What’s the Best Russian Vodka?
Guide to Vodka from Sophie’s Homeland – Russia
The history of vodka in itself is a contentious one, with both Poland and Russia trying to stake claim to this globally-revered spirit, but quite honestly that’s a history battle that we’ll happily stay out of. Today we’ll consider Russian vodka exclusively: what aficionados look for in it, what characteristics define it, and what you need to know about when you’re standing in front of that veritable wall of vodka at your local liquor store.
A Brief History:
The first written usage of the word vodka in an official Russian document is dated by the decree of Empress Elizabeth of 8 June 1751, which regulated the ownership of vodka distilleries. This was largely due to the fact that vodka is extraordinarily easy and inexpensive to make, meaning the government was losing out on a potentially profitable taxation situation. By the 1860s, due to the government policy of promoting consumption of state-manufactured vodka, it became the drink of choice for many Russians. In 1863, the government monopoly on vodka production was repealed, causing prices to plummet and making vodka available even to low-income citizens. By 1911, vodka comprised nearly 90% of all alcohol consumed in Russia.
So What Makes A Vodka Different?
As a ‘neutral’ spirit, there are limitations on how much difference even the most sophisticated palate can discern between brands. The most important things to consider when comparing vodkas are the following:
Water source: Good water makes for good vodka, with brands using everything from glacial runoff to ancient wells.
Starch source: Ultimately this is what gives the vodka its ‘flavor’. Potato, rye, wheat and beetroot are some of the most common in Russia.
Distillation: This helps to clarify the vodka, removing unwanted flavors and impurities. Some vodkas are distilled up to six or more times.
Filtration: This gives the vodka it’s final ‘polish’, resulting in the finished product. Many brands use charcoal, with some brands even going to far as to use charcoal made from trees in specific forests.
Russian Vodka Brands And Attributes
Russian Standard Gold
Using an ancient Siberian recipe, this vodka is distilled from ‘winter wheat’, giving it an exceptionally clean, smooth flavor. What truly sets this brand apart, though, is the addition of Siberian ginseng, which lends to a peppery finish (ideal for giving your Mule an extra bite).
The classic, there was a time this vodka was worth more than the Russian Ruble, so people took to using it as a de facto currency. Quadruple distilled through quartz, sand, charcoal and finally cloth. Made from a mixture of wheat and rye, this vodka will stand up straight on ice, or mixed in a cocktail.
Made in Moscow by a New Jersey native who took his immigrant great-grandfather’s recipe back ‘home’, this vodka is distilled five times, filtered nine times, and taste-tested three times before making it into the bottle.
From one of Russia’s oldest distilleries, Mamont uses water from a well deep in the Altai mountain region. Also made from winter wheat, this vodka is distilled six times before being finished through silver birch charcoal. The result is a vodka that’s clear, crisp, and perfect for sipping neat, ice cold out of the freezer.
Made from water drawn deep from within the Siberian bedrock, Beluga Noble is triple-distilled before being ‘rested’ for thirty days. Notable for a citrus sweetness with notes of honey, this is a favorite among aficionados for pairing with peppery mixes like ginger ale or ginger beer.
Produced outside Moscow, this winter-wheat distilled vodka doesn’t have the levels of distillation or filtration of the others, but remains a favorite among native Russians as a perfect vodka for mixing. Notes of vanilla and an almost mentholated mouthfeel are defining characteristics.
Okay, so technically this is spirit hails from the Ukraine, but given that the history of this distillery goes back nearly 150 years, it’s technically been Russian a few times as wars were won and lost. Using water from a 450 million year-old underground aquifer, Nemiroff has won countless awards for it’s exceptionally smooth, balanced profile and taste.