Reviewing vodka can be a challenging task. How does one praise a vodka? "This tastes even less than the last one I tried!" But while vodka is often described as being tasteless, odorless, colorless, etc. — rather like the perfect poison gas, now that I think about it — it's not true. To put the lie to this old saw, just place a glass of vodka next to a glass of water and see if you can't tell the difference.
Even beyond that, there are differences amongst different brands of vodka. The differences are not as profound as with other spirits, but they do exist. Vodka is a challenging spirit, though, even more so than with most of the liquor industry, because vodka is 75% marketing and hype. (Witness Grey Goose, a rather ordinary vodka that sells for $30 a bottle.)
So while it's easy to overpay for vodka, in essence making a charitable donation to the company's marketing budget, you don't want to underpay either. If you do, you'll end up with something like Popov that's better suited to stripping paint or polishing silverware than actual human consumption. What you're looking for is something in the middle, the sweet spot where drinkability and price are maximized.
That sweet spot is inhabited by Sobieski. There are others in the neighborhood that I've enjoyed as well. (Svedka and Burnett's come to mind.) But the best one I've found yet is Sobieski.
Sobieski is a Polish vodka distilled from rye. Nothing fancy or unusual, just a typical grain and a typical distillation process. The result is a smooth spirit that still has a nice bite to it.
Angus Winchester told me recently that, "We [Americans and Brits] don't drink vodka properly." He made the point that it's best consumed in the manner that the Russians do: very cold, neat, and in relatively small quantities at a time. (The Russians drink a lot, but they do so in small shots each time.) They also accompany their vodka with food, often lots of it.
So for this tasting I sampled Sobieski à la Russe. I put the bottle in the freezer for a couple hours to get it nice and cold, and poured myself a shot (about an ounce and a half in a tall shot glass).
The aroma is pure alcohol, understated and pleasant. It doesn't smell like something you'd use to clean out a cut.
The taste — well, it tastes like vodka. Like vodka's supposed to taste, I should say. Clean, slightly viscous, with a hint of grain. It has just enough burn going down to let you know you're drinking alcohol, but not enough to be unpleasant. The finish lingers on the tongue in a pleasant way. Simple, smooth and elegant.
As you'd expect, this vodka also works well in all the usual cocktails. I particularly like it with just a splash of cranberry juice. Again: simple.
Sobieski doesn't rank as highly for me as Stolichnaya – probably my favorite vodka — but it's loads better than Absolut. And much cheaper than both.
I'm always on the lookout for spirits that are inexpensive, yet demonstrate real quality. Sobieski definitely falls into that category.
Quality Grade: B+
Value Grade: A
Final Grade: A-