Review: Den Klodsede Bjørn / The Clumsy Bear Vodka

There are a few human qualities I admire more than anything else on this earth and very highly among these rank the following:

  • Dedication
  • Determination
  • Boobies
  • Passion
  • Attention to detail

I also happen to really enjoy great craftsmanship and quality alcohol. As you may be able to imagine, whenever I find a company or a person who puts the above mentioned human qualities into creating quality alcohol through great craftsmanship, I usually grow quite excited. Especially if said company or person happens to be from around my parts of the woods so that I can bathe in that comforting warmth that is local pride.

Michael Svendsen, Trolden DistilleryMichael Svendsen, hard-working brewmaster, master distiller and master of operations at Kolding’s Trolden Brewery and Distillery. Photo credit: Promotional photo.

Now as much of an alcohol-loving nation as Denmark is, you probably would not expect a town by the size of Kolding (65,000 odd souls) to play home to a person who not only possess all human qualities mentioned above, but also channel them into making quality alcohol through great craftsmanship and a fair amount of stubbornness and hard work. But such seems to be the case of one Michael Svendsen and his life’s work: Trolden Brewery and Distillery: one of the first micro breweries to open in Kolding and one of the few to remain following the recent financial crisis.

Trolden Brewery opened it’s doors as a one man operation in 2005 under the name Troldhede Brewery. Troldhede was the name of a famous local railroad which once connected Kolding with neighboring towns, but unfortunately it’s also the name of a small Danish town which apparently made for so much confusion that the name was eventually shortened to Trolden a few years ago. Through the years, the identity crisis and eventual name change the business expanded into a, well, largely one man operation – but a pretty big one at that.

Trolden Tripel DTripel D – one beer in the Trolden lineup. An atheist homage to Darwin, Dawkins and Douglas Adams in the style of a Belgian Abbey Ale

Trolden Brewery, through the complicated process of trial and error coupled with constant tweaking and fine tuning, has over the years developed an array of ten different beers ranging from your light fruity beers over your Belgian ales and IPA’s to your classic stout types. And as if that wasn’t enough, they’ve also amassed an array of seasonal beers just as they’ll take it upon themselves to brew specialty batches of beer to order if you ask really nicely (and pay them a considerable amount of money). The brews and efforts of Trolden Brewery have been many and while not all of them have been equally great, they’ve improved vastly over the years and have earned owner, brewmaster and overall hard-working kind of guy Michael Svendsen a reputation as a man to reckoned with in the world of craft beer. Not only locally, but on a national level as well.

But as much as I love beer, this post is not about beer. This post is about an interesting little side project taking place at Kolding’s little brewery…

 

Raising the Bar: Onwards into spirits!

In 2011, things got stirred up a bit at Trolden Brewery. Two handmade 350 liter pot stills were added to the already limited space available and suddenly, just like that, brewmaster Michael Svendsen was now also wearing the cap as master distiller at the newly proclaimed Trolden Distillery.

Copper stillsThe two 350 liter copper stills at Trolden Distillery. Seen through the eyes of an ecstatic Johan during a visit to Trolden Distillery a year or so ago.

The mission of the distillery was simple: To boldly do what only a few men had been crazy enough to attempt before: produce a Danish Whisky! Hand crafted using carefully selected ingredients, meticulously distilled and aged in first-fill American oak casks ranging in size from 8 to 225 liters, no less. Ah yes, the intentions are certainly all the best, but the results? Well, we’ll just have to wait. It takes three years for a whisky to legally become a whisky and we’re just not quite there yet.

Whisky caskWant to own your own 8 liter whisky cask with visitation rights? Apparently you can at Trolden Distillery.

Whisky update: At the time of this writing – August 26, 2014 – it would appear that the first cask of whisky at Trolden distillery reached full maturity! This first batch was distilled at Trolden Distillery three years ago on August 26 2011 and as such can now be legally referred to as whisky. Rumors speak of a very anticipated November 2014 limited bottling and release.

Expectations in Danish whisky aficionado circles are running high, though, fueled by few select test tastings by whisky enthusiasts and a few long gone bottles of “The Secret Barrel” – a test run that I myself was lucky enough to taste a year or so ago and recall being very excited about. But once again I digress, as much as I love whisky this is also not the subject of today’s post. But fear not, dear reader, we’re getting there!

 

While we wait: Why not have a shot of vodka?

Those not quite ready to wait three years for small-batch spirits from Kolding, Denmark should take comfort in the fact that Michael Svendsen is not known for being on the lazy side. He’s also a man who likes to experiment which is why, I’m guessing, it didn’t take him long to figure out that since he had a few pot still standing around anyway, he might as well dwell a bit in the realm of raw, unaged spirits. This is my theory and until someone proves me wrong, I’m sticking to it!

