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"Russian vodka is the spirits-world equivalent of fine French wine," says Anthony Baker, a veteran of such bars as New York's The Aviary and The Grill. "You can just assume they do it better," he says. "So it's what I choose when I want to bring the best vodka I can bring."
The country that, in all likelihood, invented the spirit in the 14th century likes its vodkas big and bold, to throwback between bites. "Historically, vodka and Russian cuisine have very strong bonds. In Russia, it is a tradition to drink vodka when celebrating with family or friends eating cornichons, pickled tomatoes, bread with butter and caviar, boiled potatoes with butter and dill, pickled cabbage, fresh herring with onion, and borscht with sour cream," says Russian-born mixologist Slava Borisov, head bartender at Travelle at The Langham in Chicago.
Though Tony Abou-Ganim, author of Vodka Distilled enjoys Russian vodka in a cocktail and with food, too, he suggests, "To really appreciate it, drink it straight out of the freezer in a little frozen glass and enjoy all those flavors of the raw material and stylistic differences that show themselves as it warms up. That's the beauty of Russian vodka."
Best Overall: Jewel of Russia Ultra Black Label
Region: Russia | ABV: 40% | Tasting notes: Pepper, Minerals, Wheat, Cream
This "gorgeous" bottle offers "everything you want in a vodka," Abou-Ganim declares. "It's silky-smooth and complex with layers of flavor and a long finish." Rather than pushing for neutrality as so many New World producers do, the makers of this premium bottle "leave a certain amount of minerality on the finish," he says. "It's peppery but with a really elegant texture."
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Best Splurge: Beluga Gold Line
Region: Russia | ABV: 40% | Tasting notes: Lavender, Cream of Wheat, Wild Herbs
Borisov calls this "one of the most impressive vodkas from Russia." Sold alongside a small wooden hammer that you need in order to open the wax seal, the bottle's luxury design matches the spirit's drinking characteristics. "It is Beluga’s philosophy to have the vodka rest after each step of the production. The final resting period is 90 days," he explains. "This allows Beluga to reach perfect balance and harmony." Five times filtered, it's extremely smooth and round with "delightful floral notes and a creamy aftertaste."
Best Budget: Russian Standard
Region: Russia | ABV: 40% | Tasting notes: Pepper, Bread, Cream
"It's one of the more readily available Russian vodkas on the market," says Abou-Ganim, and at less than $20, it's also quite affordable. But don't let the low price tag fool you; this is a top-notch spirit, made using pure glacial water and charcoal-filtered four times. "It really represents Russian vodka's character," Abou-Ganim explains. "It's big, bold, and spicy, and you can taste the rye and wheat."
Best for Sipping: Zyr
Region: Russia | ABV: 40% | Tasting notes: White Pepper, Orange Peel, Baking Spices
Abou-Ganim calls this "sleeper brand" made from a classic blend of wheat and rye "a little more refined, a little more elegant" than most Russian vodkas. He drinks it frozen in a 1.5-ounce crystal glass. "I like the reveal that the cold vodka provides as it gradually warms and you sip it," he says, noting "complex" waves of flavor in this one, from peppery spice to citrus and then clove, coriander, anise, and honey blossom.
Best for Moscow Mules: Russian Standard Gold
Region: Russia | ABV: 40% | Tasting notes: Vanilla, Caramel, Almonds, Lemon
Infused (but not flavored) with Siberian golden root, this vodka makes for a transporting Moscow Mule. The mid-level bottle from Russian Standard, it is produced, like the rest of the line, from winter wheat, which Abou-Ganim explains gives a "malty graininess" and a "rich creamy sweetness" that pair "beautifully" with spicy-sweet ginger beer. When making the drink, Borisov prefers "to serve it as intended: in a copper cup to make sure the cocktail temperature stays as low as possible for as long as possible."
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Best Traditional: Polugar Classic Rye Vodka
Region: Russia | ABV: 38.5% | Tasting notes: Rye bread, Black Pepper, Honey, Almonds
"To know what vodka's ancestors taste like, try this rare product," suggests Borisov. Made according to a traditional recipe and method of production, it is distilled through copper alembic pots for a spirit that's "closer to unaged single malt scotch than a column-still vodka," he observes. The process allows Polugar "to create aromatic, flavorful 'bread wine' as it was made in the 18th and 19th centuries." He recommends tasting it at room temperature and pairing it with traditional Russian foods to experience the full range of its flavors.
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Best Siberian: Husky Vodka
Region: Russia | ABV: 40% | Tasting notes: Mineral water, Vanilla, Cream
Named for the area's famed dog breed and produced in Omsk where local wheat grows during the very short summer, this is "one of the most truly Siberian vodkas you could ever try," says Borisov. "One of the most important components of vodka is water, and Husky uses crystal clean water from the Arctic Circle which brings extreme freshness and crispness." Filtered at low temperatures to freeze away unwanted additives, it's "a perfect cocktail vodka," he says.
Best over Ice: Mamont Siberian Vodka
Region: Russia | ABV: 40% | Tasting notes: Marshmallow, Cedar Nut, Anise
Named in honor of the Yukagir mammoth specimen which was found in Siberia in 2002, this bottle in the shape of a mammoth tusk is filled with a vodka distilled from single-estate grain—rye, wheat, and millet—from Russia's Altai region. "One of the most distinctive features of this vodka is a cedar nut tincture which is added to enrich the aroma and flavor," says Borisov. "It's absolutely great for sipping with a big crystal ice cube."
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Best with Food: Jewel of Russia Classic Wheat and Rye Vodka
Region: Russia | ABV: 40% | Tasting notes: Butter, Pepper, Minerals
Abou-Ganim loves this wheat-and-rye vodka's "rich, full mouthfeel, its rye spiciness, and the sweet buttery notes that the wheat provides." It's a "lovely vodka to drink all by itself," he says, "but we miss a great opportunity" if we don't also serve it alongside food. Gravlax, charcuterie, foie gras, pickled herring, caviar, or any other smoked, pickled, cured, or salted foods pair beautifully with the "robust style" of this "beautiful, velvety liquid."
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Betsy Andrews is a freelance journalist specializing in food and drink, travel, and the environment, and has been writing about wine and spirits for two decades. Betsy has written for Liquor.com since May 2020. Her work has appeared in Food & Wine, Eating Well, The Wall Street Journal, SevenFifty Daily, VinePair, Wine Enthusiast, Travel & Leisure, and more.