Posted by: Matt Browner Hamlin | March 31, 2009

Review: Karlsson’s Gold Vodka

I’m not a big fan of vodka as far as it goes. Like many other cocktail bloggers, I think it’s something of the overhyped sibling of base spirits. Great if you want something easy and accessible for the masses, but not exactly something that has you yearning for new cocktails that explore the depths of the spirit’s flavors.

While vodka is ostensibly flavorless, there’s no doubt that vodka flavors do have a great deal of impact on what makes it enjoyable, especially if you like drinking vodka straight on the rocks with a squeeze of lime, as I do. In fact, other than a vodka soda highball on a hot day, pretty much the only way I drink vodka is by itself, adding a touch of fresh citrus. As far as it goes, I haven’t found too many peers who like drinking straight vodka. Too hardcore or something…as long as that something is on its on it tastes too much like vodka.

karlssonsThat’s a big reason why the marketing of Karlsson’s Gold Vodka – a new potato vodka from Sweden – struck me as interesting. First, in addition to receiving the bottle of Karlsson’s, I was sent a bottle of Karlsson’s branded whole black pepper in a plastic pepper mill. Why? Because on of the cocktails Karlsson’s is promoting to enjoy their vodka in is simply Karlsson’s on the rocks with cracked black pepper. In fact, the only drinks promoted in Karlsson’s material are Karlsson’s on the rocks with pepper and a dry martini with no vermouth and pickled potatoes. They compare their vodka more to armagnac or calvados – something flavorful and complex, worthy of being enjoyed on its own.

What makes Karlsson’s unique is that it is made from virgin new potatoes. But not just one kind of potato – seven varietals of golden potatoes from Cape Bjare. The result is a vodka that seeks to be flavorful, not flavorless.

Opening the bottle for the first time, it was immediately clear I wasn’t dealing with regular vodka. The odor from Karlsson’s Gold hit me immediately. The nose has a strong alcohol scent, with floral elements alongside lemon peel, raw potatoes, and caramel. It hits the tongue with a familiar vodka taste, but where you’d expect most vodkas to pass without much else, Karlsson’s lingers. I got an interesting combination of herbs and citrus flavors, with grapefruit, sage, and a little vanilla. It has a slightly oily mouth-feel, but goes down smoothly with very little burn.

I figured to keep it simple, I would taste Karlsson’s how they think their vodka should be tasted.

Black Gold

2 oz Karlsson’s Gold Vodka

3 mill turns of black pepper

Build in a rocks glass. Crack pepper over the glass.

Well there’s not too much to say about this. It’s the same vodka I just drank, chilled and with some cracked pepper. The pepper is a subtle addition to the vodka’s flavor profile. It compliments the complex flavor of Karlsson’s , but doesn’t overpower it.

The material Karlsson’s sent me included a recipe for a martini, written in prose, that reads:

“Stir Karlsson’s Gold Vodka thoroughly in a mixing glass filled with ice. Strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with green olives or why not try it with pickled strings of potatoes. Karlsson’s Gold, on its own, has all the floral characters otherwise provided by Dry Vermouth.”

While I noted above that Karlsson’s does have floral elements in its flavor profile, to say that it has all the floral characters of dry vermouth is hyperbole of the highest order. As someone who (1) vastly prefers gin martinis to vodka martinis (if I’ve had 2 vodka martinis in my life I’d be surprised) and (2) likes my martinis about as wet as anyone in the North American continent, I don’t buy that Karlsson’s can make up a martini all on its own. That is, not unless you want a chilled glass of Karlsson’s with a savory garnish. Oh and that chilled glass of Karlsson’s with a savory garnish isn’t the Black Gold.

Nonetheless, I figured I’d give Karlsson’s the benefit of the doubt and make what is, for me, a very dry martini with a 4:1 vodka to vermouth ratio (and a garlic-stuffed olives for garnish).

Dry Vodka Martini

2 oz. Karlsson’s Gold Vodka

.5 oz. Noilly Pratt Dry Vermouth

Stir in an ice-filled mixing glass. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with garlic-stuffed olives.

As I said above, I’m not a big fan of vodka martinis. This certainly has much more flavor than any I’ve ever had before, but it’s not what I think of when I think about having a martini. I like a very wet martini and this is not that. Nonetheless, I think this is probably a more accessible martini for regular vodka drinkers than a gin martini. After all, there’s generally a bit of a stigma in American casual drinking about gin martinis. Karlsson’s could show vodka drinkers that it’s ok to have flavor in a martini – flavor that comes in larger doses than whatever was added from the vermouth. I don’t think Karlsson’s should be afraid of pairing their vodka with dry vermouth – and Noilly Pratt did the job well, marrying its own herbal profile to the vodka’s.

Karlsson’s Gold strikes me as a vodka meant for people who enjoy complex base spirits. I don’t think the average Vodka and Cranberry drinker is looking for a vodka like Karlsson’s. But if someone is looking for an interesting vodka with aspirations for capturing a consumer’s imagination for what vodka meant to stand alone could taste like, then this is good for you. Which, incidentally, means that it’s good for me. I could see this working well in a Bloody Mary or even a wetter martini, but beyond that I’m not sure I’d mix Karlsson’s with much more than ice. Maybe it’s because I may be their target audience, but I have a lot of respect for the distillers of a vodka that makes me – an “I don’t love vodka” cocktailian – react this way to tasting their spirit.

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