The Great Vodka Taste Test
Our man in Moscow samples 11 premium brands in one wild night.
The First Nip
It was time to confront the fear. Thanks to a dare from vanityfair.com, there were 11 bottles of vodka in the freezer. When I nervously took a peek at them, I noticed that the freezer's pall of frost had obscured the Cyrillic on their labels in a thick, crystalline haze. I was going to need some help.
The doorbell rang, and I welcomed a few friends into my apartment in a Brezhnev-era high-rise in central Moscow. They had arrived to lend a gullet in taste-testing the new breed of Russia's premium vodkas. The editorial rationale? In the last several years Russia has seen a remarkable elevation in the status of its national drink, as a slew of premium brands has created an entirely new market for pricey vodka. And Moscow and St. Petersburg, Eastern Europe's 21st-century capitals of wealth and decadence, are the places where these spirits are consumed with greatest enthusiasm.
The editorial challenge? How to consume 11 bottles of high-end firewater. Firewater is what vodka has always been, devoid of the oaken lineage of its darker cousins—and the high-nosed finery that can too easily get in the way of a good drunk. One does not inhale vodka's bouquet, but one may use vodka to sterilize a wound on the knee, as familiar a sight to the serious vodka drinker as the shot glass and the handful of ibuprofen. That's precisely where my friends Vika, Olga, and Arkady came in, to share the heavy load.
Vodka is as simple as it is clear. Making it requires minimal technology. Aging does not improve it. Any difference in quality comes from the purity of the water and the alcohol, and from the manner and amount of filtration. Vodka is mostly produced from neutral grain spirits, and the less color, odor, and taste it has, the purer it is. There is little room for pretense.
Vodka, in fact, is the perfect drink for Russians, a species that takes great pride in the weeklong bender, the loss of recollection that can absolve one of dreadful deeds, the smell of bread—a traditional chaser to the shots that can become impossible to calculate. This is the land that abstinence forgot. And no, Russians don't go in for flavored vodkas—popular in the West, but here considered a precious conception.
However, as with everything in Russia's cosmopolitan circles these days, vodka has joined the glamour parade. If something shines, and if that something costs a heck of a lot, Russians will be more apt to buy it—at least those with money or pretension to it. These folks drink mostly Hennessy, Cristal, and other symbols of international flair. It has taken this new flight of fashionable vodkas to bring them back around to the national poison. (Per capita, Russians drink four gallons of vodka a year.) Unfortunately for the rest of the vodka-loving world, these premium Russian vodkas are hard to find outside of Russia. Other vodkas have a firm foothold in European and overseas markets, and Russians are now trying to figure out how to break into the game.
The vodka industry here is still getting its wits about it, after a decade of murder and betrayal. If you were involved in the vodka business in Russia in the 90s, locals say, you were professionally involved in the business of violent persuasion. Most, if not all, of the distilleries in Soviet times produced vodka from the same centrally mandated recipe. When the free market arrived, it was a free-for-all for the distilleries, as well as for the national distribution networks, which were just as valuable. Recipes and ingredients began to vary; new brands sprang up as the new capitalists tried to grab a share of a steady, reliable audience.
As the 90s closed out and some measure of stability descended on the country, a man named Roustam Tariko established the first high-end brand of Russian vodka. Tariko had made a fortune importing luxury goods to his native land. He was perfectly attuned to the local desire for quality and just how much people would pay to attain it. Tariko's Russian Standard vodka became immediately popular when it appeared, in 1998, and it remains so, holding 65 percent of the premium market here. (A year after its introduction, Tariko started a bank of the same name.) Its top-end product, Imperia, debuted at a million-dollar party that Tariko threw at the Statue of Liberty last year to celebrate the arrival of this atypical immigrant, and is currently the only premium Russian vodka legally for sale in the U.S..
The two most well-known Russian vodkas available in the U.S.—Smirnoff and Stolichnaya—have dubious recent histories. Smirnoff, the best-selling spirit in the world, is produced by a British company, and is Russian in name alone. And Stolichnaya isn't considered as swanky a premium brand in its home country as it is in other lands—never mind the fact that a murky trademark battle between a Russian exporter and a Dutch distiller has blurred its bona fides.
Back on home turf, many vodka-makers have followed Tariko's example, providing fine product in fine bottles, priced well beyond the reach of the kopeck collectors who comprise the meat of Russia's vodka-drinking public. And this is where it gets tricky, because once vodka goes glam, there goes the charm of falling on your chin, bleeding onto your shirtfront, and trying to figure out how you wound up in a shawarma kiosk with three Azeri guys and two dogs with no hair. The saving grace here is that these vodkas are the real Russian article, considered top-of-the-line here and here alone, even as their equivalents—Polish, French, Scandinavian, British, and Dutch—have won firm footing in New York, L.A., and other places where people think they know it all.
Once I grabbed my notebook and my guests were seated in the loge, things began politely enough. Everyone's clothes were still on. The neighbors had not yet called to complain about the music, nor had they been bullied into a panicked retreat. The vodka poured out in a thick, fine-looking, chilled syrup.
