$28.99 for 1 liter; 80 proof
Estonian; distilled from rye
According to bartenders I've talked to, Türi has built up a good reputation since it was first introduced in 2002. And yet, the panel was unanimous in its condemnation: The vodka's industrial-strength bouquet reminded one drinker of "burning tires." As for its taste, the panelists declared it "sticky-sweet," "thick," and "gluelike." "I wouldn't use it to fuel my lawn mower," one taster said, bringing the discussion to an end.
Final Verdict: The responses ranged from "a blighted presence" to "Next!"
Grade: One Shot Glass
$22.99 for 750 milliliters; 80 proof
Swedish; distilled from wheat
Absolut's advertising campaign is as ubiquitous as Coca-Cola's, and its packaging, which is based on an antique Swedish medicine bottle, is every bit as iconic. It's hardly surprising that 40 percent of the imported vodka bought by Americans is Absolut brand. Still, the recent explosion of premium vodkas—of the brands we tested, only Absolut, Stolichnaya, and Ketel One were around a decade ago—has resulted in something of a fragmented market and weakened Absolut's stranglehold. Will Absolut retain its grip on the public imagination and hold its own against relative newcomers like Grey Goose and Armadale? Or will it lose its top-shelf billing and move to the back of American liquor cabinets? The answer depends, to a large extent, on whether Absolut's popularity is a function of its advertising campaign or its qualities (or lack thereof) as a vodka. Unfortunately, Absolut suffered from comparison to the premium vodkas we sampled: Panel members noted its "piercing, antiseptic quality," "too-dry taste," "medium burn," and "unremarkable finish" and agreed that midshelf vodkas (again, we only tested premium brands) represented a much better value.
Final Verdict: "Absolut is fine for mixing, but if you're drinking shots, drink something else."
Grade: Two Shot Glasses
$32.99 for 750 milliliters; 80 proof
Polish; distilled from rye
Belvedere, which made its American debut in 1996, is imported by the same Minneapolis company that brings us Chopin (see below); the two vodkas also come in identical frosted bottles (which are quite lovely). But, according to our blind taste test, Belvedere "doesn't hold a candle" to its potato-based cousin. While a few tasters praised its "smooth creaminess" and detected "a pleasing vanilla taste," most noted that it had "less flavor" and "less burn" than other vodkas we tried and found the aftertaste to be "harsh," "bitter," and "hard to swallow."
Final Verdict: "The bottle is lovely, but the vodka itself leaves a lot to be desired."
Grade: Two Shot Glasses and a Chaser
$22.99 for 750 milliliters; 80 proof
Russian; distilled from wheat
Americans began drinking this "genuine Russian vodka" in 1972, when Pepsi brokered a multimillion dollar trade deal to import it from the USSR. Since then, Stoli's become a sentimental favorite; even today, it's one of the few Russian consumer products to make its way into American homes. The bottle is still a sterling example of Soviet kitsch. The taste is as biting and distinct as ever. Our panel split over its merits; some found Stoli to be "less blunt" than Absolut, praised its "interesting attack" and "potency," and noticed "hints of charcoal" in its flavor. (I found out later that Stoli is filtered through quartz, cloth, and Siberian birch charcoal.) Others noted a "foul, industrial aftertaste" and screwed up their faces.
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