Rarefied Russian Vodkas
Russia’s connection with vodka goes back a long way, possibly as far as the 12th century. Vodka is one vice that was common among royalty and peasantry alike; and while various czars over the centuries tried to limit or ban the spirit (despite the fact that most of them drank it themselves), all failed miserably. By the 18th century, vodka was not only legal but a big moneymaker for the aristocracy, which controlled the distilleries. The Bolshevik Revolution drove the distillers out along with the rest of the upper crust, and as they resettled in the West, they introduced Russia’s signature spirit to the rest of the world. In 1967, 50 years after the revolution, worldwide vodka sales outstripped those of gin for the first time. Russia’s national spirit now belonged to the world.
Today, vodka is made everywhere—from Japan to Texas—and distilled using everything from grapes to coconuts. Nevertheless, vodka will always be associated with Russia, and grain-based Russian vodka will, for serious drinkers, be the standard by which all other vodkas are judged. What follows are a few of the best brands coming out of Russia. You may have to look a little harder to find them, but you’ll be well rewarded for your efforts.
The Gold Standard
Upscale packaging and high-end products don’t always go hand in hand, but in this case the bottle corresponds with the spirit. Beluga’s pinnacle vodka, Gold Line, is lightly flavored with esoteric ingredients including rice extract and milk thistle, which gives it a fascinating balance between sweet and dry notes. It also offers just a hint of citrus. This is Robb Report’s reigning Best of the Best vodka, and with good reason.
Russia’s Crown Jewel
Jewel of Russia’s Ultra is made from a combination of rye and winter wheat, and it undergoes what the brand describes as “additional rectification treatment,” which supposedly eliminates almost all congeners—the impurities responsible for those morning-after headaches. While we can’t say for certain that a night spent with this Russian spirit won’t lead to a pounding headache, we can report that it’s quite smooth, with the softness of the wheat tempered by the slight bite of the rye. Also noteworthy is the stunning hand-painted bottle, which depicts a traditional Russian miniature scene and is signed by the artist.
We’ll get the bad news out of the way first. Sibirskaya’s Strong Russian vodka is not currently available in the United States. Produced by the Russian government, the spirit registers a hefty 45 percent alcohol by volume, or 90 proof—a significant upgrade in strength over your standard 80-proof vodkas. Despite the fact that Russia doesn’t export it to the States, Sibirskaya Strong has been tasted here; it recently won the Double Gold medal at the 2013 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. For now, we can only keep our fingers crossed that it will make a U.S. retail debut soon. Until then, this should be the vodka you look for first when you’re killing time in the duty-free.
The world is growing smaller every day. Want proof? Look at Zyr, a Russian vodka brand founded by a transplanted New Jersey native. Its founder’s hometown notwithstanding, the product is a quintessential Russian vodka, made in Russia, and comprising all Russian ingredients. It’s smooth and clean and provides just a hint of sweetness.
A Spirit of the Season
Outside of Poland’s Vestal, Kauffman’s vintage vodka is the only vodka that is bottled according to the year in which it was produced—the thought being that grain from different years produces different flavors. The brand’s wheat is sourced from a single harvest of carefully selected fields, and each vintage is limited to about 25,000 bottles.