About a month ago I got an email from Flag Hill Winery & Distillery. I’ve been on their mailing list for quite awhile, having done their Harvest Fest before, and visited again last year with the Lady Friend, Sissy, and the Mother of the Lady Friend. They tasted the wine, I tasted the spirits.
Anyway, this email was a bit of a distress call. Literally. It was titled “S.O.S.: Save Our Spirit.” Due to low sales, their General John Stark Vodka is due to be removed from the NH State Liquor Store shelves. Which would be a shame. It’s a pity when small craft stuff gets squeezed out of the market, and it happens especially often with vodka. The vodka game is flooded because it’s one of the easier spirits to make, and is currently the most popular spirit in the US. Most distilleries make a vodka, since you don’t have to be as concerned with flavors; distill a spirit and filter everything out of it. But it’s very difficult to make any craft product from quality ingredients when the big brands can undercut your pricing.
Personally, I love having smaller, unusual brands on my home bar. It starts a discussion when someone asks “What is THAT? Where did you get it? I’ve never heard of it.” I didn’t have any Flag Hill products at the time of the S.O.S. email, so I sent a reply to their marketing director to see if I could do a review of their vodka, and help spread the word to get their sales quotas met, keeping a local product on the shelves. They agreed, and sent over a bottle for freebies. Yay for free booze!
It showed up in space-age packaging from the future. I didn’t know shipping materials like this existed, and it was like the bottle had a suit of inflated armor. Plus, the FedEx box had a great warning sticker. Once I tore past the spacesuit, I got a good look at the bottle. Nice square shape, but with faceted corners, an overall nice look. The official name is Flag Hill’s General John Stark vodka. It’s made from apples sourced at the appropriately named Apple Hill Farm in Concord, NH. A unexpected result is is a gluten-free product, made from just distilled apples: no grain whatsoever. Strangely, the bottle lacks a pull-tab to remove the topper. A minor detail, but oddly overlooked in the overall design. No matter… I just hacked it off with a wine opener. Still, pretty much every other bottle of liquor I’ve opened has included a pull-tab of some sort (except for screw tops). Perhaps it’s because Flag Hill is primarily a winery. Under the plastic-y topper is a metal screw top, another unusual move. I’m not sure why I was expecting a cork, but… I was… so the metal cap threw me off again.
Before we get into the tasting, you should know about the namesake: General John Stark. He was born in Londonderry, NH, and fought during the Revolutionary War. Thankfully, he was on our side, because this dude was like Chuck Norris, Rambo and King Leonidas all rolled into one. He was captured by Abenaki Indians in 1752, and while held prisoner, decided to grab a club and attack one of them. Apparently this earned him some street cred (forest cred?), and the Abenaki adopted him into the tribe. He took part in the French-Indian war, and then followed that with some action in the Revolutionary War. He started that fight in 1775 at Bunker (Breed’s) Hill in Boston (Charlestown), ordering his troops to hold their fire until the British were nearly on top of them. He famously saw action at the Battle of Bennington in 1777 in Vermont (actually NY), leading a decisive victory for the Colonial forces (30 dead, 40 wounded while the Brits had 207 dead and 700 of their troops captured) and screaming that they would win the battle “…or this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow!” This victory became a turning point in the war, and Stark was commended as “The Hero of Bennington.” In 1809, Stark was unable to attend a celebration of the anniversary of the battle, instead sending a letter in which he wrote the phrase that would be adopted as the New Hampshire state motto: “Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.” This pretty much makes NH better than any other state. Just sayin.
Onto the tasting. It should be noted that I sampled this neat, at room temperature. Most people assume that keeping vodka as cold as possible (stashed in the freezer for example) is the best bet, and this may be true of big brand bottles. However, the recent push in craft spirits follows the mindset of treating it as any other artisan liquor, and keeping it at room temp. Cold hinders both aromas and flavors, which can be advantageous for a mass-produced product, hiding the less-desirable cogeners, the culprits of unpleasant smells and tastes. However, you’d never sample a nice whiskey at freezing temps, so let’s give the vodka a chance as well. (The same can be said of beers… a macrobrew adjust lager will taste better when it’s as cold as possible, masking the overall cheapness of the ingredients. A craft IPA, on the other hand, should be taken out of the fridge to warm up for a bit before tasting. It makes a world of difference.)
