A Vodka Recommendation from a Longtime Skeptic | The Jewish Week | Food & Wine

A Vodka Recommendation from a Longtime Skeptic

A Vodka Recommendation from a Longtime Skeptic

Vodka neat/ Courtesy Russian Standard Original

A vodka primer from our L’Chaim columnist

Facebook icon
Twitter icon

I have long-harbored the view that vodka drinkers are simply folks who largely dislike the taste of more interesting forms of alcohol.

As such, I do not often drink vodka. Outside of occasional vodka-based cocktails or the odd drinks gathering with Russian friends, I have little occasion to even give vodka much consideration at all. Indeed, to my mind, vodka is easily the least-interesting of distilled spirits. This is why I rarely ever review or discuss vodkas.

This is not to say, as bourbon expert Chuck Cowdery has aptly put it, that all vodka brands are interchangeable or that “all vodkas are identical, anymore than any two glasses of water from different sources are identical. Humans can detect extremely subtle flavors and especially aromas, so the idea that some vodkas taste better than others is not fantasy…”

In truth, vodka is merely ethanol diluted with water—a colorless, odorless, and tasteless beverage. An 80° proof vodka is, after all, typically 40% ethanol and 60% water. This does not preclude vodka from having any character, aroma, taste, or color, though it does suggest that those vodka drinkers who insist upon appreciable positive sensory distinctions amongst vodka brands are either given to fantasy or are the bibulous equivalent of those humans who can hear a high frequency (50+ kHz) dog whistle.

The vast majority of American vodka brands start life as a grain-based ethanol, or grain neutral spirit (GNS) manufactured by one of the major producers, like the Illinois based Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), the Kansas based Midwest Grain Products (MGP), or the Iowa based Grain Processing Corporation (GPC). Note that each of these producers is based in states where most grains are farmed on an industrial scale. GNS, which is a fancy way of saying grain-based ethanol is, after all, a commodity used for beverages, medicines, solvents, and the like. Vodka producers buy this commodity on the basis of price and availability and either directly bottle it under whatever brand, or they first process it a bit to “make it their own” in, strictly speaking, merely a marketing sense.

I should note that flavored vodka is an entirely separate category to my mind, since the point is to infuse the ethanol with distinctive flavor, though these products are often made cheaply.

When drinking vodka, I tend to distinguish brands entirely by how effectively and affordably their vodka functions as a smooth, clean, and flavorless ethanol delivery solution. So my top brand is Russian Standard Original (40% abv; $20). It is both the top-selling premium vodka in Russia, and the top Russian vodka brand globally—which tells me all I need to know.

As British novelist Sir Kingsley Amis noted in his book Everyday Drinking, in Russia “they don't only drink to get drunk, they drink to stay drunk too, and no wonder.” While Russians toast “Na Zdorovie!” (“to [your] health!”), Russian Jews were always considered as simply, well, Jews by other Russians. So instead, stick with: L’Chaim!

Join The Discussion