I’m not ashamed to say it: I love dessert drinks. They’re often made with über-sweet artificially flavored vodkas, though. And while I won’t deny (OK, with some modicum of shame) that I enjoy some of them, the world is suffering from a plague of flavored vodka.

This drink is a great all-natural, locally sourced substitute for the popular flavored vodka style of “martinis.” The Maui Preserved vanilla powder and honey add a deep caramel-marshmallow flavor.

Iteration #5. The best and final. Added two puréed strawberries, more honey and cut back on the vodka. © 2014 Sugar + Shake

Before we get to the recipe at the end of this post, here’s a walk through how this drink came to be. I developed it as an entry into a contest run by a local vodka company and a hotel chain, which shall go nameless since…I didn’t end up as a finalist! The requirements were to highlight the vodka (duh; it also could not be pre-infused) as well as fresh ingredients under a “Farm to Table” theme. The rules stated that we’d be judged on: Taste, Presentation, Use of Fresh Ingredients, Creativity and Alignment with Theme.

I have to thank our friend-and-neighbor @Melissa808 for donating a bottle of the vodka in question to my cause (she happened to have an unopened one) and being one of my guinea pigs. Her input was essential to the final result, which ended up being very different from where I began!

ITERATION ONE: I started off with a veggie-type drink with muddled cucumbers and herbs and some honey and vanilla to add sweetness and depth.

Iteration #1: vodka, cucumber, basil, lime, honey and vanilla. Tasted “thin” and had a strong alcohol burn. © 2014 Sugar + ShakeIngredients: vodka, cucumber, basil, lime, honey and Maui Preserved vanilla powder. (Love that stuff!) 100% local.

The vodka in question is quite nice in cocktails, but I wouldn’t choose to drink it straight. (Which I do love to do with vodka—it’s my reliable fall-back drink: on the rocks, lemon twist.) This one has too much of an alcohol burn, what I call “dragon nose”—that feeling that you’ve got hot stuff coming out your nostrils. For the same reason, I’m not a big fan of Grey Goose. (Tito’s and Belvedere are my preferred choices.) This drink ended up with too much of that burn overwhelming the cucumber and herbs. In retrospect, this might have worked better as a limeade cooler, rather than going straight-up booze. The honey and vanilla couldn’t do enough to give it depth, so it felt very “thin” in my mouth. Just lacking.

Opinion from the house peanut gallery: Meh. Too overwhelmingly vodka-y, though they liked that it wasn’t super sweet.

ITERATIONS TWO & THREE: The veggies and herb thing was pretty underwhelming, but I didn’t know where to go—whether I should try to improve the recipe in some way or try a totally different direction. Melissa commented that when she and some other folks had done a tasting of this particular vodka, a few of them felt they tasted a salty element. It’s subtle, but it seemed like a good direction to work from, since it played off one of the qualities of the brand. “How about salted caramel?” I wondered out loud. “People seem to like that flavor.” I know, it’s a little trite, but since part of the prize was that the winning drink would be served at a hotel bar, it seemed like a flavor that would be popular, and would therefore appeal to judges for that reason.

The rules stipulated that a maximum of 2 ounces of alcohol could be used and that the vodka had to be the dominant spirit. I thought that dark rum would enhance the concept of a caramel flavor, so I did a version that cut back on the vodka and added a little of my favorite Koloa dark rum.

For the salty aspect, I did a mix for the rim that included coffee, raw sugar and red ‘alaea salt.

The “magic” keeper element: A salt-coffee-sugar rim. © 2014 Sugar + Shake

Ingredients: vodka, honey, Maui Preserved vanilla powder, half-and-half; dark rum for the variant version

Opinions from the peanut gallery: Still meh. Still too much of an alcoholic burn in the vodka-only version, and not enough body. The vodka and rum version was deemed better—kind of tasty, actually—but we all agreed it tasted too much like rum; you’d never know the vodka was there, even though there was only ¼ ounce of rum. On the other hand, the rim mix was deemed a real winner. “Can we just eat this?” asked Melissa.

Iterations #2 and #3: Vodka (#3 had dark rum added, too), half & half, honey, vanilla. Going for a “salted caramel” flavor. Still too much of a thin mouthfeel and burn.© 2014 Sugar + Shake

ITERATION FOUR: Shake pointed out that if the concept was “farm fresh” I probably was sacrificing points there. He got a super dubious look on his face when I made the claim that all the ingredients (minus the half-and-half) were local. “OK, they’re not, like, traditionally farmed, but they’re all raised here!”

So, strawberries. “Strawberry-Salted Caramel. That’s a thing, right?” I queried. Shrugged shoulders.

