NOT long ago, Stolichnaya was the only Russian vodka Americans seemed to know about. But if you look around today, you can find up to 35 brands -- and the pace of new arrivals is picking up.
"It seems like a new brand is coming on every day," says John Nigoghosian, vodka buyer at Mission Liquor in Pasadena. This could keep going for a while, because there are about 300 vodka distilleries in Russia.
The collapse of the Soviet government and its monopoly on distilling is perhaps the ultimate reason for this surge. Add to that the recent American craze for premium vodkas from all sorts of places -- France (Grey Goose), Scandinavia (Finlandia), even Alameda, Calif. (Hangar One). Why not go to the source?
Another important reason for the boom in Russian imports has to be that more Americans are looking at vodka the Russian way -- not as a mixer but as something to take neat, freezer-cold, with snacks, or zakuski. Drinking vodka this way can reveal subtle, fascinating distinctions between brands. How can you ever be satisfied with a single brand again?
Such is the mystique of Russian vodka (and so high are the marketing stakes) that there was recently a legal squabble in the U.S. courts over ads and statements by Russian Standard -- the best-selling brand in Russia -- claiming that Stolichnaya is actually a Latvian vodka and not "authentically Russian."
In the end, the court deferred to the opinion of the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus (NAD). Division director Andrea Levine notes, "Because Stolichnaya is distilled in Russia from Russian wheat and Russian yeast, it is inaccurate to deny its Russian origin," although it's filtered and bottled in Latvia.
Vodka is distilled at a high proof then redistilled at least twice more to make it smoother on the palate. "Now there's a competition for who can distill the vodka more times," Nigoghosian says. "Imperia is boasting that it's distilled eight times. Or distillers may say they filter it so and so many times -- one vodka is filtered 14 times."
Add to vodka's extreme purity the fact that it's not aged, and you have what some might consider a flavorless beverage -- at least compared with wine or whiskey. It has no "nose" except for a general alcohol aroma. Appreciating vodka calls for a different approach to tasting. Forget about sipping and swirling.
"I always tell people, you don't taste vodka the way you taste wine," says Larry Nicola, whose Nic's Beverly Hills features vodka tastings in a refrigerated room called the Vodbox. "You don't taste it on the nose and the top of the tongue, but at the back of the tongue and the throat, so you almost have to shoot it.
"And it's meant to be tasted cold. We keep the Vodbox at 28 degrees."
Chilled to perfection
Al MEYMARIAN at Mission Liquor agrees. "The colder vodka is, the better it tastes," he says. "Even cheap vodka can taste good when it's really cold. I've served vodka so cold it was almost slush." Well chilled, vodka develops sweetness and a luxurious, almost oily smoothness.
"I look for a smooth taste, with a little sweetness in the throat," Nicola says. "The good ones have structure, they have shoulders -- like wine, though not as dramatically. And then I look for the flavors: creamy, silky, maybe cinnamon. Jewel of Russia Ultra tastes a little like vanilla custard."
Russians prefer small, narrow, cylindrical glasses, chilled as cold as the vodka. Etiquette demands that you maintain eye contact with your friends (it's a little disreputable to drink vodka alone) while you throw back a shot.
"We always drink with a toast," says Mikayel Israyelyan, owner of Romanov restaurant in Studio City. "It's a camaraderie thing. People open their hearts and tell each other how they feel. And you know, you can't toast somebody with a glass of water. Not to have a glass of vodka with people is disrespectful."
The zakuski served with vodka tend to be rich and/or salty things, such as caviar, smoked fish, cold cuts and pickles.
"Smoked fish is always complementary with vodka," Israyelyan says. "And since it's rich, like caviar, it coats your stomach and keeps you from getting drunk too fast.
"The best zakuski with vodka, though, is pickles. That's traditional. Yes, vodka is great with caviar, but ordinary people have always drunk vodka with pickles. They're like the ginger in sushi, they refresh your palate. Russians also like to sniff some rye bread after a shot."
With this explosion in the number of vodkas available, how do you choose the right one? Many brands are marketed with all sorts of gimmicks and come-ons.