Craft distilling is the biggest thing to happen in the spirits industry since prohibition. In 2005 there were 50 licensed distilleries operating in the United States and in 2012 that number had climbed to 250. At first glance Middle West Spirits in Columbus Ohio looks a lot like many of the other micro distilleries that have opened in that time frame. Owned by a small group of dedicated young professionals who left (presumably) lucrative jobs in other fields to start a distillery, Middle West has the slick marketing, steep prices, and even the obligatory connection to moonshining that I’ve seen at a lot of other craft distilleries.
Once you get a little deeper into the distillery, you begin to notice the things that make Middle West different. Full sized barrels of their own whiskey aging in the corner. Sacks of grain from Ohio farms. Craft vinegar bottles ready for sampling.
Charlie and I visited with one of the owners, Brady Konya, to talk about what makes them different and recorded a great interview. We had a very interesting discussion and were even able to get a few samples of their products for review. So, here are my thoughts after being able to sit down with the Honey Vanilla Bean Vodka, an infusion made with local wildflower honey and fair trade vanilla beans.
OYO Honey Vanilla Bean Vodka
OYO’s traditional vodka is made with 100% soft red winter wheat and is the flagship bottle of Middle West Spirits. They do two seasonal infusion with the vodka, a stone fruit and the honey vanilla bean. The base spirit is really important to the overall taste of the infusion so let me speak a little bit about what makes OYO vodka different. Most American vodka is very focused right now on being as pure and tasteless as possible which is one of the reasons I don’t really get that excited about vodka. But in direct contrast to this trend, OYO Vodka is very minimally filtered. The flavor of the grain, yeast, and natural sugars come through and it actually makes a vodka that not only has flavor, it is a really complex and pleasurable flavor. So when making infusions with OYO vodka you are not starting with a blank slate. Middle West has clearly been very thoughtful about which flavors to pair with the vodka and it shows.
And now for honey vanilla vodka itself. It has a nice body with a creamy mouth feel. The nose is sweet and floral with a clear vanilla scent. On the first taste the honey and vanilla flavors are there but they mingle nicely with more delicate notes of grass and almond. At 80 proof this is a true vodka infusion and the alcohol content is strong enough to stand up to the sweetness. The result is a peppery finish the leaves heat in the mouth but is nicely smooth going down. I really enjoyed sipping this vodka neat but the flavors would also lend themselves to mixing with citrus, pear, or coffee flavors in a cocktail.
If you want to try the Honey Vanilla Bean Vodka, I will be featuring OYO vodka and bourbon at the Local Beers and Spirits class I am teaching February 4th at Gorman Farms. I’d love to see you there and get your opinion of the Honey Vanilla Bean Vodka as well.
It probably comes as no surprise that I’ve gotten to know the liquor store up the road from me, Brentwood Spirits, fairly well. Even though it is a small store, the staff are knowledgable and they have steered me toward some really nice choices in the past. So I was a little taken aback when I went in last week looking for something new to try and they recommended a flavored whiskey with a sophomoric name and a tin can. Flavored whiskeys are not something I typically recommend to whiskey lovers. So were they recommending it to me because they thought it was good, or because they were trying to unload some slow moving product? The price was only $19 a bottle, so I decided to give Chicken Cock flavored whiskey a try.
Chicken Cock is another historic whiskey brand that is being introduced with big money and marketing while attempting to trade on a long dead name’s history. According to my friend at Brentwood, although it had existed as brand since 1856, it was during prohibition that Chicken Cock moved production to Canada and started shipping their product back in tin cans. That was when they started adding flavor to mask the metallic aftertaste. That particular story isn’t on their website but they do claim that Chicken Cock was a favored brand at the Cotton Club during prohibition. It stopped being made shortly thereafter and is being reintroduced by a company out of South Carolina. Flavored vodka has done wonders for spirit sales in the last five years and it is no surprise that whiskey makers are looking to jump on this trend. The brand has been marketed heavily in the south, even benefitting from an almost too good to be believed hijacking earlier this year, and has just been introduced into Ohio. So how does it taste?
Chicken Cock currently comes in Southern Spiced, Cinnamon, and Root Beer flavors. Charlie and I tried the southern spiced on Bottoms Up and I have to admit that despite my prejudice against pseudo-history being used to sell rebottled, flavored whiskey, I actually kind of liked it. Chicken Cock’s motto is “More Heat, Less Sweet” and it lives up to it. At 86 proof it does bring the heat. Rather than tasting like syrup with a hint of alcohol, you can actually taste the whiskey. The southern spiced flavor is strong on the vanilla, with a nice touch of cinnamon and clove. I have heard flavored whiskey apologists making the claim that these spirits can serve as a stepping stone that allows non-whiskey drinkers to be converted to the taste. This is the first flavored whiskey that I can actually imagine being able to do that.
While this hasn’t exactly converted me to being a flavored whiskey drinker, this is one that I will be happy to bring a long to a bourbon tasting so that the non-whiskey drinkers can get a chance to enjoy something more approachable that does give them a bit of whiskey flavor. I would also recommend Chicken Cock as being a nice thing to sip from a flask while Christmas caroling since the flavoring would once again serve the purpose of masking any metallic weirdness and it has enough heat to warm you up on a cold night. If you have been wanting to experiment with drinking whiskey but just can’t stomach the taste, Chicken Cock might just be the flavor you are looking for.