Nose: Sweet. Apple sweet. Now, I know this is made from apples, but vodka is supposed to be pretty neutral… no real flavors or aromas. The last time I did a Flag Hill spirit tasting, I was left with the same impression of a fruited aroma. Not that it’s bad, in fact, I prefer it. But it would most likely interfere with recipes calling for a neutral ingredient. However, it could also add a little something to it, like a flavored vodka would. I wondered if I was imagining it, so I poured a sample of Bully Boy’s vodka, and nosed them side-by-side. The Bully Boy is much more astringent, and doesn’t smell of much except alcohol. There is a definite apple presence in the Flag Hill offering.
Maybe it’s all in the nose… time for a taste.
Taste: Good mouthfeel… smooth and coating, but not syrupy. There is indeed a hint of sweetness, but the alcoholic burn takes care of that pretty quickly. Not a terribly hot burn, which is always preferable. Once the booze evaporates, I’m again left with a distinct, ghosted apple flavor, juicy and sweet. Not a tart apple, but very nice.
Let’s try it in a cocktail. Perhaps a Kamikaze.
Ok, I know what you’re thinking, but this isn’t amateur night at the local dive doing body shots with tipsy sorority girls in their late teens. At least, not that the Lady Friend knows about. This is the Kamikaze as a legit cocktail… craft spirit, fresh lime juice and even name brand curaçao. We keep it classy here. Sometimes.
When the Lady Friend is around.
Which is a lot.
– 2 oz vodka
– 1/2 oz Cointreau
– 1/2 oz fresh lime juice
Nose: Naturally, there’s little else but a lime aroma to this one. Probably since I garnished it with both a lengthy lime twist, and a big ol’ lime wedge. But there is another sweetness underneath… apples and oranges. Makes perfect sense, with the orange Cointreau and the apple notes of the Stark.
Taste: Lime. Triple sec dryness. The vodka makes its precense known at the finish, with a meek alcoholic burn, but it’s well-blended with the lime and orange flavors. The Stark doesn’t seem to put up much of a fuss, but also doesn’t get buried behind the tart lime. Which I suppose is a roundabout way of saying it mixes very well. Yum.
Well, overall I enjoyed it, but after I reconciled a few things. I do have to nitpick with the fact that I got apple sensations in both the nose and the flavor. I’m not sure if this is intentional or not, but for me, vodka is all about neutrality. There should be no aroma, and no flavor. Vodka becomes dependent on mouthfeel and hotness of the spirit. So as a strictly defined vodka, Stark falls outside the guidelines. However, I really don’t like vodka for precisely those reasons. There’s nothing to smell, nothing to taste, and you have to judge it by how horribly it burns your mouth. Not only was the Stark pleasant to smell, it also finishes with a lovely apple essence that I really enjoyed. I won’t say it tasted like an apple spirit, but rather it was a spirit with a hint of apple. Two different things. According to me. But the Flag Hill was tasty, even if it wasn’t a strict neutral vodka.
Go get some.
Keep a local craft product on the shelves.
Where to buy:
– NH State Liquor Stores
Use their product locator to see which stores have it in inventory
– MA Liquor Stores
This one is trickier, since NH is state-controlled, and MA is not, so it’ll vary store-to-store.
To find where the product is carried, you can contact the wholesaler here:
Squirrel Farts is now accepting solicited product reviews! Send me a bottle and I’ll take a pretty picture and talk it up in the amusing tangential manner you’ve come to expect. Beer, spirits, mixers, whatever. Contact here for details. Note: I will mention that the review was solicited, hell, I’ll even brag about it. Free booze? Damn right. But The Man says I have to say I got it for freebies. I’m excited about free stuff, so whatever. Now, that doesn’t mean that I’ll like it, or that I’ll give it a good review. But chances are if you read this blog, then we’ll get along.
Put it to the test: send me your booze!