Putinka Limited Edition
The first bottle cracked was the oddest of all, for it was called Putinka, after the Russian president. Putinka's owners claim that Vladimir V. Putin himself holds no interest in the drink, that the name is the product of a public solicitation. This has not stopped anti-Kremlin protesters from carrying bottles of this vodka during marches, raising it high among the banners. But Putinka's P.R. man was eager to dispel the rumored connection. "It's not like you're drinking Putin," he politely explained. "You don't want to drink Putin." Ah, but to pretend. The Leader of All the Russias—as the czar used to be known—went down hard, not smooth, as could be expected. The aftertaste was metallic, much like you would notice after having a gun barrel stuck in your maw. One of our group, Arkady, remarked that Ukraine and Georgia were already familiar with this taste.
Next up was Etalon, which means "echelon," or "standard." This vodka, introduced in 2004, is produced in Moscow's famous state-controlled Cristall distillery (not to be confused with France's Cristal champagne). The bottle is shaped like a pyramid, which, the company says, "accumulates special energy, which positively affects the spirit inside." A stereogram sticker of a Kremlin tower, attached to the back of the clear glass vessel, loomed through the vodka bottle. Etalon's makers claim that this two-dimensional image provides a useful treatment for nearsightedness, as a way to "relax tired eyes and strengthen eye muscles." After several bouts with Putinka and Etalon, I could imagine a point in the evening where pyramids and holograms would provide the only help. Etalon vodka offered a rich, full flavor that didn't stick around too long. Very smooth, so smooth as to demand several more pours down the same un-bumpy path.
Veda Black Ice
Veda takes its name from an ancient Russian verb, vedat, meaning "to know." By this time, it was beginning to get difficult to know anything. Veda, after Russian Standard, is the most popular premium vodka here, and Black Ice is its new top-end bottle, launched this year. This vodka is ice-filtered through a screen made of platinum, which is a word that grabs Russians' attention. After a few drinks of this stuff, another friend, Olga, sank into the couch, able only to read the writing on the bottle, where a snake curled around a Latin motto: "Know thyself, know life." As I poured out several more shots, I noticed someone had cranked up the music as loud as it would go. How long had it been that way? Black Ice went down dangerously well, a quick, cool splash on the tonsils, before disappearing in a short fiery burst.
This was a great marketing coup. G8 vodka appeared in time for this past July's G8 summit in St. Petersburg. Capitalizing on the fact that this consortium of the world's top seven economies—plus Russia—has no official name, the makers of this vodka were free to adopt the term G8 as their own. A perfectly sneaky deed, with a bottle to match. It looks like the kind of thing you would fill with bathtub vodka, the fabled samogon. Official-looking stamps cover the label, along with the words "By Order of the Foreign Ministry for the G8." All bogus. This was the one bottle in our test that had no plastic filter jammed into the spout. These spouts (there's something infuriatingly childproof about them) are awful, making for slow, messy pours and lots of vain bottle-shaking. Vika would find out, however, that if one were accidentally to knock over a bottle of G8, much of the G8 would end up on the carpet. This would be a shame, since G8 vodka, a highly drinkable idea, provided a pleasant, tasteful kick that shook us from Veda's comfortable vapors.
Russian Standard Imperia
The company says that Imperia's water is from the glacial Lake Ladoga, outside St. Petersburg. The spirits undergo eight distillations—double the Russian standard for "luxury"—then two charcoal filtrations, to remove impurities, and two quartz filtrations, to "energize" the vodka. That goes a long way toward mythologizing this product, which provides the gold standard for Russian vodka, with sales exceeding one million cases a year. By the time we got around to tasting it, the neighbors had come to complain about all of the shouting, and then had run off down the hall in some kind of terror. There was a blouse balled up in the corner. Arkady parceled out shots with abandon. It may have been in my head, but Imperia actually appeared to relieve my thirst. This was the danger zone, when vodka started going down like water.
Flagman Night Landing
Was that moonlight or sunlight pouring through the window? Why was there a shallow pool of vodka covering the entire glass tabletop? These questions and many others would go unanswered. It was time for Flagman, which has the distinction of being the "Official Purveyor to the Moscow Kremlin." In his day, Stalin compelled his subordinates to work beside him late into the evening, lending them what's known as a "Kremlin complexion." Many more nights like this one, and we would also have pale skin, sunken eyes, and that particular stare of inner hunger. But duty called, Olga kept dancing, and Flagman, which means flagship, poured out in icy floes. A heck of a drink, good enough to penetrate this fog and leave a familiar impression of robust invincibility.
There were five more bottles, countless more shots of Belaya Zolota, Parliament, Beluga, Rusky Brilliant, and Yuri Dolgoruki. But the quality of my note-keeping quickly fell off into oblivion. In the days to come, as I recovered myself and discovered my notebook in a heap of chewed gum and mysterious ash, I was able to read my final note of that evening. It went like this: "Ah … Vika," trailing off into a vile scrawl.
And so I was left with that abbreviated evaluation of today's new breed of premium Russian vodkas. They must be good.