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Voting on the best vodka

Find out which bev ranked number one with our VIPs

Premium vodka has the makings of the world’s greatest marketing scam. Not only does every brand seem to be someone’s “best of,” but it’s also supposed to be water with a buzz.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives defines vodka as a neutral spirit so distilled “as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.” However, aficiondos say “ultra premium” isn’t a ripoff because the best vodkas aren’t blank slates. They’re subtly flavored spirits, ones that reflect the quality of ingredients and purity of processing.

Still, the lure of a tall, pretty bottle may mean more than fine ingredients and precise processing.

“People want to associate with product that matches their level of sophistication,” says Melkon Khosrovian of Modern Spirits, a boutique line of flavored vodkas made in L.A. “They’re looking for something that stands up to the same level of quality and price of other liquors they drink like scotch or cognac.”

V Life Weekend pitted nine unflavored vodkas, from low-end to ultra premium, against four palates. From Santa Monica’s Voda, which carries more than 100 brands of vodka, we brought in general manager Mitch Hunter and “vodka sommelier” Mark Sandstrom. Also tasting were Khosrovian and wine and spirits broker/educator Kevin Riggs.

All vodkas were poured blind, at room temperature. Popov, a favorite of college dormitories, was filtered five times through a Pur water filter. Test vodkas are all 80 proof and available at Vendome Liquor in Beverly Hills, unless otherwise noted.

Best pour

Stolichnaya (Russia)
Bragging rights: Best in Show (World Spirits Competition, 2005)
Made from: wheat
Cost: $17.99 (750 mL)
Our tasters agreed with the WSC. Quadruple-filtered through charcoal, quartz (twice) and woven cloth, Stoli produced what our panel described as “a classic.” Slight sweetness and smooth texture that starts tight, but opens to an expansive finish.

Low

Popov (U.S.)
Bragging rights: Hard to find one that’s cheaper
Made from: blended grains
Cost: $9.49 (1 liter)
“Very light, almost like water,” says Hunter. Added filtration makes it smooth, but a little flat. Disappears quickly from the mouth, no back end.

Monopolowa (Austria)
Bragging rights: 93 point rating (Beverage Tasting Institute, 2002)
Made from: potato
Cost: $9.99 (1 liter, Trader Joe’s)
“Bright and snappy with a minty pencil finish,” says Riggs. Oily mouth feel makes the vodka linger.

Mid-range

Smirnoff (U.S.)
Bragging rights: No. 1 of 21 vodkas (New York Times tasting panel, January 2005)
Made from: corn
Cost: $12.49 (750 mL)
“You can smell the rubbing alcohol,” says Sandstrom. Huge heat, bumps along your throat with a diesel coating at the finish.

Tito’s Handmade (U.S.)
Bragging rights: Four stars (Spirit Journal, 2001)
Made from: corn
Cost: $17.99 (750 mL, Trader Joe’s)
Bold vodka with vanilla and French oak flavor, gritty rough texture. “It almost made my tongue numb,” says Hunter.

High

Grey Goose (France)
Bragging rights: Best-tasting vodka in the world (Beverage Testing Institute, 1998)
Made from: French wheat
Cost: $26.99 (750 mL)
Smooth and clean with very little nose. Highly distilled. “The thinker’s vodka,” says Riggs. “You have to really dive in to figure it out.”

Hangar One (U.S.)
Bragging rights: “Among the most perfumed, exotic white spirits ever distilled” (Forbes FYI, 2002)
Made from: wheat and viognier grapes
Cost: $30.99 (750 mL)
European style, not overly distilled. Strong citrus flavor that turns to heat on the back end. “It has a medicinal flavor,” says Khosrovian.

Ultra Premium

Stolichnaya Elit (Russia)
Bragging rights: Packaging won Best of Show (9th Annual Beverage Packaging Global Design Awards)
Made from: wheat
Cost: $59.99 (750 mL)
Clean and clear. Ordinary. “Not a lot of complexity,” says Sandstrom.

Jean-Marc XO (France)
Bragging rights: Vodka of the year (Beverage Testing Institute, 2004)
Made from: French wheat
Cost: $70 (750 mL)
Cinnamon, fenugreek, fennel, cayenne with a round mouth feel. “It’s anything but unflavored,” says Khosrovian.

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