Barrel-aged vodka. This might sound like a new thing (and barrel-aging is certainly hot right now) but apparently, Eastern Europeans have been barrel-aging vodka for ages. Dating back to the 15th century, to honor a child’s birth, fathers would pour a bunch of their homemade hooch in an empty wine barrel and bury it in the yard, and leave it until that same kid got married. Then he’d dig up this vodka (called Starka) and the party would begin.
A few distilleries in Oregon decided to revive the Starka tradition, each one making a different barrel-aged vodka and marketing them together as the Oregon Starka Project. We had the chance to taste Big Bottom’s version, which was aged for a year in empty zinfandel barrels. Big Bottom is best known for its gin, which they distill in house, and Calhoun Brothers Bourbon, which they source and bottle. I’ve never had the chance to try either of those spirits, but if Starka’s any indication, they’re probably pretty good.
The vodka looks like it’s been well aged, with a light brown tint to it. You might expect some of that oak to come through on the nose, but alcohol dominates the aroma, as it does with most vodkas. But that’s where the similarities to the vodka you’re probably familiar with end. This Starka has a great, creamy mouthfeel, similar to bourbon, and follows through with tons of caramel and vanilla notes, leached over the months from the oak barrel. There’s definitely some heat on the backend of the sip, but it disappears entirely if you drop a chunk of ice in it. Big Bottom used zinfandel barrels for aging, but I’m gonna be honest here—I don’t get any of the wine in this booze. The caramel and wood notes are so strong, there’s not much room for anything else. And that’s fine with me. Who needs a hint of wine when you have a vodka that tastes like a bourbon?
But there’s the catch. Vodka is like the tofu of the spirits world—it can take on the characteristics of whatever it’s mixed with and disappear in a sea of grapefruit or orange juice. In this case, the vodka takes on the characteristics of the oak barrel, and disappears under a sweet, woodsy cloud. If vodka is your bag, this probably isn’t the bottle for you. But if you’re into bourbon, this vodka might just be tasty enough to win you over.
Distillery: Big Bottom Distilling
City: Hillsboro, Oregon
Style: Barrel-aged vodka