The two most well-known Russian vodkas available in the U.S.—Smirnoff and Stolichnaya—have dubious recent histories. Smirnoff, the best-selling spirit in the world, is produced by a British company, and is Russian in name alone. And Stolichnaya isn't considered as swanky a premium brand in its home country as it is in other lands—never mind the fact that a murky trademark battle between a Russian exporter and a Dutch distiller has blurred its bona fides.
Back on home turf, many vodka-makers have followed Tariko's example, providing fine product in fine bottles, priced well beyond the reach of the kopeck collectors who comprise the meat of Russia's vodka-drinking public. And this is where it gets tricky, because once vodka goes glam, there goes the charm of falling on your chin, bleeding onto your shirtfront, and trying to figure out how you wound up in a shawarma kiosk with three Azeri guys and two dogs with no hair. The saving grace here is that these vodkas are the real Russian article, considered top-of-the-line here and here alone, even as their equivalents—Polish, French, Scandinavian, British, and Dutch—have won firm footing in New York, L.A., and other places where people think they know it all.
Once I grabbed my notebook and my guests were seated in the loge, things began politely enough. Everyone's clothes were still on. The neighbors had not yet called to complain about the music, nor had they been bullied into a panicked retreat. The vodka poured out in a thick, fine-looking, chilled syrup.
Putinka Limited Edition
The first bottle cracked was the oddest of all, for it was called Putinka, after the Russian president. Putinka's owners claim that Vladimir V. Putin himself holds no interest in the drink, that the name is the product of a public solicitation. This has not stopped anti-Kremlin protesters from carrying bottles of this vodka during marches, raising it high among the banners. But Putinka's P.R. man was eager to dispel the rumored connection. "It's not like you're drinking Putin," he politely explained. "You don't want to drink Putin." Ah, but to pretend. The Leader of All the Russias—as the czar used to be known—went down hard, not smooth, as could be expected. The aftertaste was metallic, much like you would notice after having a gun barrel stuck in your maw. One of our group, Arkady, remarked that Ukraine and Georgia were already familiar with this taste. GRADE: C
Next up was Etalon, which means "echelon," or "standard." This vodka, introduced in 2004, is produced in Moscow's famous state-controlled Cristall distillery (not to be confused with France's Cristal champagne). The bottle is shaped like a pyramid, which, the company says, "accumulates special energy, which positively affects the spirit inside." A stereogram sticker of a Kremlin tower, attached to the back of the clear glass vessel, loomed through the vodka bottle. Etalon's makers claim that this two-dimensional image provides a useful treatment for nearsightedness, as a way to "relax tired eyes and strengthen eye muscles." After several bouts with Putinka and Etalon, I could imagine a point in the evening where pyramids and holograms would provide the only help. Etalon vodka offered a rich, full flavor that didn't stick around too long. Very smooth, so smooth as to demand several more pours down the same un-bumpy path. GRADE: A-
Veda Black Ice
Veda takes its name from an ancient Russian verb, vedat, meaning "to know." By this time, it was beginning to get difficult to know anything. Veda, after Russian Standard, is the most popular premium vodka here, and Black Ice is its new top-end bottle, launched this year. This vodka is ice-filtered through a screen made of platinum, which is a word that grabs Russians' attention. After a few drinks of this stuff, another friend, Olga, sank into the couch, able only to read the writing on the bottle, where a snake curled around a Latin motto: "Know thyself, know life." As I poured out several more shots, I noticed someone had cranked up the music as loud as it would go. How long had it been that way? Black Ice went down dangerously well, a quick, cool splash on the tonsils, before disappearing in a short fiery burst. GRADE: A
This was a great marketing coup. G8 vodka appeared in time for this past July's G8 summit in St. Petersburg.Capitalizing on the fact that this consortium of the world's top seven economies—plus Russia—has no official name, the makers of this vodka were free to adopt the term G8 as their own. A perfectly sneaky deed, with a bottle to match. It looks like the kind of thing you would fill with bathtub vodka, the fabled samogon. Official-looking stamps cover the label, along with the words "By Order of the Foreign Ministry for the G8." All bogus. This was the one bottle in our test that had no plastic filter jammed into the spout. These spouts (there's something infuriatingly childproof about them) are awful, making for slow, messy pours and lots of vain bottle-shaking. Vika would find out, however, that if one were accidentally to knock over a bottle of G8, much of the G8 would end up on the carpet. This would be a shame, since G8 vodka, a highly drinkable idea, provided a pleasant, tasteful kick that shook us from Veda's comfortable vapors. GRADE: B
Russian Standard Imperia
The company says that Imperia's water is extracted from the glacial Lake Ladoga, outside St. Petersburg. The spirits undergo eight distillations—double the Russian standard for "luxury"—then two charcoal filtrations, to remove impurities, and two quartz filtrations, to "energize" the vodka. That goes a long way toward mythologizing this product, which provides the gold standard for Russian vodka, with sales exceeding one million cases a year. By the time we got around to tasting it, the neighbors had come to complain about all of the shouting, and then had run off down the hall in some kind of terror. There was a blouse balled up in the corner. Arkady parceled out shots with abandon. It may have been in my head, but Imperia actually appeared to relieve my thirst. This was the danger zone, when vodka started going down like water. GRADE: A+
Flagman Night Landing
Was that moonlight or sunlight pouring through the window? Why was there a shallow pool of vodka covering the entire glass tabletop? These questions and many others would go unanswered. It was time for Flagman, which has the distinction of being the "Official Purveyor to the Moscow Kremlin." In his day, Stalin compelled his subordinates to work beside him late into the evening, lending them what's known as a "Kremlin complexion." Many more nights like this one, and we would also have pale skin, sunken eyes, and that particular stare of inner hunger. But duty called, Olga kept dancing, and Flagman, which means flagship, poured out in icy floes. A heck of a drink, good enough to penetrate this fog and leave a familiar impression of robust invincibility. GRADE: B+
There were five more bottles, countless more shots of Belaya Zolota, Parliament, Beluga, Rusky Brilliant, and Yuri Dolgoruki. But the quality of my note-keeping quickly fell off into oblivion. In the days to come, as I recovered myself and discovered my notebook in a heap of chewed gum and mysterious ash, I was able to read my final note of that evening. It went like this: "Ah … Vika," trailing off into a vile scrawl.
And so I was left with that abbreviated evaluation of today's new breed of premium Russian vodkas. They must be good.
Brett Forrest has written for Vanity Fair, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, ESPN The Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and Fortune.
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