Vodka may have a reputation for being a neutral spirit, but this doesn't mean it lacks texture or taste. To showcase the range of differences in vodkas, Alex Makovetsky, a vodka connoisseur of Russian descent, hosted a tasting.
He poured three very different kinds of vodkas: an expensive premium craft-distilled vodka, a moderately priced national brand and an inexpensive one from a plastic bottle. In these blind tastings, the differences were apparent right away. We sipped each from an icy frosted shot glass, let it rest on our tongues, then noted the effects as it slid down our throats.
The first vodka -- the premium -- was silky and smooth and radiated warmth throughout my entire being after the first sip; I felt as if the room's thermostat had been turned up 10 degrees. Makovetsky said he could taste a hint of nutty wheat and sweet rye.
The midpriced vodka was less distinct, lacking any body at all and its heat seemed harsh. The last vodka was rough and sharp and burned the back of my throat.
"The distilling and filtering determine the quality of vodka," Makovetsky said. Vodka is filtered through charcoal to remove impurities after it's distilled. The best vodkas are carefully distilled in small batches at least twice, some up to nine times, then filtered.
Russia is the birthplace of vodka but every country in the world makes its own version using whatever starch it grows, be it sugar cane, sorghum, barley or corn. Poland began making vodka from potatoes because the price of grain was too high. "Premium vodkas are made of wheat or rye," said Andy Merten of Haskell's in Minneapolis. "These grains tend to give the spirit more body and a smoother finish."
Given the enormous differences in price, are premium vodkas worth it? When Makovetsky mixed cranberry juice with the vodkas we had tasted straight up, they all seemed pretty much the same. Why pay $70 for a top brand if you can make the same drink with a bottle that costs $30 or less?
If you prefer your vodka neat, on the rocks or in a martini, go ahead and splurge. According to Merten, the most popular premiums include Tito's wheat- and rye-based vodka from Texas, Prairie vodka made of Minnesota wheat and Death's Door vodka, from Wisconsin wheat.
Beth Dooley is the author of "The Northern Heartland Kitchen."