Several months ago, a publicist (who shall remain nameless) for a fairly popular brand of vodka (which will also remain nameless) lured me out to dinner at a swanky Japanese restaurant so she could sell me on some new and exciting flavored vodkas. I told her I'm not a big fan of vodka, but she was persistent, and who was I to say no to an expensive sushi dinner? About halfway through the meal, she described one of her favorite drinks -- which involved cream, crushed candy bars, chocolate sauce, and other ingredients that reminded me more of a sundae than a cocktail. "You can't taste the alcohol at all," she chirpily added. Aghast, I stammered, "But... but I like the taste of alcohol. That's why I write about it." She grimaced. "Euughh. I hate the taste of alcohol."
Later on, this same publicist also said, "I consider rice a vegetable. I mean, it's a side dish, nobody likes it... it's a vegetable." It was one of the more interesting dinner conversations I've had. And it also confirmed all my worst suspicions about vodka drinkers. They don't like the taste of alcohol. Their palates are unsophisticated. They only drink dirty martinis because of the name. They think rice is a vegetable. And so on.
I find vodka the least interesting of all spirits. It's designed to be flavorless, colorless, and odorless. If I want a neutral spirit, I go straight for gin, which is essentially vodka flavored with juniper and other botanicals. "Vodka is the bottled water of alcohol," I often scoff when I explain to friends why I don't care much about it.
But then again, don't bottled waters have their own distinct tastes? Most people can certainly tell the difference between, say, Poland Spring and Evian. So why not apply that kind of judgment to vodkas? I grew more intrigued, and finally decided to dive in and research the subject more thoroughly. Hell, if vodka is good enough for Josef Stalin AND Diddy, there's got to be something to it.
I decided straight off not to write about the brands everyone knows. Who wants an avowed vodka agnostic to hold forth on the flavor of say, Ketel One, a brand just about anyone who's had a cocktail in the last ten years has tried? (Although I must, for the record, say that I think Grey Goose is absolutely vile.) I also decided to not monkey around with mixology. I didn't want to taste these vodkas in any concoction that involved fruit juices, chocolate, bacon... anything that would mask the flavor, aroma and mouth feel of the vodka itself. I'd try each brand neat, chilled and on the rocks, and (with a couple of exceptions) that would be it.
At the end of my journey -- or is it end of the beginning? -- I've come to realize that there's much more to this stuff than I'd thought. The subtle nuances of a vodka may not jump out and whack your taste buds the way a good whiskey does, but they're still there. Put in the extra effort to really taste the vodka you're drinking, and you'll be rewarded. Here are nine vodkas that opened my eyes and educated my palate. As always, if I missed your favorite, feel free to tell me all about it in the Comments section. Just don't berate me too much for missing your brand of choice. I'm still learning.
The vodkas from above:
Crop Organic. I stumbled on Crop last year at the first Manhattan Cocktail Classic, and it was love at first sip. Produced in Minnesota (where the winters are distinctly Siberian in nature), Crop uses all organic ingredients grown in organic soil (hence the name), and according to their website, it's "distilled so efficiently that no carbon treatment or charcoal filtering is required." Which is probably why it tastes so rich compared to other vodkas. It's got a clean, mineral flavor, a luscious mouth feel, and a moderate burn going down. If you're a vodka hatah, try Crop and you will become a vodka playah. It worked for me. Crop's tomato and cucumber vodkas are also must-drinks, and that's coming from someone who's not a fan of the flavored stuff.
FAIR.Quinoa. It seems like every vodka I taste nowadays has some quirky, noteworthy angle, but FAIR's really is interesting. Not only is it the first vodka made entirely from fair trade ingredients (and what's not to love about that?), but it's the only spirit I know of that's distilled from quinoa. Now, since vodka is a neutral spirit, you theoretically shouldn't be able to taste the difference between vodkas made from different grains. But hoo boy, FAIR.Quinoa won't remind you of anything else. Drunk neat, it's got spearmint, almost mouthwash-y vibe -- frankly, a little bit on the cloying side. Throw in a couple of ice cubes, however, and the sweetness evaporates, leaving you with a gorgeous and refreshing glass of cool, smooth goodness. As my wife put it, "Isn't alchemy great?"
Karlsson's Gold. Distilled from virgin new potatoes -- as opposed to the potatoes that sleep around? No, this means young potatoes which haven't had a chance to grow a skin yet. As you'd expect, it's got a pleasant, starchy, slightly sweet, very potato-ey nose, with a flavor to match. The good folks at Karlsson recommend trying it with some ground pepper straight out of the grinder, which softened the more overbearing sweet notes very nicely. Heck, a potato is always better with a little fresh pepper, so why not a potato vodka? Inspired by the pepper, I tried it in a Bloody Mary, and sure enough, it blended in beautifully. The Bloody's powerful flavors ensure you don't taste a vodka's subtleties, but as a mixer that complements the other ingredients, Karlsson's is a good choice.