And it’s this kind of reasoning, possibly, that led to the creation of a very special vodka: Den Klodsede Bjørn Vodka or The Clumsy Bear Vodka in English if you will. The first (to my knowledge) premium vodka to be produced and distilled in the city of Kolding, a charmingly named and rather special concoction that I was lucky enough to be offered a taste of in exchange for an honest review and a few thoughts.

Which, my friends, brings us to what this post is really about. So hey, let’s play that game!

 

What’s in a name? What’s in a bottle?

It’s not often I get to review a product that I wish I’d personally come up with, or one that bears a name that I think fits me perfectly for that matter… But The Clumsy Bear Vodka from Trolden Distillery fits both bills. It’s a tongue-in-cheek named product that is at one time both charming, funny, a little odd and clumsy, but still dying to be taken seriously.

Den Klodsede Bjørn VodkaIs this the cutest premium vodka label ever?

All kidding aside, the packaging of the product is pretty spectacular. From the cutely drawn slightly odd-looking bear on the label to the wax seal that graces the top of the bottle, it’s a small work of art. The hand-written batch and bottle numbers on the front add a touch of class and a feeling of dealing with an exclusive and very limited product. As you are when you’re talking micro batch vodka. How limited? Well, one batch of Clumsy Bear Vodka makes for a total of about 100 bottles. My recently procured bottle is no 99/108 of batch no 6… So, yeah, pretty limited.

The back label, as you would expect, goes on to praise the product for it superior quality but also brands it as an honest and to the point vodka hand-crafted in small batches using the finest Danish wheat and barley grain. The mission behind this odd-one-out vodka, it states, is to make a clear, clean spirit with the taste of the Danish terroir to preferably be enjoyed neat and slightly chilled, or mixed with liqueurs or vermouth during the height of summer.

Oh, and before trailing into the obligatory see more on Facebook or visit us online, it goes on to repeat a couple of word I first noticed with some interest on the front label of the product: “unfiltered vodka!”

 

Unfiltered vodka? What the?

When I first got my hands on a bottle of The Clumsy Bear Vodka, I immediately noticed the word “unfiltered” prominently written on the label. This admittedly confused me a little as I’m used to seeing producers brag about how meticulously filtered their products are. You need, after all, only reach to your nearest bottle of Smirnoff (if you’re unlucky enough to own one) to see the words “Triple distilled – Ten times filtered” as a sign of supposed quality. So why was an unfiltered something to be proud of?

In an effort to find out, I reached out to brewmaster, master distiller and otherwise all-over head honcho at Trolden Brewery and Distillery, Mr. Michael Svendsen, who patiently and in simplified terms explained to this geek that the filtration process is only really necessary if the end product of the distillation process is not already pure and is a process mainly undertaken to remove impurities from the distillation, the water or the ingredients used – and is a process that also removes subtle flavor components.

He more than hinted that the quality of the ingredients and the water source used in their production as well as the attention paid along with closely guarded secrets made a distillate so pure that no further filtration was needed. The word unfiltered, it seems, is meant as a marker of quality and trust in the methods employed during preparation and distillation. Not a sign of an unpolished product that’s remarkably rough around the edges. It also presumably means that The Clumsy Bear is a vodka with a little more taste and character than other premium vodkas. Interesting, but what does that all mean? Well… Only one way to find out.

 

Tasting The Clumsy Bear Vodka: A pseudo-scientific approach to inebriation

Truth be told, I was a little uncertain about how to properly sample a vodka. So for the purpose of this review, I set up my own method for tasting and reviewing. I’d stash the vodka in the fridge for a day prior to tasting, then pour myself a shot’s worth in a chilled glass, taste the liquid within and take note of my thoughts and impressions. I’d then slowly sip from the glass as it came back up to room temperature and note any developments as I did.

Warning: Once you pop, you can’t stop! The Clumsy Bear, like many other premium spirits comes with a natural cork topper. Unlike many other premium  spirits, though, this one is not resealable. Like a good bottle of wine, you’ll need a corkscrew to get this bottle open and once it’s open it stays that way. You’ll need to either call some friends and have a party or do what I did which was to get a Champagne re-sealer or similar and use that as a temporary topper. Who reseals Champagne anyway?

To keep my review fair and unbiased, I tasted the vodka over two nights a week apart and enlisted the help of my friend Tina for the first tasting. By way of this newly discovered, highly complicated and overly scientific tasting method, this is what we found:

Den Klodsede Bjørn Vodka and Rossini CaviarPremium vodka and Caviar? A match made in heaven? I do believe so!

Our friend, The Clumsy Bear, pours a beautifully clear transparent liquid of notable viscosity: It actually looks and feels thick and creamy, an interesting trait I’ve never really previously noticed in a clean spirit.

