I like vodka. I like vodka gimlets (fresh lime juice plus a splash of Rose's, up), vodka tonics, Cosmopolitans, Bloody Marys…
To vodka aficionados, therefore, I am a nitwit. Vodka nerds do not dilute their precious spirit with any other tastes, any more than oenophiles drink wine coolers. Remember those from high school? Ick.
So when the nice folks at Square One Organic Vodka read that I was angling for a "review bottle" and actually sent me one, I knew I had better call in an expert. (If anyone is curious, we have come up with a new ethics policy that covers how we handle product reviews.)
My designated expert is a good buddy of our friend Teacake. He will be known as Syrious, because I think he might be tired of his other nickname, "Princeton." Syrious joined me, the Potato Non Grata, Teacake (his vodka apprentice), and assorted other friends for a little taste-off after my birthday dinner last month. He brought along one of his favorite vodkas, the non-organic Imperia from Russian Standard, which was a good competitor for Square One — both are super-premium rye vodkas that retail for around $30.
I had been too busy with Operation Beef to do any research into vodka production beforehand, but I decided that was OK because really, the first step should be whether Square One tasted good. Following Syrious's instructions, I had put both vodkas in the freezer. I had also set out a bunch of shot glasses, from which he recoiled on sight.
"For tasting, we need a wider-mouthed, bigger glass," he chastised me. Fortunately, I had enough of those for him, Teacake, and me; the rest were stuck with the teeny ones.
While I was assembling the glasses, DePeach Mode and Herr Lüm — both in the design business — were debating the looks of the two bottles, both of which I thought were pretty handsome. "The Imperia's more old school, with that typeface," said Herr Lüm. "With that arch, it does really say Moscow."
"I think it's cheesy," rebuked DePeach. "I definitely prefer the Square One, because there's actually a concept behind it, and it's more contemporary."
I turned my back to everyone and poured a finger's worth of the Square One into three big glasses, slipped a rubber band onto the base of each, then poured an equal amount of Imperia into three more glasses. (Everyone else got to fend for themselves, because I'm a bad hostess.) I was very curious as to whether Syrious would be able to identify the Imperia, which he said he drank often.
This should have been quite a challenge, because U.S. law defines vodka as a neutral spirit "without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color." (I don't know how or why this got codified, sorry.) So one vodka should, therefore, taste like all the others. But they don't. Distilled from fermented rye, wheat, corn, sugar cane, potatoes, or even beets, to a practiced taster they will have a very different smell, flavor, and "burn."
Syrious stuck his aquiline nose into the rubber-banded glass and inhaled deeply, then took a meditative sip, swishing it around a bit before swallowing. And another. Wanting to form my own impressions before he spoke, I quickly followed suit.
Now, I'm not quite the neophyte I was pretending to be above. I do drink vodka neat occasionally, including Hangar One (made nearby in Alameda, CA), Chopin (a potato vodka that I like a lot but rarely see in bars), and Grey Goose (the best of the typical bar vodkas). To me, the Square One had a mild nose, without the rubbing-alcohol reek of cheap vodkas. It had a pleasant, ever-so-slight spiciness and a hint of licorice, and a mellow "burn" going down. I took a sip of what I knew was the Imperia.
Syrious seemed to be having the same problem. He sniffed and sipped, sniffed and sipped. Meanwhile Teacake, who was familiar with Imperia, declared it was the one in the rubber-banded glass.
"No, that's the Square One," corrected Syrious. I was impressed.
"They're very close," he said. "The Square One is excellent. I think it's a bit more licoricey than the Imperia. It's real premium vodka, not just something you drink because it's organic. Holding its own against Imperia is no small feat."
That's quite an endorsement, coming from this vodka snob. However, since I would drink something just because it’s organic — that's why I'm still doggedly seeking a good organic red wine — here's the goods on Square One.
Square One vodka was developed by Allison Evanow of Marin, who reportedly put herself through business school by bartending and then went into the wine and spirits industry. Certified organic by Oregon Tilth and the USDA's national program, it's distilled from North Dakota rye and made entirely within a 100-foot radius of where the grain arrives at the distillery. It is not the first organic vodka – surprisingly, there are lots of other brands turned up by a quick Google search – but Square One bills itself as the first such super-premium vodka made from American rye.
The press literature I received emphasizes that Square One is an environmentally conscious, values-based company. For example: the rye byproduct of the fermentation process — organic protein, natural fiber, and water — gets fed to cows in nearby organic dairy farms. Although the pretty bottles are not made from recycled glass, as vodka bottles are traditionally clear to show off the clear liquid inside, the company is working on using more recycled material in its packaging and labels. It also plans to donate a portion of its proceeds to "nonpolitical environmental causes," phraseology I found a little weird — is there any such thing?
Square One makes various other claims that I can't pretend to evaluate, about the way that conventional vodka distilleries use raw ingredients that may contain traces of chemical fertilizers and synthetic toxins, and possibly genetically engineered yeast, then ferment them with phosphates and other chemical compounds, like de-foaming agents. Square One, by contrast, says it uses only organic yeasts, natural nutrients, and "pure, fresh water from the pristine watershed of the nearby Teton Range."
Square One came out less than a year ago, in June, but it's quickly become available all over San Francisco and in lots of other states.
Further vodka research:
• The Wikipedia has an extensive entry on how vodka is made
• Syrious recommends the Art of Drinking Vodka, aka Drinking and Living with Arkady Merzavchik. "Everything I know about vodka I learned from Arkady," he says.
• Slate.com did a vodka taste test in 2004