Grand Traverse Distillery was kind enough to provide us with a bottle of their True North Vodka to sample. Vodka being what vodka is - renowned for being tasteless, odorless, etc. - one approaches taste-testing with a certain receptivity to subtleties. It's sort of like the surfs... they all look the same for the most part: blue, white hats, white pants, etc. But after a while, you learn the subtleties. Brainy has glasses, Hefty has a tattoo, Smurfette has several notable differences. One approaches vodkas like one approaches a village of smurfs: prepare to notice the subtle differences.
Enter True North Vodka.
A smurf? Not even. In the cocktail party of smurfs, True North Vodka busts in as Gimli the dwarf fresh from the war with Mordor. Bury the booze and hide your daughters, smurfs. True North is here.
What we're trying to say in science-fiction metaphor is that True North is a vodka that distinguishes itself. Having now tried it, we could place that vodka by taste or aroma in any lineup, anywhere, at anytime, and in just about any drink. For a microdistillery looking to make a name for itself, one can't ask for much more. In a sea of similarity, True North is a vodka that establishes a specific point of view and sets itself apart.
Grand Traverse makes True North vodka in a traditional Polish way by using 100% rye in its mixture - think Belvedere Vodka or Pravda Vodka. Almost all vodkas are usually made from a grain mash - very few are made from potatoes (and there are a few wineries making vodka from grapes plus a smattering of other exotic ingredients). Many so-called premium vodkas are made with wheat and will rhapsodize about winter wheat this and organic wheat that and so forth. But Grand Traverse uses rye and only rye. And just like Rye whiskey differs strikingly from bourbons, that creates a strikingly different flavor profile.
When we personally taste spirits at Proof66, we run it through our personal little Thunderdome. That is, we take a top-selling brand and let it go bottle-a-bottle-two spirits enter, one spirit leaves. And our thunderdome has everything: we compare the tastes neat and in several different classic cocktails. The other competitor in this match was the widely available and generally acceptable Smirnoff Vodka (recipe No. 21 - that is, the one you see everywhere). Go ahead and quibble now about not selecting another rye vodka... but look, Smirnoff is a grain mash and we want to use something that most people are familiar with and doesn't suck; that's Smirnoff to a tee. (In fact, it pulled down a double-gold in the 2009 San Francisco World Spirits competition.)
First, the aroma of these two vodkas is night-and-day different. Where Smirnoff comes in light and a little crisp, True North has a heavy, yeasty aroma that some actually found a bit off-putting. It definitely announces itself.
We tried them neat. Smirnoff enters the palate a bit oily with very icy citrus notes. It leaves the palate with a burst that was described alternately as warm and harsh. But Smirnoff tells you what it is on the back-end yelling its name all the way down to your stomach. True North announces itself on the front and not at all with citrus notes but something else... something that reminded us like Italian bread-and-butter. Is that the rye coming out? It's an amazing flavor that's delicious in comparison with Smirnoff and fades into an absolutely silken finish just like warm pizza bread - a bit of a salve after the scorching exit of the Smirnoff.
Then we compared the two in a classic martini. We used Gallo dry vermouth in a ratio 4:1. Eighty shakes in the boston shaker... no less, no more! We used a twist of lime to finish it off. The Smirnoff made a very nice, classic martini that no one ought to be ashamed to drink, though some thought it a bit dull (it's a classic and classics are sometimes supposed to be dull). Your spouse greets you at the door with that in their hand, and you're happy. Then the True North. Its distinctive, bread-like aroma burst right through the martini and identified it as Something Else. Sadly, we belatedly realized we blew it with the twist of lime - big mistake with the True North because its taste doesn't mix well. If instead we'd gone with the olive, big win! It probably would be absolutely spectacular in a dirty martini (a bit of olive juice). As it was, it was good with a much smoother finish but a puzzling mix of flavors with the lime.
Undeterred, we soldiered on to the vodka tonic - we used Canada Dry tonic with 4oz tonic to 1oz vodka on ice. No lime this time! The Smirnoff aroma and characteristics were swallowed up in the tonic. It was fine but perhaps ended a bit weak. Perfectly ok for summer days but nothing special. True North's aroma also got swallowed up by the tonic... but not that flavor! That True North robustness busted through the quinine bitterness of the tonic like... well, we'd use a Detroit Lions football metaphor here about smashing through the line in honor of Grand Traverse Distillery's Michigan roots except the Lions have a pretty lousy football team. Let's just say the flavor smashed through and leave it at that. There's absolutely no stopping it. And unlike the lime in the martini, it mixed quite well with the tonic and gave us a very distinctive drink. We'd have loved to drink more of these but...
... it was time to move on to the Screwdriver. We went with the fresh squeezed juice of one entire Sunkist orange, 1.5 oz of vodka, and ice. Smirnoff was no good at all in this drink... save it for classic martinis. It left a metallic aftertaste that undercut the sweetness of the orange badly and left some people calling it putrid. But the mighty rye of True North shone through the orange juice but was still able to bring Sunkist along for the ride... in a way, it might have overpowered the orange juice a bit that led to some of the same confusion of tastes that we had with the lime in the martini but then...
... in a fit of inspiration...
... we turned to Grand Marnier and turned that screwdriver into one of our favorite drink's: the Maiden's Prayer. This is a bit of orange juice, a bit of Grand Marnier, and a bit of vodka in roughly equal parts. Shoving that orange liqueur into the screwdriver with the True North made one of the very few drinks that will survive in our dreams. Something about the cognac and spices in the orange liqueur with the bread-and-butter taste of the vodka made something very exciting and incredibly intoxicating in every sense of the word. We have seldom ever tasted anything as spectacular as that True North vodka in that Maiden's Prayer. Our highest recommendations for that mixture.
In a crowded field of vodkas and with microdistilleries springing up all over the country with vodkas of all kinds, it's important to be able to distinguish oneself somehow. A person has to have a singular reason and rationale to carry a given vodka in their personal inventory. A distillery has to give a person a reason to buy. In this, the Grand Traverse Distillery has succeeded grandly. The True North vodka is a truly distinctive vodka that can be added to any bar as a departure from the ordinary. Our thanks to Grand Traverse for the introduction to their extraordinary and distinctive vodka.