A lot of us grimace a bit when it comes to writing about vodka, a category of spirits that's often dismissed as tasting the same from one bottle to another.
I'm no exception. With so many exciting bottles and flavors on the shelf that I haven't tried, sometimes it's hard for me to roll the dice and spend my money on something I think is engineered to be safe, lifeless, and undifferentiated beyond an advertising campaign. Overpriced bottles of vegan, artesanal, gluten-free vodkas costing over $50 a bottle are definitely out there, not unlike how landmines are "out there" in various war-torn countries.
That said, I'm aware of my own biases in this area, and I will freely admit to putting vodka dead last in terms of spirits I'm excited about as a general category. But even in spite of my overall lack of esteem, trying to appreciate vodka on its own merits and entering into the product category with an open mind has in fact been a very fun and enjoyable use of time.
To my delight and surprise, there are indeed vodkas out there that taste like something, and not all of them are identical. Let's talk a bit about the category and recommend a few good ones by the time we're through.
Vodka can be made from any number of things. A bewildering variety of things, in fact. Wheat, potatoes, rice, sugar cane, corn, grapes, beets, rye, and barley are just a few of them. If it were possible to make vodka out of sawdust and receipt paper, I can assure you that someone would have brought that product to market.
Typically the goal of making vodka is to produce something that's “neutral” in taste and “clean” in terms of finish. However, a lot of distillers seem to agree that differences in production methods and different distillate bases will produce subtle variations in taste, aroma, and mouthfeel. (No, that's not a made-up word.)
How to drink
Be forewarned that if you want to develop your appreciation for vodka as anything past an uncomplicated mixer, it will require some fairly intense study and a reframing of your expectations with respect to any other spirit category. While in general, super-cheap vodkas can taste like liquid fire going down, and while ultra-premium vodkas are typically cleaner-finishing, you'll miss out if you look at only whether a vodka is "smooth" or not when you evaluate it.
While I don't do this with any other spirits, I generally abide by the European / Slavic method of consumption: I throw the Vodka into the freezer ice cold if I intend to drink it straight. Right out of the freezer, a good vodka will have a very pleasant and creamy viscosity that rolls across the tongue. Don't add in any ice cubes: it'll be cold enough and you want the temperature to change a bit.
As the glass warms up, you're going to become aware of more tastes and (faint) aromas that are released as the liquid itself becomes a little thinner. Compare your impressions before and after, making sure to keep the vodka in the mouth and on the tongue as long as possible.
If you're a novice, there's also a very fun way to drink vodka taught to me by a few Russian / Armenian friends I've known. Have the Vodka with some salty food: fish, cured meats, or just a big jar of dill pickles. Take a sip of the vodka, then quickly bite into the food. The salt should almost instantly remove the taste of alcohol. Worth a try!
What to drink
1. Russian Standard Gold (about $25)
The regular Russian Standard is fine as well, but at about $25 or less for a bottle of the superior Gold, why wouldn't you upgrade? The Gold is a perfectly fine mixer that will get out of the way of other ingredients, but I quite like being able to taste the prominence of the winter wheat in this glass. Everything is very mouth-watering, creamy, and just slightly sweet here. It comes in 375mL sizes as well if you're on the fence.
2. St. George All Purpose Vodka (about $30)
St. George, being the perpetual weirdos they are, make the St. George out of Bartlett pears grown here in California. And the damnedest thing is you can taste and smell those pears quite easily. If you gravitate toward sweeter tastes and typically like vodka tonics or vodka martinis, this would be a great bottle to have. It's a great mixer for fruity drinks, too, but don't let that stop you from enjoying it straight.
3. Belvedere (about $22)
This is my pick for the big players, having had most at this point. Belvedere is made from Diamond Rye in pot stills rather than column stills, which is said to lend a little extra flavor. I most appreciate that Belvedere takes pride in the rye and wants you to taste it. To me, Belvedere tastes like sugared almonds with just the perfect degree of salinity to make the mouth water.
Try all three back to back, and you just might find that it's worth it to stock a few different kinds of vodka around the house. I'd also say to stay away from artificially flavored vodkas (hint: is it less than 40% ABV and flavored like birthday cake?) just because I find the quality severely lacking in most products.