In my unending quest to be both a booze snob and a cheapskate I can never resist trying a new, reasonably priced vodka. With craft distilleries popping up every week it is hard to resist the fantasy of discovering a new product that is half the price and twice the quality of the big names. Of course this is usually a fool’s errand. It is true that with names like Grey Goose or Crystal Head you are paying a considerable amount for advertising and the perceived value but with alcohol as with so many things, if it sounds too good to be true it probably is.
But when I was at The Party Source debating which vodka to purchase, my prior experience didn’t stop me from being hopeful when I spotted a new and distinctive label sitting on the shelf. It was brightly colored, folksy, and claimed to be the product of seven generations of family distilling. At just about $11 a bottle the price was right for me to take it home and give it a try.
First the back ground. There is no real information about Hank Birdwell’s Vodka on the web. No flashy websites bragging about their column stills or organic ingredients. No corporate website listing the vodka as one of dozens of holdings either. The label says the vodka is distilled in Lawrenceburg, Indiana so I am going to have to assume that this is a new product out of Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana LLC. You may not have heard of LDI but you may have heard of Bulleit, Smooth Ambler, or High West. These are just a few of the craft distilleries that source their bourbon and other whiskies from LDI and bottle them under their own name. There is nothing wrong with sourcing your whiskey, especially while you are getting your distillery started. I point this out to illustrate that just because something says it is ‘crafted’ or has ‘seven generations’ of history behind doesn’t mean that is the whole story. The LDI distillery has indeed been around since 1847 but during that time it has been sold many times over, most recently to Kansas-based MGP Ingredients Inc in 2011. So I am not sure if Hank Birdwell’s is being bottled by someone else who is purchasing it from LDI or if they are selling it directly, but I do feel confident in saying that this is not a product that has been in anyone’s family for one generation, let alone seven.
All sounds pretty harsh and cynical but the real question is, how does the vodka taste? Charlie and I tried it for our podcast this week and I will say that while it wasn’t exactly good, it was not bad either. I can’t say for sure but my money is on this being a 100% corn vodka. The nose was strongly astringent; you can smell the alcohol and not much else. We tried it ice cold, neat and on first sip it had a surprisingly sweet taste with a strong vanilla flavor. But before you can even appreciate what you are tasting the alcohol comes in and burns away any flavor notes that might have been coming into focus. It wasn’t a hot burn but the ethyl flavor did take over the tongue and then lingered awhile after you swallowed. So not a sipping vodka for sure. Or course I can’t see why anyone would want to sip vodka in the first place, so I always follow up the tasting by making a cocktail with it. Vodka’s beauty comes from it’s ability to add alcohol to other flavors so to really test it you have to mix with it. In this case I made a vodka gimlet and here the Hank Birdwell’s performed much better. Mixed with fresh lime juice and simple syrup the ethyl flavor faded to the background but surprisingly the vanilla flavor came forward. It ended up being a much more enjoyable cocktail than I expected and lead me to upgrade my opinion of the vodka just a bit.
So should you give Hank Birdwell’s a shot? Like I said at the beginning, this is an $11 bottle of vodka and compared to other vodkas at that same price point it is perhaps slightly ahead of the curve. But if you have the money to spend, go ahead and spend a few dollars more to get some Tito’s.