By Bruce Collier
As someone who prizes full-flavored spirits like whiskey and gin, I sometimes wonder what all the fuss is about vodka. As Code of Federal Regulations, Chapter 27, Sec. 5.22(a)(1) puts it, “‘Vodka’ is neutral spirits so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” Tempting.
Maybe the best way to “get” vodka is to check out product from a bona fide vodka culture. And that means Russia, where the “little water” (a literal translation of the word) means hospitality, fellowship, and something to drink with your pickled cucumbers, caviar, and salo (cured fatback). Here are five examples, all found locally. Prices are for a 750 ml bottle.
Russian Standard Gold
Distilled in St. Petersburg. The website gets very science-y, with Professor Mendeleev and his determination of the exact balance of water and alcohol. The year 1894 is cited as the date of the “underpinning” of the Russian Standard for quality. It uses pure glacial water from Lake Ladoga, winter wheat grown in the black soil of the Russian steppes. It’s very romantic stuff.
Russian Standard is made according to an “ancient Siberian vodka recipe made popular by Peter the Great.” It contains extracts of “Siberian Golden Root,” which appears to be Siberian Rhodiola. Many health claims are made for this root, and as you might guess, they are not accepted by the scientific community, though homeopathy seems more open to its claims.
I tried it at room temperature, neat. The vodka has little or no scent; what there is smells of fresh, clean water. The body is slightly oily, with a creamy quality and warmth rather than burn. There’s an unsweetened coffee cream aftertaste on the finish, a hint of orange peel. It does not taste like alcohol.
Triple distilled with Siberian spring water, produced at Mariinsk, Russia. The label advises, “best consumed with caviar.” Tasted chilled, neat. Faintly fruity, mineral wet-stone scent. Oily and dense body. Taste: again with the whipped cream, almost a marshmallow fluff, with a slight vanilla sugar sweetness. Gentle warmth, a good slow sipper. Nothing harsh about it.
Hammer & Sickle
Chilled, neat. Distilled from wheat “hand-cleared in the Black Earth region” and distilled and filtered six times. Black Earth region is an area of extremely rich and fertile soil the western section of the former U.S.S.R. Any smell is almost nonexistent—it’s astringent, a little wet mineral scent. The body is oily (less so than Beluga), starchy. There’s a bit more of a burn, and a faint unsalted butter finish.
Wheat and rye blend, harvested from good old “rich black soil,” yada yada. The label asserts: “Nine filtrations, five distillations and a three-stage taste test,” which made me wonder if it would have any taste. I drank it chilled, neat. There was vanilla cream, then lemon zest—but only after after it warmed a little—and citrus pith. It was a good lesson—not all vodka tastes best frozen or even chilled.
Stoli first came to the U.S. in 1972, via a trade deal with Pepsi Cola. Since the U.S.S.R. broke up there are actually “two” companies—it’s disputed—one owned by the Russian state and one privately owned. The former is entirely produced in Russia. The latter is in Latvia, using Latvian water but Russian (“certified alpha grade”) alcohol. Concede that it’s Russian—that label is iconic.
When I lived in New York in the 1980s, if you wanted to pass as a sophisticate you had a choice—Stolichnaya, Absolut (Sweden) or Finlandia (guess). I also remember that in 1983, when the Soviet Russian military downed a Korean Airlines jet—with 269 passengers aboard—Stolichnaya was removed from many New York bars and liquor stores. Interestingly, the legendary Russian Tea Room did not join the boycott—they were founded by émigré Tsarists, not civilian-shooting Communists, they said.
I tasted this chilled, neat. Nose: clean wet stone scent, like rocks in a stream, and a hint of freshly cleaned swimming pool and citrus furniture polish. Taste: powdered sugar taste at the edges, and that creamy, oily body that chilled vodka seems to have. Grapefruit pith aftertaste.
With all that marketing emphasis on “purity” and simple ingredients, it’s not surprising that Russian vodka culture stresses drinking the stuff neat.