Several weeks ago, renowned blogger The Ferrett linked over to Infusions of Grandeur, noting that while we provide a lot of information on how we make our infused vodkas and what drinks they can be used in, we don't much describe the true taste experience of the vodkas. Such descriptions have never been our strong point, but no worries; Ferrett has offered his own services, for the small price of a few samples of our creations. We were happy to oblige, and in spite of the oppressive regulations of the U.S. Postal Service, we managed to slip him a sample of each of our past infusions, as well as comparative samples of filtered and non-filtered baseline vodka.
His review arrived rapidly, and with no shortage of detail, after a tasting session with three of his closest associates. Let's see what he had to say.
When I first heard of Infusions of Grandeur, I thought it was a great idea. I'm a foodie at heart, and a drinkie, too, and as such I always love the idea of finding new and amazing drinks.
The problem, of course, is that so few people take the art of drinking seriously.
I'm blessed to have one of the best bars in the whole world in my back yard – Paulius, the proprietor of Cleveland’s own Velvet Tango Room, is the Willy Wonka of drinks, mixing up phenomenally complex and unique concoctions for a mere $15 a drink. They're worth it, oh so worth it, but it's hard to find anyone else who really strives to create something new.
Thus the boys here at Infusions filled me with glee. They were working towards something cool, and that was worthwhile.
So imagine my surprise when after I linked to them, they offered me a guest stint in this blog. All I'd have to do, they told me, would be to drink these infused vodkas they sent me for free, and write it up.
Oh, twist my arm, you mad bastards.
I agreed, naturally. And a few days later, I got a package in the mail filled with ten little bottles, each wrapped neatly in white paper and sealed tightly in plastic bags. It looked like this:
Still, it didn't seem right just to taste the vodka alone in my house with no one but my wife to keep me drinking company. (Though it would have made it incredibly easy to score at the end of the evening.) No, we needed a party. And fortunately, we had a small get-together planned for this very Sunday.
Let me introduce the players:
Gini, my wife, on the right. She is, as the kids say these days, made of awesome, blessed with a quick wit and an intellect that far dwarfs my own. (This is, admittedly, not difficult, but trust me — she’s smart.) She is not a particularly heavy drinker, instead preferring to lean on quality as opposed to quantity. Her favorite drink is usually a Long Island Iced Tea, which she will then critique.
Karla, my ice cream pal, in the middle. Karla always shows up for almost every movie Gini and I attend, and Karla and I often discuss the merits of local ice cream parlors. We then go out for drinks, and Karla partakes of the good stuff and then usually leaves well before midnight, for Karla is a careful sort who is not prone to wild flights of drinking fancy. Still, she is a charming companion, and I always mourn her loss when she leaves. She does not usually drink hard liquor, but she usually drinks that heady mixture known as The Good Stuff.
Blogless Jen, my movie-going buddy, on the left. Jen is present at every party we have, and we're always happy to have her... But she rarely drinks. Instead, she merely gets into interesting conversations with us on the state of the Democratic party and various events around town, for Jen is the person who knows the location of every sale and good restaurant in Cleveland. On those rare occasions that she does drink, she gets adorably giddy.
Me. I used to be a huge drinker. Now I am just huge.
Eager to try the fabled "Pop Rocks Vodka," we got out the samples and laid them out on the counter like so:
It turns out that the boys at the Infusions lab had drained ten soy sauce bottles and filled them with vodka, then applied customized labels to each! It lent the whole tasting an air of respect — this was Serious Drinking. After all, these were home-made drinks with labels.
But first, we had to try...
Raw Vladimir Vodka
As regular readers of Infusion will know, the boys do not buy the good stuff. Instead, they buy cheap vodka and pour it through a Pur filter a couple of times in an attempt to purify it. Thoughtfully, they had provided the crap they started with to show us how good their process was.
I myself was nervous. Vodka is not my drink of choice; that'd be Scotch. And I remembered a drunken bet back when I was twenty-one and going to college, and the newspaper staff held its annual party.
It was there that I discovered the magic words: Open Bar.
That's right; I could drink whatever I want, at no charge to me. This was glorious. And I got into it heavily with the conservative newspaper columnist, who claimed that there was a huge difference between good vodka and bad vodka. I said he couldn't tell, and in fact nobody could. We argued for a good half an hour before someone reminded us that we could have all the free drinks we wanted.
Five shots were lined up for each of us. There was a test.
He lost. In fact, he preferred the cheapest vodka the bar had to offer, and oh you had better believe I never let him live that down.
But I knew, in my heart of hearts, it was not a fair test. We had started the taste after about two hours of drinking hard liquor, and your palate is not at its finest at moments like those. I suspected that there was a difference (and, in fact, a later test proved there was)... But could I tell the rotgut from the filtered?
