Vodka is such an indelible and integral part of Russian culture that the spirit’s name was taken from the Russian word for water, voda. (The addition of the “k” is a diminutive, so, vodka actually means “little water.”) Vodka’s role in Russian history and culture is commemorated in the Vodka Museum of Moscow. Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible formed the first vodka monopoly in 1540, but, records of vodka’s use as both medicine and libation go back to at least the 1200s.
Vodka can start with a mash of grain, beets, potatoes or even molasses. Contrary to popular belief, the best Russian vodka is made from grain such as rye or wheat, not potatoes. Russian vodka makers regard potatoes as a cheaper, and generally inferior, option. However, potatoes are used in some highly rated Polish vodkas.
Vodka is not a spirit that carries a lot of the flavor of the grains it’s made with like whiskeys do; instead, the best vodka is characterized by how clean and smooth it is. As one vodka authority said, “if you can taste your vodka, buy better vodka.” However, each vodka has a distinct aroma, taste, finish and burn. Because a quality vodka contains only water and alcohol, it does not need to age as other liquors do. Usually, premium vodkas will go through a 48-hour resting period before bottling. Many vodka aficionados insist that vodka should be unflavored, and only ever served neat. However, others throughout the world enjoy flavored vodkas, and praise this neutral spirit’s role as a team player in a wide variety of mixed drinks.
Vodka, particularly super-premium vodkas, have seen a rise in popularity in the United States. As of 2011, vodka is the highest-selling liquor in the US, with nearly 63 million cases sold. If you want to join the crowd, check out some of the offerings below:
This premium vodka has been distilled in western Siberia since 1900. It’s made with Russian wheat and quartz-filtered. This vodka has small amounts of honey and milk thistle, which lead to a sweet, semi-creamy, but ultimately mild and smooth flavor. Beluga Noble is Russia’s number one selling premium vodka.
Good luck getting your hands on this luxury vodka. Only a limited number of bottles of this Moscow vodka are produced each year; the 2012 release includes just 5000 bottles. Kauffman Luxury Vodka uses single harvests of wheat for each batch and is released in vintages like wine. Kauffman is distilled 14 times and filtered twice. Famous sommelier Christian Navarro says this vodka has an exceptionally smooth taste and wonderful texture. Bottles typically sell for $100-$200, depending on the rarity of the vintage.
Russian Standard Imperia Vodka
This vodka is filtered through charcoal five times, and then through Ural Mountain crystal. This distillery has revived a recipe first approved for quality and purity by the Russian Tsar in 1894. This high-end vodka was introduced to the states with a $3 million party at Liberty Island in New York. Fans like this vodka’s assertive burn and clean flavor. As one reviewer said, “I like all three vodkas from Russian Standard, they burn clean moment of and morning after.”
This is one of the newer super-premium Russian vodkas on the market. It’s made with rye and wheat. Fans like its floral aroma, sweet finish and aggressive burn. Zyr is created using a 9-5-3 formula: nine filtrations, five distillations, and three tastings for quality. This vodka is perfect for drinking chilled and neat. Reviewers rate it over premium vodkas from other parts of Europe such as Poland’s Belvedere and France’s Grey Goose.
This super premium vodka is hard to find, but worth seeking out. Hammer+Sickle is a recent offering from the Klin Groupe. This vodka starts with winter wheat grown in the arctic Black Earth area of Russia. It comes in a distinctive angular bottle that looks great on your home bar. The distiller has decided recently to expand, not into a new vodka offering, but a complementary product: tobacco connoisseurs will be able to enjoy their ice-cold vodka with a fine Hammer + Sickle cigar.
Jewel of Russia Classic
Produced with artesian well water and a mix of rye and wheat, this vodka is ultra smooth due to a five stage slow filtration process. The distillers use an age-old recipe for true Russian vodka character. As one Vodkaphile.com reviewer said, “Jewel of Russia is the best vodka I have ever tried!! It is soooo smooth it scares me sometimes. I will always buy it for special occasions.”
Five Lakes Vodka
This is one of the highest-rated vodkas produced in Siberia. The vodka’s makers say that the mineral content of the water used to make Five Lakes helps prevent hangovers. Five Lakes is one of the top 10 selling vodkas worldwide.
Competitors at Russian Standard raised a controversy by revealing that Stoli is actually now bottled in Latvia, but Stolichnaya reps say that their vodka is still sourced and distilled in Russia. The most well-known vodka in the US, this is popular with mixed drink fans.
This high end offering from Stolichnaya is triple-distilled and filtered through a unique freezing process, which results in a noticeably smoother drink. As the liquor is chilled to 0 degrees Fahrenheit, impurities become more apparent and are removed to give this drink a clean, crisp taste.
Green Mark Original Vodka
If you are looking for an authentic Soviet-era vodka, this is a good way to go. Green Mark painstakingly recreates the vodka it produced under the strictly-regulated circumstances of the Soviet Union. This is not a super-smooth premium; Green Label has a harsher taste, and is more of a working man’s drink. It’s recommended that you drink this vodka ice cold or use it in mixed drinks.
This vodka’s branding plays to the popularity of current President and former Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Putinka is a mid-range vodka that is easy on the wallet. Fans describe as incredibly smooth for the price, and say that it retains its clean character even at room temperature.
This distiller opts for Russian rye instead of the more common wheat, and water from a 250 meter deep spring. Parliament’s unique filtering process involves using both natural salts an milk to remove all impurities. Parliament was awarded a gold medal by the International Review of Spirits. Reviewers report a spicy flavor and silky mouthfeel.
If you’re headed for the lower shelf, Smirnoff is one of your better choices. It has a price tag that’s far lower than its premium brethren, but in blind tests, often beats higher end brands like Absolut and Grey Goose. If you prefer your vodka in a mixed drink, Smirnoff is a perfectly respectable choice.
Got some cash to burn? Perhaps you’d like to try the world’s most expensive vodka. Russo Baltique, released in 2008, was offered at $1.3 million per bottle. It seems that the super-super-premium vodka’s star may have faded; Hollywood Heavy reported in 2011 that three bottles of the spirit were offered as a bonus for purchasers of the $1 million Dartz Pombron armored SUV.
Once you find a quality vodka, check out our tips on the best ways to enjoy it.