You have tons of vodka lying around. Maybe your friends left it. Maybe it was on sale. Maybe you bought it because it's cheap and you heard you could make it into whatever booze you want. What?
Sounds like bullshit, right? We thought so, too. But that's what Still Spirits claims its magical little flavor pouches can do. Just add vodka! The results were shocking.
It's Friday afternoon, you've made it through the long week, and it's time for Happy Hour, Gizmodo's weekly booze column. A cocktail shaker full of innovation, science, and alcohol. Alcohol + chemistry = alchemy!
Still Spirits Top Shelf are little sachets or bottles of flavorings. They're intended to enhance neutral spirits, because neutral spirits, well, they don't taste like anything. If you want real bourbon, you have to age those spirits in charred barrels for years. Who has that kind of time? So Still Spirits made it easy. You just take your neutral spirit and you add one of their flavor pouches, and voila, instant bourbon. Or gin. Or dark rum. Or tequila. Or absinthe. There are literally dozens of flavors.
How these flavors are made, though, is no easy process. Still Spirits start with a popular brand of booze—for the Tennessee Bourbon, the model is Jack Daniels, for Blue Jewel Gin, it's Bombay Sapphire. The reference spirits are run through a gas chromatograph, a machine that can analyze a substance down to its chemical component parts. The results show various compounds as spikes on a graph. In a whiskey, there may be as many as 1,300 spikes—the wood of a charred oak barrel may add as many as 20 compounds on its own. But not all the spikes are significant. So Still Spirits determines which compounds are critical to the flavors, tweaks the recipe, and works with a flavor manufacturer to dial it in. "We're rebuilding molecules from scratch," says Adam Southard, who works for Still Spirits U.S. distributor, Brewcraft.
They're really intended for home distillers, but home distilling is illegal in the U.S. (wink wink). That's okay, it works with vodka, too. We tested the results with Tito's Vodka—a very good Texas type—which we thought would give the grab bag of flavors a fighting chance. We were expecting a train wreck. Here's how it played out.
Gizmodo HQ is full of bourbon drinkers, so this was going to be a tough test. The first problem was that there wasn't enough room at the top of the bottle for the full flavor packet. Had to shake it up, pour some out, then then add some more. The color was just way too light, as you can see in the video, and the flavor was too light, too. It tasted bourbon-ish while you were drinking, but then it finished like a vodka. Very dry and very little aftertaste. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't bourbon.
What you don't see in the video, though, is that we later added another half a pouch. It made the color right and really brought out the flavors. There was more smokiness, but holy crap there's a lot of vanilla in it. A blind test was in order, so I took a glass over to some of our friends at Gawker, and asked them if they could guess what brand of bourbon it was. They couldn't. But three out of four of the tasters dug it—including one who doesn't normally even like bourbon. It still has that vodka finish, but with a second packet stirred in, it's really not bad at all.
If any of them were going to be decent, we figured it'd be this one. See, gin doesn't go through any extended aging process. It's just a neutral spirit with botanicals added at the end of the distilling process. Indeed, this was a pretty close approximation. It certainly smells like gin, with heavy juniper up front. The flavors are a bit mild once it's on the palate, and again, it's got that vodka finish with virtually no aftertaste. It tasted fine poured neat. We added ice and tonic water, and it was certainly drinkable. If you ordered a gin and tonic at a sports bar, and that's what you got, you'd never bat an eye. We even poured ourselves another couple of these. Thumbs up.
There was bound to be a dog in there somewhere, and holy hell, this was it. For this one, you had to add a "cream liqueur base"—a large bag of what I assumed was sugar and powdered milk. Wrong. It was a non-dairy milk substitute. The liqueur tasted like a chemical refinery. It coated your mouth, it made your stomach unhappy. Tweaking the amounts of vodka and water did not help. But how good is Irish cream, ever, anyway?
These were way, way better than we expected. Sure, you could just buy a real bottle of bourbon or gin. But a lot of folks want to experiment with other liquors without investing in a whole bottle. And other people might wind up with a handle of leftover vodka and no idea what to do with it. If that's the case, then the pouches, at about $5 each, are totally worth it. Drinkers who want to take it further can dive into individual flavors like Cedar Oak, and Peat Smoke.
[Special thanks to our taste testers, Harry, JD, Joe, Michael, AJ, Leah, Emma, Matt, and Evan.]