This decision led to a quest to find sugar cane sticks. (The idea was to roast—blow torch—the strawberries on the sugar cane sticks to add more of a roasty-toasty caramelized flavor.) Melissa was heading to Ala Moana that afternoon, so she said she’d look. None to be found. Not even at ABC. What’s up with that, right? I finally tracked some down in Chinatown…in a can. Well, it would have to do.

I got to bust out my scary kitchen torch which makes a noise like a jet liner taking off. No, really—days later, I was using it to blast something else quickly and Shake said, “What the hell is that sound?!” “My torch. Didn’t you hear it the other day?” “I thought you were using a blender!” I’m not allowed to use it without having the fire extinguisher handy. Probably a good idea.

Trying a new element for Iteration #4: Torched Kula strawberries on sugar cane sticks. © 2014 Sugar + Shake

In addition to adding the roasted strawberry, I upped the half-and-half to add more body and try to tame the alcohol.

Ingredients: vodka, honey, Maui Preserved vanilla powder, half-and-half (no change from previous version except to add the torched strawberry)

Opinions from the peanut gallery: STILL meh. But getting better. There was just a hint of strawberry from having poured the cocktail over the garnish as it went into the glass; I also swirled the strawberry around a bit in the drink before serving. “Maybe if you blended it?” the taste-testers suggested.

Added the torched strawberry and poured the cocktail over (same basic recipe as Iteration #2, with a little more cream). © 2014 Sugar + Shake

Having now nearly reached the end of the bottle Melissa had provided—it was a small one!—this had to work or else I’d have to go with one of the earlier iterations anyway. I was pretty much out of time, too, with the deadline looming.

ITERATION FIVE: This actually turned out to be rather tasty! It reminded me of drinks I used to order back in my “strawberry daiquiris are awesome” phase. But better. The nice thing about it is that it’s all natural—the flavor of the strawberries and the vanilla powder make it seem a little artificial, but there’s nothing fake here. See the recipe below.

I kept the salt-coffee-sugar rim since it was so tasty (I did a lousy job of rimming the glass for the photo, though) and this time scaled back on the vodka. I had been putting in the whole 2 ounces allowed per the rules because I’m used to drinking cocktails with a high spirit content, and because I figured that folks deserved to get their bang for their buck, but that alcohol burn dominated the previous versions and we all felt that was really what was ruining the drinks. I also gave up on torching the strawberry garnish.

Iteration #5. The best and final. Added two puréed strawberries, more honey and cut back on the vodka. © 2014 Sugar + Shake

Opinions from the peanut gallery: A winner, finally! Everyone was pleased with this one. Shake even actually liked it and he doesn’t care much for dessert drinks. “It’s not super sweet,” he said. “Just fruity and that vanilla taste.”

After all that work, I have to say I was disappointed not to have been selected as a finalist. But, I do admit that my drink has a lack of fresh fruit or produce—just the strawberries—which, as Shake noted, makes it not-so-farm-fresh. Still, I think it shows off the variety of items that are produced locally. It does also pack a bit of a wallop for something that looks so girly—I noticed that the finalists all have an equal or greater amount of juice, syrup or soda to go with the vodka in their recipes.

At any rate, I think it’s an enjoyable drink—try it and let me know what you think. Oh, and be sure to sip it to the last drop—the vanilla powder tends to sink to the bottom, and that stuff is amazing. I originally entered the drink under the very boring name “Strawberry Salted Caramel Martini” but I’ve since decided to call it the Strawberry Charm after the Lucky Charms marshmallow-like taste of the vanilla powder.

Strawberry Charm

  • 1½ ounce vodka
  • 3 Kula strawberries
  • 1/8 teaspoon Maui Preserved vanilla powder
  • ½ ounce half-and-half
  • 1 ounce Hawaiian honey syrup*
  • Sugar cane stick
  • Mint leaves

Salted Coffee Rim:

  • Red ‘alaea salt
  • Hawaiian coffee, ground
  • Raw Maui cane sugar
  • Hawaiian honey syrup*

Make the Salted Coffee Rim: Combine equal parts salt, coffee and sugar. Dampen martini glass rim with honey syrup. Roll in salt mixture.

Make the drink: Purée 2 strawberries, vanilla powder, half-and-half and honey syrup. Combine puréed mix and vodka in a mixing tin; add ice, cover and shake. Strain into a martini glass. Garnish with remaining strawberry, sugar cane and mint leaves.

*Honey syrup: Mix equal parts Hawaiian honey and boiling hot water. Allow to cool before using.