by April Anderson, Guest Columnist
Proof66 has always been committed to balancing critical acclaim with "regular people" reviews. This review is the first of a series of reviews where we give a bottle of craft spirits to regular folk to test however they like. Our hope is that this gives readers a great idea about how they, themselves might like a given spirit.
When I was a kid, I remember my Paw-Paw buying a gallon jug of store brand vodka from the local grocery. The man loved the stuff. He’d drink it most afternoons, putting it in with some water and ice in a big, insulated gas station coffee mug. Though it seemed like a lot to some, for him, this was normal. He grew up in 1930’s rural California where shooting and eating squirrels and drinking homemade brew with meals was common. As he used to tell it, he wouldn’t drink milk as a baby so the local doctor told his Mother to feed him moonshine. Part of me thinks he was putting one over on my 10 year old self. But knowing my Paw-Paw, it wouldn’t surprise me if this were true.
But back to that vodka. That gallon jug contained some pretty potent stuff. He liked it for the value. A gallon jug would maybe set him back five dollars, and that wasn’t a sale price. I remember thinking that it smelled almost like paint thinner. And, in my uninitiated brain, I thought all vodka must be like what was in that gallon jug. I just couldn’t understand how anyone could drink it. When I came of drinking age, I became a rum drinker. And not just any rum; I liked mine darkly sweet, slightly fruity and smoky. Vodka was just not in my wheelhouse. I couldn’t forget that paint thinner smell. It’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve learned there are good vodkas out there. They aren’t all paint thinner and some even taste good. I thought I owed it to my Paw-Paw to give his favorite drink of choice another try. And while I have had different and exciting vodkas out on the town, here’s a look at two vodkas that are currently residing on my liquor shelf: a good-value, big-market vodka in Sobieski and a craft-distilled, small-market vodka in Expedition.
The Sobieski I bought on my own. I bought it mostly for when guests visit and for my occasional Sunday morning Bloody Mary’s. In the past, I only had Smirnoff in the house or the one bottle of Grey Goose given to me as a present. This time around, I bought Sobieski because it was on sale and it had a picture of Bruce Willis on it. Who knew Bruce made vodka? I later learned that Bruce is the label’s spokesperson and he owns a small share in the company (despite this new knowledge, I still have an image of him stirring a vat of liquid in a distillery). The bottle is slightly curvy with raised detail. The label is red and styled in a Polish theme. I twisted off the cap and smelled the typical vodka aroma with a small note of dark wheat. When I looked further, I saw that the vodka is made from rye. I mixed up a vodka tonic with a twist of lime and found the drink to be clean and refreshing. The vodka had bright notes and I thought it intensified the flavor of the wedge of lime I had in the glass. Overall, I thought it was a nice taste for a decent price.
I was given the Expedition vodka. Unlike the Sobieski, this bottle is simple: no raised detail in the glass and no standout colors. Also unlike Sobieski, the label has a rough paper feel to it, reminding me of homemade and home labeled products. The vodka is extremely clear, so clear that it seems almost invisible in the bottle. When I pulled the cork, I was immediately hit with a smell of fresh, sweet corn. The aroma was fragrant, light and not at all what I was expecting. I don’t normally do shots of vodka early on a Sunday morning, but the fresh corn smell was so inviting that I had to take a quick sip. It was crisp, bright and sweet. I mixed it with a Bloody Mary (spicy, extra olives) and the sweet corn proved to be a lovely accompaniment to the spicy tomato. The vodka held its sweet corn flavor against all of the acidity.
In a taste contest, the small-market Expedition vodka won for me, hands down. I had never had such flavorful vodka before and it really opened my world to other vodka possibilities. That’s not to say I won’t buy Sobieski again. It’s light, refreshing and cheap in comparison with other name brand vodkas. I’m sure my Paw-Paw would scoff at the Expedition brand with its sweet corn flavor. I think he might turn his nose up at lovely rye blend of Sobieski too. In fact, I’m pretty sure that if my Paw-Paw were still here, he’d stand firmly by his store brand vodka. But, I think that’s really the point – we all have our favorites no matter the bottle. I also think he’d appreciate why I’m saving the Expedition for myself and letting my guests enjoy Sobieski.