Here’s the Low-Down on Low-Alcohol ‘Vodka’

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Photo: J. Barmann/Grub Street

Everyone's familiar with those sad soju cocktail menus, populated with sickly sweet lychee "martinis" and the like. But now we learn that the beverage industry has a newish category of lite booze to hawk: "vodka," "rum," and "tequila" made from orange wine and agave wine. The so-called advantage? These babies clock in under 24% alcohol, or 48 proof — the legal limit for a beverage served under a beer-and-wine license in California and a number of other states. It will still get you drunk, but it will take twice as long and cost twice as much, and we're sure even the cocktail snobs who have embraced low-alcohol concoctions made from sherry will be having none of this. Nevertheless we were curious.

San Gabriel Beverage Group in Southern California appears to be the main distributor of the stuff, with a product line including Petrov Fermented Vodka. It's made from something called OTSO (Other Than Standard Orange wine), a proof-enhancing additive derived from oranges and used in some inexpensive fortified wines that the homeless and elderly drink (think Wild Irish Rose). As San Gabriel's marketing guy Bob Matthews explained, "The Petrov has the flavor of triple-distilled vodka, but it does not actually go through any distillation process." It is still a fermented product, totally legal at 20% ABV, and they've actually been selling the stuff for six years now. "We're much prouder of our line of agave wines," he said, referring to the La Quinta label of tequila substitutes, which come in 17%, 20%, and 24% ABV varieties — in places like Ohio, for instance, the legal limit for "wine" is 21% alcohol. The stuff is fermented with yeast, but then fortified further with "agave spirit," i.e. tequila, to get it right up to the legal limit.

Currently they're only selling it in California and New Mexico, but you'll soon likely be seeing it pop up in New York, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and a few other states where they've got distribution deals in the works.

This is all well and good for restaurants with clienteles comprising twentysomething women whose upper limit is one and a half Cosmos and whose only requirement in a drink is that it not taste like alcohol, but are they really fooling anyone else? Grub Street San Francisco decided to do a taste test of both the Petrov "vodka" and La Quinta agave wine at local fondue eatery, Fondue Cowboy, where SF Weekly recently discovered these new cocktail options on the menu. We tasted both things plain, and had a margarita.

The verdict: Petrov Fermented Vodka smells like rubbing alcohol (like any cheap vodka should), but doesn't really taste like vodka. It's fairly mild and smooth going down, and has a definite flavor and sweetness, with a not very subtle orange aftertaste. Mixed in a fruity drink, we imagine it will do the trick for most of the fruity-drink-ordering ilk — especially if the bartender has a heavy hand with the pour. In a Cosmo, most people would probably be none the wiser, though a little less tipsy.

As for the La Quinta 48-proof agave wine, we've got to hand it to them: It tastes like smooth (but cheap) tequila! Our margarita left a little something to be desired — it was too tart, and not really strong enough — but pour enough of this stuff in a shaker with some Cointreau and lime, splash of OJ, you've got yourself a decent drink that, after a half dozen or so, will have your college-age cousin buzzed but not barfing. That in and of itself may be counted as a pioneering achievement.

Earlier: And Now, a Malt Beverage Even a Toddler Would Love
As With Wines, a Wave of Lower Alcohol Cocktails Sweeps S.F.