Lightning Round Results:
Jewel of Russia Classic
$34.99 for 1 liter; 80 proof
Russian; distilled from wheat and rye
Though none of us had heard of this vodka before the tasting, Jewel of Russia was far and away the best of the Russian bunch. Introduced in 2001, it comes in a stately, square-shaped bottle with red wax seals—the whole package looks heavy and handsome, and what's inside doesn't disappoint. The panel praised Jewel of Russia's "waspy, authoritative taste," recognized it immediately as "a high-end version of Russian vodka," and found it to be "cleaner and smoother than Stoli." "It's smooth and delicious, and it tastes expensive," one taster said. "It's cloying," another countered, "it wants to be liked." We decided to drink one last, tiebreaking shot.
Final Verdict: Following the tiebreaker, the yeas carried the day, and the nays skulked off to smoke cigarettes.
Grade: Four Shot Glasses
$33.99 for 750 milliliters; 80 proof
Scottish; distilled from wheat and barley
Not long after its 2002 introduction, this unlikely contender—a Scottish vodka—started receiving shout-outs in Jay-Z's lyrics. Shortly thereafter, Jay-Z and his Roc-a-Fella partners, Damon Dash and Kareem "Biggs" Burke, bought the rights to the brand itself. They picked wisely: Our panel found Armadale to be "a low-talking, come-hither vodka" with "a sexy, implied bite and just enough smoke to win you over." One taster dissented, calling the vodka "a little too polished for its own good, almost corporate-tasting," and thereby denied Armadale the top standing. Still, it finished a close second and comes highly recommended.
Final Verdict: "The Smart Water of vodkas—fantastic!"
Grade: Four Shot Glasses and a Chaser
$29.99 for 750 milliliters; 80 proof
Polish; distilled from potatoes
Potato vodkas have never been as well-received as their grain-based competitors, but Chopin—which appeared on the American market in 1997—should go a long way toward changing their lowbrow reputation. It's the smoothest vodka we tried, with a slight oiliness (specific to potato vodkas) that cut beautifully against the briny funk of black caviar and held its own against the thickest black bread I'd been able to find. We found Chopin itself to be "slightly sweet" and "well-rounded" with "perhaps a hint of apple." Chopin also had a "medium-length, pleasing burn," but "very little aftertaste—it's remarkably clean." To top it off, Chopin's tall frosted bottle was the prettiest we'd seen.
Final Verdict: Following a second round of shots, the panel unanimously called Chopin "far and away the best vodka we tried."
Grade: Five Shot Glasses