So here's the deal: lots of people tell me that they drink vodka as a general rule because it's "smooth" in comparison to any other spirit, but then they recommend brands I think are about as smooth as a conveyor belt at a rock quarry.
What follows is a brief list of Vodkas I don't think are particularly great: Skyy, Svedka, Stoli, Smirnoff, Absolut, Sobieski, Finlandia, Chopin, Grey Goose, Pinnacle, and Monopolowa. That's about all of the big ones. Now, if I've taken a shit on your usual house brand, I don't want you to think that this is some kind of boozewriter elitism coming into play. If you're willing to conduct a $15 experiment (not much!), I want to create an apples-to-apples comparison for you.
Here's how to play the game: I want you to buy the half-size bottle of Russian Standard Gold, assuming you can find it. Leave it in the freezer overnight so it becomes ice cold. Then, the next day, pour it into whatever glass you normally drink out of. Then put your nose really far into that glass and take a big sniff.
You should smell absolutely nothing.
Perform that same test with any of those above brands, and you'll probably feel like you've taken a big whiff of ammonia or nail polish. Your nostrils will sting, and you'll generally be a pretty unhappy camper. Almost always, that chemical reek usually signifies that however many times the label tells me that the liquid has been distilled—or filtered, or magnetically de-ionized or whatever other horseshit they're peddling this week—it's probably also going to have some weird flavors and a finish that burns like hellfire. In other words, not smooth.
When it comes to a good vodka like Russian Standard Gold, I still might not be able to smell much by way of identifiable fruits, spices, or floral aromas. However, that cleanness in the nose tells me I'm dealing with a very high quality spirit. If you're looking to choose a vodka just on the basis of how gently it treats you as a drinker, the search is over: buy this regardless of whether you want to shoot it or mix it.
That, however, isn't the reason why Russian Standard Gold is my favorite vodka. I actually like this stuff because, contrary to popular opinion, it proves that vodka can taste like something when you sip it. In the case of the Gold, there's an immediate and very gratifying first wave of vanilla cream. The second course is an extremely pleasant "chewiness" of the grain (here, Siberian wheat) that grips hard and makes the mouth water. Then, as the vodka sits in the mouth, it continues to open up into dark chocolate: semi-sweet and just the slightest bit bitter. Very pleasant!
After that, enjoy that hallmark "smoothness." Swallow and you're left with faint cocoa dust at the top of your tongue, with zero burn at the back of your throat. It's essentially vodka that completely eliminates the need for a chaser. Why would you want to blast out the aftertaste of something so enjoyable?
Downsides? The RS Gold is pricey, but really only in comparison to other vodkas. I figure a "fair" price for a quality 750mL bottle is about $20. Here, it's only a $5 premium to take home a spirit that far outpaces my expectations of what I look for from a good vodka. Being a whiskey drinker primarily, I'm always astounded by the quality I can get in vodkas, rums, and gins for about the price of a low-end scotch.
Mixologists looking for something a little more fruity would do well with St. George's All Purpose Vodka, and if you want your mixer to be truly invisible, Reyka might be a good choice. That said, the Gold is always stocked in my home bar. It's absolutely never a wrong answer.