On Monday – which was Maryland Day, for those of you not from the Old Line State – Philadelphia Distillers officially launched its new vodka, the Bay, which is flavored with "traditional Chesapeake seasoning," an apparent relative of Old Bay. As a Maryland native, I was intrigued but a little skeptical when I first heard about this. I'll put Old Bay on many things, including a bloody mary, but I'm not sure I'd want to drink a glass of it. And as someone who writes about cocktails, I'm immediately wary of flavored vodka.
I got to try the Bay at Hank's on the Hill last night, and came away impressed, and while it was inspired by Old Bay seasoning, it's definitely not a clone. The flavor is much lighter. Served neat, it has a nose of celery salt and black pepper. The taste is dominated by red and black pepper, allspice and a bit of cardamom, with a wave of salt in the finish.
That brininess might be the most useful thing about the Bay for mixologists. At a friend's suggestion, we tried it in a Salty Dog (vodka and grapefruit juice with a margarita-style salted rim). We didn't need the salt at all, and the mild spicy flavor of the vodka played well with the sharpness of the grapefruit.
The mild spiciness is a point worth reiterating: The Bay's flavor is not going to dominate and heat your cocktail the way that a horseradish-infused vodka might. It's more subtle than that. Hank's bartender Gina Chersevani has been experimenting with new cocktails, and her most intriguing effort is a shooter that combines the Bay with sherry vinegar and citrus, playing up the vodka's salt-and-pepper flavors.
I have to admit I'm looking forward to trying the Bay in a bloody mary -- probably with George's, a spicy mix from the Eastern Shore. The Bay is on its way to local bars, and should hit stores in Maryland and D.C. in early April, just in time for the start of crab season. (Virginia, you may share the coastline of the Chesapeake Bay, but there's no firm date for when you'll get this vodka.)