What have I learned after a week of drinking nothing but vodka?
I've learned that, despite the fact that we're distilling alcohol until it is neutral, vodka is not a neutral spirit. In a blind tasting, vodkas can be differentiated from one another based on flavor and texture.
I've learned that, despite the fact that vodka can be made from nearly anything today (quinoa, grapes, even whey), I found the traditional rye, wheat, and potato-based vodkas to be the most pleasurable. While I don't think I would be able to identify the characteristics of each one blindly (or even knowingly), it's just the way it turned out.
Speaking of base materials, I'm not sure that I now agree with a commonly-held assumption in the liquor world that potato vodkas are creamier and have a more supple mouthfeel. The two roundest vodkas I tasted this week were the Absolut Elyx and the Jewel of Russia vodkas. Both are distilled from wheat. Even the Russian Standard (wheat and ginseng) was rounder on the palate than the Corbin Sweet Potato vodka or the Chopin Potato vodka. Based on everything I tasted this week, wheat vodkas seemed to be the creamiest.
I've learned that when you remove almost all flavor from alcohol, you're left with the purest form of alcohol appreciation. While many people decry the absence of flavor in vodka (usually saying something like "I want to taste my alcohol"), I'm not sure you can get a more alcohol-y flavor that straight vodka. When you drink gin you're not "tasting alcohol" you're tasting herbs and spices that have been macerated in vodka. When you drink whiskey you're not tasting the alcohol as much as you're tasting the wood. Vodka appreciation is alcohol appreciation in its truest, purest, least-pretentious form. Much like vodka itself, one's enjoyment of booze gets distilled until everything becomes clear and pure and there's nowhere to hide. Vodka is about drinking. Good vodka is about enjoying each sip. I've never been more sure of how much I like to drink as I have been while drinking vodka.
I've also learned that agriculture plays a big role in my perception of vodka. I'm not simply interested in the best tasting vodka, but rather the most traditional. I appreciate the process and the story. I appreciate the idea of vodka as a way to make use of extra grain and I like the idea of "farm vodka."
So which vodkas were my favorites? That's tough to say outright, but I think I could categorize them:
Easiest vodka to recognize quality in: Absolut Elyx. My wife and I both picked this out of a blind tasting. It tastes expensive. It also is more expensive than any vodka I tasted this week.
Best bang for your buck: Belvedere. The Polish juggernaut was one of the first "premium" vodkas on the market and it continues to be a hot deal for the quality. I'm going to get the price down to $22 next week. For that price you can get two bottles for the price of one Elyx. All rye-based, if you're pulling bottles from the freezer this really hits the spot.
Creamiest vodka: I know that some people are mainly interested in the "smoothest" spirits. Jewel of Russia is definitely the smoothest vodka I've tasted.
Best Artisanal Vodka: Potocki Polish vodka. Also rye-based, you'll pay a little more for the bottle, but the quality is there. A bit lighter and leaner on the palate, almost watery, but in a good way.
Vodka that's too cheap to be good?: Greek Mark. It's really, really good vodka and it's $12. You can taste the difference if you do a side-by-side comparison with more expensive brands, but how many of us are going to do that?
Best Russian vodka that's not Russian: If you're feeling political right now, there's a great vodka we just started carrying called Real Russian vodka which is made by a Russian guy who lives in Chicago from midwestern wheat. It's $18 and we're the only store in CA to have it. It has that same wheat texture that some of the "real" Russian vodkas had.
Personal Favorite: I can't really explain why, but I'm really feeling the Russian Standard Gold right now. It's round and slightly herbaceous. I've got it in the freezer and I had two glasses last night before bed. Yum.