Straight out of the fridge, The Clumsy Bear is a smooth, comfortable and mild acquaintance, pure and smooth with a distinct note of wheat and barley on the palate and a pleasant warming at the back of the throat from the 40% of alcohol. The mouthfeel matches the viscosity in the glass, it’s thick and coats the mouth, but pleasantly so.

As it slowly warms up to room temperature, the pleasant warmth from the alcohol becomes increasingly noticeable, but never in an unpleasant kind of way. As it does, other features that becomes more apparent are the grain notes, along with a nice subdued sensation of sweetness that was not apparent at first, but actually helps in making this vodka sipable and enjoyable – even neat at room temperature.

The Clumsy Bear may not be as filtered and polished as other vodkas, but in this case that may well prove a good thing. What it lacks in ultimate purity (and consequently flavor and charm), it makes up for in character and unique taste. As my beautiful assistant Tina thoughtfully put it after her first sip: “this is an honest vodka; it tastes exactly like vodka should!” – and she’s right. It tastes just like any good vodka really should (but doesn’t): of local grain, local water, local hard work and dedication. Well done!

But what then, you may be wondering, is the use for such a premium vodka?

 

It’s not just for getting drunk: Vodka and food pairings

Vodka is certainly a great, classic drink and a favorite amongst many when it comes to mixing drinks and/or getting sloshed. But what does one actually do with a quality vodka other than sample it for fun and inebriation? Well, this is a food blog, after all, so why not try pairing it with some food? Great idea, but is it even doable? Can (neat) vodka and food even be friends?

Well, If you ask a Russian, he’d probably tell you not only “da!” but also go on to tell you that vodka, preferably in large quantities, is the perfect match for anything from Borscht over pot roast to breakfast gruel. I wouldn’t really go that far and I would probably severely limit my intake of vodka in a dining situation, but if you were to ask me, the clear crispness of a quality vodka makes it perfect as an apéritif or with little bite-sized hors d’oeuvres at the beginning of a meal. And since we’re dealing with a top-shelf vodka, I see no reason not to reach for top-shelf ingredients.

The obvious and outrageously expensive choice here would, of course, be Caviar and while that’s certainly a fine idea (believe me, I’ve tried!), less extravagant choices such as lumpfish roe or other roe would do more than adequately. As would pretty much any kind of shellfish, seafood or cured/smoked meats.

Luckily for myself and the readers of this blog, though, restraint has never really been my middle same. So in the interest of giving our friend, The Clumsy Bear, a proper review, we paired him with a selection of hors d’oeuvres we created for an anniversary dinner with friends:

Blinis and other pairings for vodkaFront to back: 1) Blinis with Caviar and sour cream 2) King crab in vanilla mayo with pickled cucumber 3) Steak Tartare on potato crisps

And he stood his ground just perfectly! The Clumsy Bear offered a clean, crisp bite and a whiff of alcohol to cut through the rich elements of the various finger foods while the subtle grainy flavors cleaned our palates without at all clashing or interfering with the decadent and at times subtle flavors of the food. Fresh out of Caviar and King Crab? Less sophisticated hors d’oeuvres would certainly do… But do give it a shot some day! Vodka with hors d’oeuvres is obviously a dangerous game, but in moderation it just plain works.

If hard liquor before the main course is not really your thing, why not try it with a main course – along with a beer as a side of  a shellfish or fatty fish platter for nice extended lunch? In place of the all-important aquavit? Or, hey, try it after a meal as a digestif to help settle the stomach and bring that lovely inner warmth.

Whatever you do, just don’t do what the Russians do and you, too, will see that quality vodka in moderation can be an integrated part of a fine meal.

 

In conclusion: Putting the bear back in the den

In the end, only so many words can be spun on the subject of vodka (about 2500, it would seem!). It is, after all, by design a pretty neutrally tasting spirit. To be able to produce a spirit so clean that still tastes of something without being neither murky nor harsh is a quite a feat, though, and one that warrants an extra round of applause. If you can produce a base spirit this clean and refreshing and you can distill character into something that’s usually priced as being characterless and tasteless, then I’m pretty excited about things to come, be they barrel-aged whisky or other crazy experiments.

Thirsty for more? You can read more about the Clumsy Bear here or visit the Trolden Brewery and Distillery here. Better yet, if you swing by my beautiful home town, you can visit the brewery in person, they’ll be happy to show you around and quite possibly pour you a beer. Find out more details here.

Stranger vodka reviews: Would you believe it? This is actually my second vodka review. And the first vodka I reviewed was even more curious and outrageous than this one. Read my review of the Copenhell festival exclusive, Baphomet Goat’s Head Vodka here.

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