There was a time when basic vodkas roamed the barroom earth. They came in normal bottles--real glass when you stepped up to the Smirnoff or Stoli level. Clean, but with a warming, alcohol burn, they mixed readily into orange juice or ginger beer or whatever.
But along came Bond (James Bond) and his "shaken, not stirred" vodka martini. Cocktails built around the odorless, colorless, tasteless spirit gained popularity about the same time. Suddenly--meaning over the next few decades--vodka stood at the top of America's liquor preference list.
Enter the premium vodka category.
An image-conscious nation, ever so willing to capitulate to brand identity, proved easy prey for the Grey Geese of the world. Distill grain or potato a few more times to smooth out the "flavor," package it in a pretty bottle and jack up the price--voila!--a generation ordering round after round of Grey Goose cosmos or Three Olives and Red Bull.
"I think it's a waste of money," says Jason Quiroga, bar manager at Lazare, in the heart of high-end vodka territory. "There's been a generational change. Palates are disintegrating; people don't taste things anymore, they just swallow what society gives them."
Seemingly true, as there's nothing about Grey Goose to justify the price. But that's not to say all vodkas are the same.
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Ultimat is a Polish brand distilled from potatoes and two different grains. On the nose, you sense wet hay and Visine (and I mean that in a good way). The flavor, such as it is, rolls pepper, bitter grass, dark bread and wheat chaff across the palate, with faint caramel notes and a long finish. It compares with XO, the French wheat vodka.
Oh, and there's the hand-blown cobalt bottle, the kind of thing that just irks Quiroga ("you're paying for glass," he says).
I consider it a very good vodka, refined and somewhat complex for this type of spirit--not the sort of thing you want to mix, but worth sipping at room temperature (the Eastern European way) or with a little ice...if you're the type who wants to spend $40 for a bottle of the stuff.
Really, I'm not that kind of person. So it may be best for me and other frugal sorts to defer to Quiroga, who advises "just stick with Monopolowa and save yourself from the crowd that likes to pose with a premium vodka in their hand."