his son Jeremy Elliott run their business that was named after the notorious pass in the Green Mountains of Vermont that allowed clandestine traffic from Canada into the United States. It was used as far back as the 1800s to evade taxes and up to the 20th century to traffic booze during Prohibition. We speculate it might even be in use today to smuggle various illicit items such as Cuban cigars and 20-gallon flush toilets. Today, it survives as a Vermont State Park, popular for its scenic woods and low mountains.
It’s an ideal setting for a distillery that invokes Prohibition-Era liquor smuggling, New England Libertarian sensibilities, and pristine wilderness. To bring it home, an illustration of the pass graces the label of every bottle of vodka. One can almost imagine a mule train of barrel-laden beasts marching down the pass.
The vodka itself is made from a blend of Idaho corn and wheat. Why Idaho? They feel the climate and soil lend themselves to particularly flavorful grain and it is these grains that they find ideally suited for distilling. Having made the transcontinental journey from Pacific Northwest to New England, the vodka is blended down with mineral rich water of the Mount Mansfield watershed (the highest “mountain” in Vermont at a shade under 4,500 feet). They distill in a continuous column method meant to deliverconsistency and purity in the final product. (Might be something missing in this sentence)
Great story, but how does it taste?
We ran Smugglers’ Notch through its paces. First, we froze it and put it through a Russian style tasting shooting it with a chaser of caviar and smoked salmon on wheat crackers. (This, by the way, is a fun way to taste vodka even if not exactly recommended by the pros who decry that the nuances are lost in the temperature.) When one “freezes” vodka, one is looking for “smooth with a bite.” After all, it shouldn’t be so smooth that it’s like drinking cold water. In a field of eight different vodkas, Smugglers’ Notch shown in this capacity: it is precisely “smooth with a bite.” It has an enormously light, bread-like aroma… where lesser vodkas smell like the future promise of scorched throat and squinted eye, Smugglers’ Notch promises light, crisp, and—dare we say it—sophsitication . The taste is also as promised, with a finishing sweetness (the Idaho corn) that is a lingering caress rather than a burn. A little water pulls out even more of the sweetness auguring very well for a cocktail. Our final summations are delicate, like the finest filigree finish on a piece of jewelry.
This is a vodka that, while it can be enjoyed neat, demands by its very character to be placed in cocktails. Just as a graceful dancing couple requires a gentleman to be the frame and enable the acrobatics and flair of the lady, so Smugglers’ Notch is a vodka that can perfectly display a liqueur or a fresh squeezed juice. It will send these flavors tripping across your tongue and into the annals of your memory.
We pushed the vodka into a brew of cranberry flavored rum, grenadine, and a splash of fresh lemon. This is the classic combination of base + sweet + acid = cocktail. We anticipated the Smugglers’ Notch would slide gracefully and perhaps invisibly into a drink. “Easy” is a good way to describe what happened but the bitter bite of the wheat actually sounded off in the finish of the cocktail rather like the final bow of an acting troupe. This is a good thing for those looking for a lingering finish and complexity in their cocktail.
Thinking to move on to something more herbal, we tossed the vodka into a mix of vanilla liqueur and black oolong tea with another dash of lemon. Once again, the mild sweet and herbs tended to complement the bitter at the finish. There was some question, though: some people don’t actually like to taste the alcohol in their drinks. Could the Smugglers’ Notch—even if it is the horror of the distillers—actually be masked in some reasonable sort of cocktail?
On to the third cocktail, we wanted to see if the vodka really could be made invisible. Here we punched up a classic elderflower liqueur and ginger ale cocktail with a measure of vodka to ratchet up the proof. This is a great use for vodka in some ways: make a good drink warmer. In this drink, we ended up with a proportion of “stuff” to vodka in about 2:1. Here the vodka really did slide into the drink. The bitterness (complexity) of the wheat faded away leaving no memory whatsoever. For some, this is highly desirable. Lesser vodkas will leave aftertastes of methyl (banana) or alcohol burn (aldehydes) and there’s none of this in the Smugglers’ Notch. For those looking to drink something that “doesn’t taste like alcohol,” you might have a winner.
In summary, where we find it difficult for vodkas to impress us, Smugglers’ Notch has done so. A hearty recommendation to this award winner and one worthwhile seeking out.
(Photo credit:Julius Higgins of Four Nine Design)