According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives—which sets the rules for spirits sold in the United States—vodka is defined as a neutral spirit "without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color." In theory, then, one brand of vodka should taste like every other, and the phrase "premium vodka" would be something of an oxymoron. In fact, vodka's neutral taste does account for much of its appeal: It mixes equally well with tonic water and tomato juice, and it can be as crisp and corporate as James Bond's vodka martinis or as trashy as the "swamp waters" my local bartender mixes (made of vodka and Mountain Dew). Vodka suits any occasion, goes with any food, and (if you believe certain advertisements) gives you less of a hangover than any other liquor. It's no wonder that in America, vodka outsells gin, rum, and tequila, as well as scotch, bourbon, and Canadian whiskey.
But if all vodkas tasted alike, there'd be no reason to favor a $30 bottle of Armadale over a $12 magnum of Fleischmann's. In fact, all vodkas are not alike. Vodka can be distilled in a good many ways, from a great many substances, including wheat, rye, beets, corn, potatoes, and sugar cane. (In Russia, the Yukos oil conglomerate recently made headlines for marketing a vodka distilled from hemp seeds.) As a result, each brand has a distinct smell, flavor, aftertaste, and burn (i.e., the burning sensation vodka creates as it goes down your gullet). The grain-based vodkas, which are the most popular, tend to be smooth and can even taste fruity. Vegetable-based vodkas are often (and often unfairly) dismissed as being harsh and medicinal.
So, your basic bottle of Smirnoff is fine for mixed drinks, but you wouldn't want to drink shots of it. Conversely, top-shelf brands such as Armadale and Jewel of Russia are too good—and too expensive—to mix with anything but ice and/or tonic water and are best drunk straight and straight from the freezer. Because most people mix their vodka with tonic, soda, vermouth, or juice, few drinkers I polled could tell me why exactly they preferred Grey Goose over Chopin or Stoli over Absolut. Does it really matter which brand you buy? I recently invited 11 friends over to find out.
In Eastern Europe, people tend to drink vodka straight, draining each ice-cold shot glass in a single gulp. Each shot is immediately followed by a zakuska—the Russian word for bite-sized snacks that are said to bring out the flavor of the vodka you've just sampled (and buffer your stomach for the next shot). To transplant this method to my Astoria apartment, I drove out to the Russian enclave in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, and loaded up on pickles, blintzes, smoked fish, black bread, caviar, and other drinker's delicacies.
As for the 11 vodkas I bought, I limited myself to easily obtainable premium brands and avoided the obscure boutique labels most suburban liquor stores wouldn't carry. A few vodkas were recommended by friends in the know, others by bartenders who should have known better. Because the best American brands—like Tito's—can be impossible to find, the test was limited to imported vodkas. Because the most expensive vodka we sampled cost less than $35, price wasn't one of our considerations. And to keep the playing field level, no flavored vodkas were sampled.
I served each vodka chilled, in a small frosted shot glass. (Given that each taster had to try each of the 11 vodkas, I tended to pour half-shots.) The labels were covered until everyone on the panel had had a chance to comment on the smell, flavor, burn, and aftertaste of the brand they'd just tried. I recorded their comments, tallied up the votes, and then revealed the final verdict. We rated each vodka on a scale of one to five shot glasses. At the end of the judging, we put the most popular brands through an intense lightning round. Two days later, I'd gotten over a very substantial hangover and set about compiling the results.
First-Round Results: From Worst to Best
$27.99 for 750 milliliters; 80 proof
French; distilled from grapes
The hoity-toity accent circumflex reveals Cîroc's nationality, and a smartly tapered purplish bottle hints at the spirit's source—grapes grown in the Gaillac and Cognac regions of southwest France. Grape-based vodkas are something of a novelty, and Cîroc, which was introduced in 2002, has positioned itself as a clear alternative to its wheat-based competitors, running clever advertisements that urged drinkers to "go against the grain." But is Cîroc's taste distinctive enough to win us over? As it happens, the panel did pick up on this vodka's "viney, stemmy aftertaste," as well as "hints of orange and anise." And most of us agreed that the shots "went down smoothly" with "very little burn" and "a clean, crisp finish." In the end, though, we concluded that Cîroc was toodistinct for its own good—that it was "a grappa, or eau de vie, trying to pass itself off as a vodka."
Final Verdict: We voted 9-2 to disqualify Cîroc from the proceedings.