It would be ridiculous to hold all of Russia accountable for the recent uptick in militarism and autocracy. I don’t look at buying Russian vodka as giving Putin a big thumbs up, but some brands really seem to be suffering from poor optics in these uncertain political times.
I mean, as an American, how would you feel about buying a vodka named Legend of Kremlin? What about Oligarch, or perhaps Russian Billionaire? All seem to wink and nod at the idea that overt kleptocracy is a pretty neat thing to aspire to. I mean, better to be drinking your luxury vodka in the warmth of your gold-plated hunting lodge than to be among those miserable fucks drinking regular vodka and freezing their asses off in some depressing Brezhnev-era tenement block, am I right?
To me, the branding is an insinuation of the kind of luxury that sees the world as a zero sum game. You’ve won when you have all the aluminum. You’re the big dog when your entourage stops the poor kids from getting their hand prints on your Lambo. You’re in charge when elections go the way you want them to. To paraphrase Walter White from Breaking Bad, pour yourself a glass of the world’s best vodka and suddenly you are the one who knocks.
Granted, Beluga isn’t quite so obvious, but it’s a dog whistle that refers to Russia’s most infamous export: the caviar of the beluga sturgeon, which is often smuggled by the Russian mob along with drugs and cold-war era small arms. I just watched a Youtube video about caviar smuggling in Kazhakstan and even the smugglers are blown away by how stupid expensive this stuff is. The guy says, "Three thousand for a kilo. It’s possible to buy an old car for that kind of money!" Which is as true here in the states as it is in Kazhakstan— my last car provided me with three and a half years of reliable transportation. I could have theoretically paid for it with four slimy pounds of a very particular kind of fish egg.
So maybe I’m wrong, but to me “Beluga” is nod to the mob and the power that comes with exerting heavy-handed control of a finite resource. Yeah, yeah: enough metaphor and hyperbole, I hear you say. How's it taste?
Fine. And there's the irony. Beluga’s not a bad vodka: certainly there isn’t anything wrong with it. It’s more flavorful than Stoli and doesn’t break the bank. The bottle’s really pretty, too: what with its metal fish and what not. There are some core flavors to be sussed out, including lime. It’s pleasingly and unexpectedly creamy.
But you know what? It’s about 25% more than a lot of similar vodkas, and at the end of the day it’s still not tremendously distinctive. There are also some clear faults, too, such as a very particular kind of medicinal sharpness in the arrival and finish. I’ve definitely had worse as far as vodkas go, but I’ve also had better.
All in all, Beluga’s capable, but is more expensive and not quite as good as either Reyka, Belvedere, Tito’s, or Ketel One—if your budget is $20, I’d go with all of those stalwarts before Beluga. I really dig the metallic fish inlaid in the bottle, though. And hell, your vodka drinking friends probably don’t have a preference anyway, so if you’re looking for a gift, this might be a neat and esoteric choice.