Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Spirited Away Part II: Cold Shoulders

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Starting at home was a great way to get my feet wet in the world of non-wine (eek!). My next mission (as I chose to accept it) was to trek down to Northern California, home of West Toast Staff Writer Jesse Andrews. I drove through the night and slept out under starry skies for this assignment...and it was totally worth it!!!

After learning about vodka on my first spirited away trip, I decided to continue my education in spirits by sticking to what I know - or at least kind of know! I spent some quality time with internet search engines looking for other opportunities to taste vodka. I knew I wanted to do something interesting, unique, and informative. When I found Graziano's Ristorante and Vodika Lounge I knew I had a winner!

Vodka never looked so good

Just off the main drag in Petaluma, CA, Graziano's offers Italian food in a relaxed and inviting atmosphere, and, most importantly, it is home to Northern California's first vodka lounge. I would have been excited simply to go to this unique place to try vodkas and hang out with my friend, but when I read further I knew this was a must-do. The lounge is housed inside of a glass box that is super cooled to 28 degrees Fahrenheit. Guests who wish to sample the over 80 options offered don faux fur coats to keep warm while enjoying a the chilly experience.

Amy braved the icy cold room without a coat...for a while

The day was HOT, and it was a bit strange to slip my arms into a heavy jacket when all day I'd been trying to keep cool in a sundress, but I was immediately glad to have the protection when we entered the lounge. We could see our breath, and the breath of our hostess, Amy, as she talked us through the selection. Beautiful bottles of vodka lined the shelves, backlit with a blueish-violet light, giving the vodka a surreal glow. A glass case stood to one side of the glass tasting table, highlighting several rare and expensive brands and handmade glasses. Amy explained that about half of the vodkas in the room were flavored, and that half were simply vodka - if you can call it simple, as we were soon to learn.

I knew that vodka could be made by distilling alcohol from many different sources, but here was the chance to actually see it. Rice, wine, potato, wheat...each label promised some kind of angle on this classic spirit. We asked Amy if there was any kind of protocol for vodka tasting - winos trying to make sense of a new world. She said she did not know, but suggested we start with the unflavored vodkas, and then move on to the flavored ones, sweetest flavors last (I looked online to see if there is indeed any organized way to taste vodka, and there isn't - now we know Amy!). That said, if you were ever to go out and taste a number of vodkas, I'd most definitely take Amy's advice.

In the heart of wine country a lovely vodka emerges

A basic tasting includes the choice of 4 vodkas - not tastings so much as shots of each one. We started by trying one of Petaluma's own - Stillwater Spirits' American Single-Malt Vodka. This was one of the featured vodkas lined up on the tasting room table for us to check out up close and personal. I really enjoyed this one - it was smooth from start to finish, with gentle tones of vanilla caramel mid-palette.

There were so many choices - who's a girl's best friend???

After that the options became waaay daunting. I listened to Amy talk about some of the featured vodkas. One that caught my eye was Baojing Vodka, for two reasons: one, it is made by distilling fermented rice - something I had yet to try; and two, it was filtered through 168 carats of diamonds. Remember how in my last article I mentioned that vodka could be filtered through a number of things...? Apparently diamonds are one such filter. That said, I did not find this Chinese vodka to be one of my favorites. It started smoothly, but burned through the middle and finish with hints of sake throughout. If you a person who wants a kick in your liquor this vodka is for you!

Jesse however opted for another smooth ride - Swan's Neck vodka. Amy told us this was her favorite of the unflavored vodkas in the lounge, and that she would always ask for it if it was available when she wanted a vodka drink. Out of San Francisco, CA, this vodka starts as wine made by the distiller, and then is distilled from there into vodka. It was incredibly smooth and sippable, with a light hint of chocolate throughout. If I'd been inclined to walk off with a bottle of vodka after this experience I would have gone with this one.

Graceful in flavor and in the bottle

From there we jumped to some of the flavored vodkas. I started with Pinnacle Whipped Cream - WHEW!!! Usually when I tasted flavored vodka I am searching for flavor amid the burn (Amy assured me I have just not been drinking the right vodka). Not so with Pinnacle. Marketed as a French vodka from White Rock Distilleries in Lewiston, ME, the Pinnacle line includes the Whipped Cream variety I tried along with 28 other flavors including Cake, Root Beer, and Butterscotch. The Whipped Cream was unbelievably sweet despite being 80 proof (danger!). It was velvety on my tongue, creamy I am sure more by suggestion that reality. The flavor was pure vanilla whipped cream as true as the flavor matching of Jelly Belly beans. I enjoyed it, but think I would probably grow tired of how sweet it is quickly. I would most certainly use this in decadent desserts!

Pinnacle was literally like drinking whipped cream

While I was drinking whipped cream in a bottle, Jesse picked out Hangar One's Kaffir Lime, another California vodka - this time from Alameda. Hangar One prides itself on being a craft distillery, and offers a straight vodka as well as a fruity lineup of Spiced Pear, Kaffir Lime, Mandarin Blossom, Fraser River Raspberry, and Buddha's Hand Citron. The Kaffir Lime was another sweet flavored vodka that offered no burn, but instead the sweet tart tang that reminded me of lime otter pops from when I was a kid.

I ended my tasting session with one of the organic vodkas offered (duh - of course she would). Offered in reusable bottles, 360 Vodka touts itself as being "the Planet's first ECO Friendly Vodka." I sampled the Double Chocolate - it was delightfully bitey with both bitter and sweet flavors throughout. The finish was sweet and lingering and reminded me of drinking Nestle's Quik when I was little. Jesse and I laughed about the fact that the last two vodkas we sampled were easily equated to childhood flavors - not sure what that says about us...or our childhoods.

Sold in swing-top cap bottles, 360 aims to reel in the hippie crowd

Jesse and I enjoyed our experience immensely - we learned a lot about vodka, were entertained, had great vodka to taste, and enjoyed the company of our gracious hostess - Thanks Amy, we wish you luck in your future!!! Afterwards we decided to cut the edge of our vodka buzz (we were drinking, not tasting) with some of the food in the restaurant. Jesse told me about how he'd been to Graziano's in the past before dances in high school!

We were spirited away to a land of chill and spirit

And, of course, the faux fur coats totally rocked!!!

1 comment:

  1. Vodka tasting in a fridge with fur coats! How bourgeois!