Moon Mountain. Created in the American midwest (they're a little vague on where, exactly), Moon Mountain claims to be an "artisanal organic vodka," meaning that it uses all organic ingredients and it's made in old-school copper pot stills rather than the larger column stills used by most larger spirits producers. Impressive, no? And how does it taste? In this case, "artisanal" means "on the sweet side." There are definite honey overtones to this vodka which, frankly, don't drive me wild. But it did drive a few of my friends wild, and hey, not everyone likes a bone-dry vodka the way I do. It's smooth, I'll give you that. And if your taste in vodka runs on the sweetish side (as opposed to the Swedish side, in which case you should have some Absolut), then Moon Mountain is for you.
Penn 1681. Did you know they make vodka in Pennsylvania? Me neither! And what's more, this vodka is distilled using organic local indigenous ingredients, so it's about as Pennsylvanian as you can get. Penn 1681 is distilled from rye, and you can really taste the difference when sampling it side by side with a wheat or potato vodka -- it's got a very nice cereal/grain flavor. It's super-smooth even when sampled at room temperature, and chilled or on the rocks, it goes down your throat like liquid silk. I don't normally make vodka martinis, but for some reason I felt like this one called out for a little dry vermouth. And wouldn't you know it, I was right! I'm one of those gin snobs who don't think it's really a martini if you use vodka, but if you must, this is the brand to go with. (And if you want to try a really good Pennsylvanian gin, pick up a bottle of Bluecoat, made by the same folks who make Penn 1681.)
Russian Standard. As a fellow boozehound and vodka aficionado said to me upon trying this one, "Now this is vodka!" Distilled in St. Petersburg from winter wheat, Russian Standard is Russia's best-selling brand, and deservedly so. You'll taste a hint of the wheat, but what I really like is the mouth feel -- it coats your mouth like velvet but goes down clean and smooth without leaving any weird aftertaste, and it doesn't burn your throat either. I'm not huge on vodka cocktails, but a Moscow Mule with Russian Standard was the best I've ever had.
Ultimat. Imported from Poland, Ultimat is distilled from a blend of wheat, potato and rye. It's ridiculously, gloriously smooth. You might even say smooth to a fault -- it's so damn smooth and clean that it almost lacks a distinct personality. It's delicious going down, but half an hour later, I find myself struggling to remember exactly what it tasted like. Which hasn't stopped me from repeat tastings to refresh my memory. And I enjoyed each one. Even if my mind's palate is a little vague about Ultimat, it's definitely stored in the "damn good" shelf of my memory bank.
Van Gogh Blue - Van Gogh is known for its flavored vodkas (Blueberry-Acai? Dutch Caramel? Espresso? Get back, I tell you! Back!). But Van Gogh Blue, their unflavored brand introduced in 2008, is absolutely brilliant. It's called a "triple wheat" vodka because it's distilled from three different wheats -- Dutch, French, and German -- all with different flavor profiles. On the nose, it's clean and light and fragrant without that "rubbing alcohol" smell that so many vodkas have. To sip it neat or chilled is divine. It's cool on the tongue, and you can really taste hints of the wheat, along with a light sweetness that's not cloying or artificial in the slightest. It's ridiculously smooth even at room temperature, and there's no burn at the end, just a warm glow that makes you want another sip as soon as possible. This may be the best vodka I've ever tried, and at $25-30 a bottle, you can afford to try it too.
Zyr - David Katz, who founded Zyr, helped me appreciate vodka by eating oysters with me one afternoon. "People who say all oysters taste the same are usually the people who slather them with cocktail sauce," he said. "But if you love oysters like I do, you have all kinds of fun flavors, textures, creaminess, brininess... and that is vodka." And you know what? He's right. He doesn't harvest oysters, but he does make a damn good vodka, using wheat, rye, and Russian water. It's very slightly sweet, incredibly smooth, and super clean. In fact, some vodka-swilling friends of mine find it too clean. But as far as I'm concerned, they're wrong. Have a tipple of Zyr straight from the freezer, and you'll feel like your insides have just bathed in a cold mountain stream. And yes, it goes great with oysters.
Is there another vodka you think the world should know about so they'll stop drinking that godawful Grey Goose garbage? Post it in the Comments section!