“There are various issues that bring home to me, as a bad-tempered, middle-aged person, my utter estrangement from the’ youth’….one is vodka. A survey has revealed that Brits now prefer vodka to whisky or gin. How did that happen? Vodka: the petrol-tasting substance Russians used to drink in small glasses that they would then throw into the fireplace before bursting aggressively into tears.”
-Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, 15 March 2017
Luckily for me, I’m neither middle-aged or estranged from ‘youth’! Times move on, and vodka is a different drink these days.
The World’s Best Vodka winners are being announced today so we’re having some with our beetroot-infused, lax-topped blini– but which to choose? This year’s winner (2017), both overall, and in the ‘neutral’ category, is Nemiroff / Premium De Luxe from the Ukraine. But there are a host of others to try, for one reason or another.
I’m off on a culinary tour of eastern Europe this summer so I’m researching which brands I should be seeking out in each of my stop off points. I’m starting in the UK and coming back via Berlin, so I’ve included vodkas from both those countries as well. And none of the vodkas below, I promise, taste of petrol.
What about flavoured vodkas? Why are they not included?
I sat next to an elderly gent some years ago at dinner. I’d heard he had an interest in vodka and I mentioned a famous London restaurant where they offered a whole selection of different flavoured ones as a pre-prandial. I mentioned that I especially liked one with a black pepper flavour. He turned to me with ill-disguised disgust. “The really good stuff isn’t flavoured” he told me stiffly.
A few decades later I had a chance to savour a few of the non-flavoured vodkas of which he spoke while ‘researching’ in the Vodka Museum in St Petersburg. I began to see, or rather taste, what he meant. So this guide, with one exception, does not include flavoured vodkas. Serve these simply, plain and cold.
Here are the best that I’ve unearthed:
Best vodka from the UK
- Porter’s Perfection, awarded four and a half stars by Difford’s Guide. Made from apples.
- The ultra sustainable Sapling vodka.
- Wild Knight, creamy and elegant. Launched halfway through 2016. Made with barley. Follow this link for an interview with the distillers.
- Adnams Longshore Premium. Intense, roasted cereals (barley, oats and wheat). Long finish. Winner of many awards.
- Chase Vodka. Potato-based made in Herefordshire. Winner of many awards.
- Sipsmith. Produced in small batches at a West London micro-distillery, barley-based. No filtration, instead it’s made in a copper still (named Prudence!)
- Three Olives vodka, made from wheat
- Valt, made in Scotland from malted barley
Best vodka from Sweden
- Absolut ELYX – recommended by many, winner of much. Looks amazing! Absolut is the fourth most purchased vodka brand in the world. It’s wheat-based.
- Svedka – crisp and clean – made from wheat
- Purity – organic, made from winter wheat and barley
Best vodka from Estonia
- Viru Valge. Included by both The Street and Shortlist in their top ten world best. ‘Understated, subtle, refined’.
Best vodka from Latvia
- Stolichnaya, or Stoli: Bit contentious this. There’s currently a dispute as to the ownership of this brand between the Russian state-owned company FKP Sojuzplodoimport (which produces and distributes from Russia) and the privately-owned SPI Group (which produces and distributes from Latvia). The alcohol used by the SPI Group comes from Russia, but the water is Latvian. The best the company produces is Elit, a double-gold award winner.
- Riga Black. Light, clear, cold and crispy flavour and smooth aftertaste. Uses a thorough 7 step filtration method which includes the use of black carbon, hence the name.
Best vodka from Lithuania
- Stumbras – the premium organic won the Gold medal at the 2016 New York World Wine & Spirits Competition.
Best vodka from Belarus
- Bulbash №1 Zubrovaya Premium – this is a flavoured one, but I’m including it in the line up as it has a very delicate flavour – herbal, slightly almond – and in 2016 it won the World Vodka Awards best flavoured vodka category.
- Platinka, rye-based. Silver medal winner, Fifty Best
Best vodka from Poland
- Poniatowski. Won a gold medal on the Tastings website. Tastes, among other things, of porcelain… I’m none the wiser!
- Konik’s Tail. Developed by Kosovo-born Pleurat Shabani after extensive research. This vodka combines: spelt – ‘The Happy Grain’, nutty, earthy, full-bodied; rye – ‘The Dancing Grain’, classic, peppery, jumps on the tongue; wheat – ‘The Smiling Grain’, a sliced sweetness and long finish
- Siwucha: included in Shortlist’s top ten. An ‘incompletely rectified’ Polish vodka – not filtered to within an inch of its life and therefore a slightly grey colour and as near to old-fashioned vodka as you can get these days.
- Luksusowa: a potato vodka (one of the few) which has won endless awards, and has a Beverage Testing Institute score of 93 out of 100
- Belvedere: a very well-known brand which uses rye.
“This [Belvedere] is distilled and bottled in Poland, made from 100% rye grain, which gives it a sharp, caraway breeziness, and it has the softness of fine angora.”
Victoria Moore, How to Drink
- Sobieski: citron and vanilla. This company prides itself on its plain packaging.
- Pravda: the name means ‘naked truth,’ (like the Russian newspaper). Comes in an eye catching frosted, crackle-glazed glass bottle with a huge fake violet gemstone attached to the front – this company’s packaging is the opposite in concept to Sobieski.
- Chopin: another potato vodka
- Zubrówka: very famous Polish brand with a bison on the label and a stem of bison grass in the bottle – in the vodka itself. It is made from bison grass. According to Victoria Moore, in How To Drink, this is “the one commercial flavoured vodka that stands out from the rest, and which I usually have in my freezer.”
- Snow Leopard: Snow Leopard is made at the distillery in Poland, in Polmos Lublin, 125 miles from Warsaw. Master distiller, Joanna Dawidowicz, has been making award winning vodkas for over thirty years. This is made from spelt. This is an ancient grain with a tough husk which protects against pollutants and results in a fresh, nutty taste – with also some vanilla and pepper. The vodka is made in small batches and filtered twice over charcoal resulting in a particularly smooth, creamy taste. It’s won seven Gold medals and one Vodka Masters. Snow Leopard was developed to help raise funds to save snow leopards from extinction.
Best vodka from Slovenia
- Apostolska (made by Dana)
Best vodka from Germany
- Magic Crystal: received the Gold Medal out of 73 tested vodkas at the 2012 blind tasting of the Beverage Tasting Institute
- Berliner Bären: made from wheat: mild, smooth, velvety
- Blavod – made in Germany, by Distil, a British company. This is arrestingly black due to the inclusion of catechu, an extract derived from a Burmese tree. Aftertaste is spicy. Good with ice and cranberry juice.
“Snowdrifts had swaddled Voronezh a couple of days before; now the city glittered under a crust of ice. Light streamed from every surface…’It must be about twenty, I suppose,’ he said, peeling layers of clothing from me. ‘The perfect temperature- everything looks wonderful, it’s too cold to work, the vodka’s chilled by the times it’s home from the kiosk…'”
-Charlotte Hobson, Black Earth City
This post is dedicated to Quintin Hoare.