I'd like to think after trying to seriously understand what fine spirits are about for several years, then writing about them semi-professionally for another two or three years now, the nuances of vodka aren't completely lost on me.
I would humbly point to my catalog of work here and say, "Well, at least it seems like I have fairly strong preferences from one vodka to another." But there are also people whose culinary palates I trust, and when the subject of vodka comes up, they've written, "I don't waste my time with that, because all of it tastes the same to me." And so I fear from time to time that maybe I'm completely full of shit.
Tonight, I put two "fancy" vodkas head to head. There are fancier vodkas, to be sure, but both of these ones clock in with price tags above $30. So they're at least above your usual "premium" tier of Goose / Ketel One / Belvedere. The experience was illuminating.
How I heard about them
On this one, I basically let other people tell me what was the "best they'd ever had." This wasn't a scientific thing and consisted of a sample of two. One guy at a liquor store told me that of all of the vodkas he'd had, Zyr was the most luxurious. I posted a review for Russian Standard Gold, a personal favorite, and a guy on Reddit said, "Well, hey, if you like that, try Imperia." So, this is really a head-to-head based on two opinions, though internet buzz on both was similarly favorable.
Still, figure this: if vodka's all the same, then (a) these should taste identical to one another, and (b) this should feel like a catastrophic waste of money! And did they? Was it? Well...
Zyr comes to us from Russia, where it's distilled from both Wheat and Rye grown in the "rich black soil of Russia's heartland." They filter it nine times and distill it five times. And then they subject it to "a three stage taste test." It has a picture of one of those spires (minarets?) you see in Russian architecture all the time / the title screen of any given Tetris game.
Imperia, according to Russian Standard, is "Pure Russian Luxury." Elsewhere on the website they say that their vodkas are distilled 200 times. Not only that—the vodka is stored for 72 hours in special "relaxation barrels" prior to bottling. I mean, shit, who wouldn't be ready for a nap after navigating some Rube Goldberg pipe maze a few hundred times? There's also something about being filtered through crystals from the Ural Mountains. It's a lot to process.
How much stock should you put in all of this? I'd say zero. Reyka's origin story already strains the limits of plausibility, what with its stories of lava rock and volcanoes. So long as each producer keeps trying to one-up one another, it won't be long before we see vodkas distilled thousands of times as laser-wielding nanobots blast away anything they even think might be an impurity.
So how do they actually stack up? Both were tasted side-by-side, initially ice cold from the freezer, in two identical glasses.
Contender 1: ZYR
From the onset, the best way to describe Zyr is sharp. The nose isn't downright bracing like mega-cheap vodka, but it is strong and a little floor cleaner like. If I'm being kind, I'd say that lime is probably the clearest note.
Taste-wise, Zyr is full in the mouth. It's more viscous than I was originally expecting, and sweeter too. The lime from the nose is the first hint that Zyr is big on citrus. A development of powdered sugar begins to build into something like lemon meringue. From time to time, it's a little bit saline, and a little bit like gin in the sense that it offered up some unexpected coriander.
Swallow, and you'll get some warmth at the back of the throat, but it thankfully isn't a bite. Dominant tastes are almond, white pepper, and definitely more citrus.
Contender 2: Russian Standard IMPERIA
Imperia has no trace of ethanol reek and offers a gamut of faint smells. After several dozens of sniffs, this was my conclusion: it's ever so slightly nutty, and ever so slightly mineral (like the scent of river rocks). In fact, both observations were a prelude to the main event.
The first taste impression of Imperia throws a lot at you. (Well, as far as vodka goes.) Lacking the sweetness of Zyr, I was left trying to sort out where mineral tastes intersected with grain. I was left with the sensation of a slate-like arrival that mellowed out into honeyed oats. No citrus here to speak of!
From the relatively mild taste, things really go gonzo in the finish. It's amazing what varied kinds of flavor you're left with. Clove, cinnamon, and sage rush forward and fill the front of your palate with some spices and crackle, and there's almost zero burn or warmth in the throat. Very distinctive!
To me, the real make-or-break of a vodka is how it fares at higher temperatures. In more than a few cases, I've found that the longer I sit with a pour, the less I tend to like it.
Zyr fared... fair. By the end of the glass, I was definitely aware that citrus was the signature taste of the vodka. Sadly, as the spirit warmed, it took on a synthetic quality: lime changed to lime-aid; lemon changed to lemonheads candy. I was being hit with the facsimile of citrus. After a whole glass, it didn't feel like my world was turned upside-down.
On the other hand, the Imperia mellowed and opened up. If lime is the Zyr signature taste, for the Imperia it's nutmeg. Those baking spices continued to sit in the middle of the tongue, and even as the Los Angeles summer temperatures began to warm my glass, the finish was as gentle as any spirit I've tasted.
WHAT DID WE LEARN?
A few things are in order.
First, there was a clear winner. I would buy a full bottle of the Imperia on the basis of my taster. I would pass on the Zyr. Rated according to our usual system, the Imperia rates three stars for its uncommon complexity; the Zyr, while fine, isn't something I'd recommend, and especially so given it's priced 50% higher than capable vodka stalwarts like Belvedere and Ketel One.
Second, the side-by-side comparison greatly magnified small nuances of aroma, taste, and finish. So much so, I think I might end up tasting vodkas from this point forward against a common baseline of what I've thus far found to be the most neutral: Tito's, Reyka, and Stolichnaya.
Does this mean that I'm going to run out and spring for something like Beluga Gold Line vodka, which comes with a little hammer and brush to crack the label's clay seal? Probably not. I think even at $30 you're starting to hit a point of diminishing returns for vodka. However, I did enjoy the experiment, and I'd encourage you to play around with a few vodkas to see if you have a similar experience.