As it turns out... Yes. By smell alone.
I held up the two bottles to Jen and Karla, one of the filtered vodka and the other with the death's head label and both of them picked the good vodka after a moment's consideration. It was a cleaner, less chemical smell. You can smell the difference, as Jen and Karla.
The boys had, helpfully, marked the bad vodka with a poison symbol, as you can kinda-see here. The gruesome face above the vodka is merely my intimidating visage.
Now me? I grew up on Popov, so it felt like coming home; all I needed was a bunch of Tropicana Orange concentrate and I was golden. I used to swig sixty-four ounce screwdrivers back in my glory days. But could I like the taste now?
We tossed back and swallowed. And grimaced.
The overwhelming top note was of, as Gini correctly noted, "fingernail polish remover." It was a harsh chemical taste that accumulated at the back of the throat like a vurp, followed by a very real and very painful aftertaste that spills into your saliva. You think, wow, I'm glad that’s over with, and then you find that all of the spit in your mouth has become suffused with this ghastly taste. For an awful fifteen seconds, the mucous membranes of your tongue and gums are seared with a harsh chemical burn that coats your throat like flaming napalm.
It's not gag-worthy, not quite. But it does send a shudder throughout your body, and the only reason to drink it is to get fucked up. And we had better substances in the house for that purpose.
Hopefully, the refined version would be better.
The filtering process definitely showed here, and we got a slower, softer burn with just a hint of potato around the edges. It's less like paint thinner, mercifully, but though I hate to disagree with the Infusion lads, I still wouldn't call this fine vodka. I've had top-of-the-line stuff at good bars (like, say, the Velvet Tango Room, in my last taste-off), and it wasn't quite up to the snuff there.
The filter had gotten out a lot of the impurities. It was certainly good enough. But to achieve the heights of top-shelf vodka, they either need to run it through the filter a few more times or to start with a slightly better brand to begin with, because I could still sense the acrid tang of impurities, faintly, at the back of my throat.
Good vodka is supposed to not have a smell, I'm told, but this one does — it's faint, and it disappears from the palate after a scant second or two, leaving only a whiff of lacquer.
It does not, however, seep into your saliva. A swallow or two, and the taste is mercifully gone, which is what we do because we're professional tasters. And, to be honest, we don't like straight vodka all that much, which may render this whole segment of the tasting out of line for some.
That said, I have a good excuse. Remember those sixty-four-ounce screwdrivers I told you about? Yeah. I decided to make a straight twenty-ounce vodka-to-twenty-ounce Tropicana drink and then guzzled it all because my girlfriend had left me, and wound up yurfing my guts out onto a blue carpet for, oh, three hours straight. It's hard to take straight vodka after that.
On to the infusions!
This was intriguing, and we wanted to try it first. It was a milky brownish-white, like watered-down chocolate milk, and left to its own devices it would settle into a thick layer of sugary sediment on the bottom with a wispy, almost-clear haze of vodka at the top. "SHAKE FIRMLY," the bottle instructed — and ever since I read Alice in Wonderland, I never ignore something that a bottle tells me to do.
We thought it would smell like sugar — but the Vodka Caramel still smells strongly of vodka. You'd think the caramel would have taken over scentwise, but the sole contribution of the infusion seems to be a thin whiff of burnt sugar flavor around the edges. A little more scent wafts out when it’s poured out of the bottle and settles into the glass, but it's still "pretty overwhelmingly vodka."
The taste, however, was interesting. At first sip, there was nothing — just that studied almost-emptiness of a solid vodka. It was a void, hanging in nothing...
...and then, WHAM! Bailey's leaps out of a dark alley to mug your tongue.
But it’s not the creamy rise of a Bailey's, which starts out with a creamy, silky feel and then launches slowly into that alcohol burn. This is Bailey's all at once, every flavor crammed into an intense tumble of milky taste with a hot tingle of vodka at the center, the entire seven-second bell curve of Bailey's from start to finish crammed into a very intense two seconds that disappears as quickly as it came.
Unlike the bad vodka, we kind of wanted it to stay. We like the taste of Bailey's. But it departed abruptly, almost shamefully, like Superman after a botched rescue.
"It makes my tongue tingle," said Karla.
"That was not nearly as exciting as we'd hoped," Jen said. "I thought it would be all creamy and gooey, but in the end it's a vodka."
We agreed that it probably would be a good mixer, but this definitely wasn't something we'd swill on its own. It needed something to balance the almost abrupt taste, something to provide a front end or a back end to make this whole. We had no immediate ideas, though we could have kicked some around... But hey. We had other vodkae to try.
Tomorrow: the tastings continue!