Hit Me With Your Best Shot

Which vodka is the best?

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.
Grade: None

$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

Stolichnaya *
$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.

Final Verdict: While agreeing that the Stoli bottle “is a classic,” about half of the panel concluded that the vodka itself was “another midshelf spirit masquerading as a premium brand” and attributed its continued popularity to “snob appeal.” Unable to reach an agreement, we decided that whether you liked Stoli was largely a dela vkusa—which is to say, in Russian, a matter of taste.
Grade: Three Shot Glasses

*Note: In Russia, Stoli’s full name is pronounced Stolichnaya, not Stolichnaya.

Grey Goose
$29.99 for 750 milliliters; 80 proof
French; distilled from wheat, rye, and barley

Made in Cognac but owned by the American Bacardi Corp., Grey Goose was introduced in the United States in 1997 and has since won a great many industry awards. We were underwhelmed: Grey Goose is sweet and smoky, with hints of anise and citrus in the finish, but it all adds up to only a sort of smooth, uninteresting neutrality. And so, while the more generous half of our panel praised Grey Goose’s “long, silky aftertaste” and “pleasing burn,” detractors found it “bland,” “spineless,” and “vaguely medicinal.” In the end, seven tasters agreed that the vodka’s softness and subtlety made it a solid, if unremarkable, choice. Four found it to be too unremarkable and lacking the bite or character they expected from a self-described “ultra-premium” spirit.

Final Verdict: “Leaves a bit too much to the imagination.”
Grade: Three Shot Glasses

Ketel One
$22.99 for 750 milliliters; 80 proof
Holland; distilled from wheat

Ketel One has been available in America since 1990. But in Holland the brand’s been a family concern for 300 years, and the family in question—the Nolets—prides itself on its pedigree. “Ketel”refers to the small, copper-pot stills this vodkais distilled in. (There’s an illustration of one on the bottle itself.) The first and last thirds of each batch are automatically discarded as likely to be harsh and weak. The panel found the results of this “center-batch method” to be “creamy,” “exceptionally smooth,” and “a little sweet,” with hints of vanilla and orange. But two tasters felt that Ketel One’s lingering aftertaste tended to obscure its initially pleasant flavor, and three more eventually came around to their point of view.

Final Verdict: “The vodka Absolut wishes it was.”
Grade: Three Shot Glasses and a Chaser

$32 for 750 milliliters; 80 proof
Russian; distilled from wheat and rye

Zyr, which was introduced in October 2002, is the youngest vodka we tasted but one of the best. Manufactured near Moscow by a young American entrepreneur named David Katz, Zyr is dry and zesty, with a distinct floral bouquet, a full-bodied burn, and a surprisingly light, sweet aftertaste. Eight panelists found it to be a “firm,” “assertive” vodka, well-suited “to serious drinking.” Two found the burn to be a bit overwhelming and preferred some of the lighter brands we tried, such as Armadale or Chopin. One spilled his shot three times before tasting it and so abstained from the judging.

Final Verdict: “We like this young upstart—there’s hope for Russian vodka, yet!”
Grade: Three Shot Glasses and a Chaser

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