Drinking Anchor Distilling Company's Hophead vodka took me back to when I first drank Żubr?wka, arguably the world's premier vodka. Surprisingly, a friend sitting next to me also thought the same thing when she tasted Hophead.
I began my journey from lightweight to respectable drinker thanks to my time as a college student in Warsaw, where a Polish bartender first introduced me to Żubr?wka. From then on, it was my drink of choice until I returned to the States. I liked it so much, I smuggled several bottles home with me, managing to thwart the Customs agent simply by telling him every detail of my trip until the line behind me grew to the point where he had no choice but to shoo me away. I gave one bottle to an older brother for Christmas, and still hear about his Christmas Morning hangover.
According to Wikipedia, "Żubr?wka [ʐuˈbrufka], also known in English as Bison Grass Vodka, is a dry, herb-flavored vodka that is distilled from rye and bottled at 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof)." In addition to its taste, its signature, grass from the Białowieża Forest, where the bison roam, gives Żubr?wka its greenish/yellowish color. A blade of the grass is traditionally placed in each bottle of Żubr?wka. Żubr?wka mixes well with apple juice, a cocktail Warsawians call Tatanka (think Dances With Wolves).
Hophead, 90 proof, colorless and unfiltered, is distilled from two types of Yakima Valley hops, the same hops used in some of Anchor's beers. Like Żubr?wka, Hophead tastes phenomenal when served on ice. It's remarkably smooth, a vodka worth sipping, with a light citrus flavor. Hophead has a long finish with a gin-like quality to it; the taste improved the more I drank. The flavor of the hops comes through in a crisp but earthy fashion, without the typical bitterness one may experience with hops, especially when drinking an IPA. On the nose, one will smell floral and grassy notes, along with the aroma of the hops, instead of the standard rubbing alcohol/gas odor one sometimes finds with vodka. It's like you've walked into a botanical garden.
Hophead is a bit of an anomaly in the vodka world, despite its classification as one. It technically is not a flavored vodka, in the sense that, Absolut Citron, for example, is. Instead, the hops are soaked in neutral grain spirits before being distilled. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) labels Hophead as a flavored vodka because it fits the outdated definition (from 1968) as a spirit "without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color and containing, when bottled, less than four grams of natural flavor components consisting of esters, acids, and higher alcohols per 100 liters at 100? proof, and bottled at not less than 80? proof." Put more succinctly, it doesn't fit the definitions of gin or liqueur, so it was labeled vodka. Despite the possibility that it might only be vodka due to some technicality, I am still grateful for the memories its herbaceous charm induced.
I didn't experiment if Hophead, like Żubr?wka, paired well with apple juice, but likely will at some point. Its creators at Anchor Distilling Company recommend drinking it neat, or mixed as part of a martini, San Francisco Bloody Mary or San Francisco Vesper.
Hophead Vodka is now available in San Francisco, New York City and will be in "other key markets" soon for a suggested retail of $29.95 for a 750ml bottle and is an excellent and interesting addition to any liquor cabinet.