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The Vodka Verdict: Forever Fashionable or Forgettable Fad?
America’s Largest Vodka Tasting Finds Out What’s in the Pretty Bottle

Posted: December 7, 2004

By Jerald O’Kennard, jerald@tastings.com

Despite the best efforts of the sales and marketing whizzes in the spirits industry to flood the market with "premium", "super-premium", "ultra premium", and "mega-ultra-premium" vodka brands and confuse away customers with arcane and frequently absurd points of difference: stainless steel-blade harvested wheat vs iron-blade harvested rye; muy macho multiple distillations (more distillations = more orgasms, you know); and filtration through only the finest, virgin mummy linen, America has proven to be the most effective sponge for new, high-end vodka in history. And, the production and marketing engine shows no signs of slowing down.

In the annual vodka tasting of our International Review of Spirits Competition, we were surprised to see a record number of entries: thirty-nine regular (unflavored) vodkas and thirty-seven flavored vodkas. Of those seventy-five entries, a staggering thirty-three were brand new products in the US market. Where is all of this vodka coming from? Everywhere! Thirteen countries were represented. From the archetypal and original vodka regions of Russia, Poland, and Ukraine to New World upstarts in New Zealand, Canada, and the US.

The good news is that the level of quality of these vodkas is at an all time high. Twenty-eight of the vodkas were rated 90-points and above, another record number, with honors being shared by both traditional and nouveau producers. It seems that in order to be competitive in this newly crowded vodka market, that quality, and not just image, has become paramount. This is more good news for the consumer and represents a watershed (or is that water-of-life-shed?) moment for vodka in America. Healthy competition ushers in a new era of smooth and refined vodkas that truly justify their elevated prices.

Perhaps the competitive forces will help to stabilize and bring down prices, or maybe they will have the opposite effect and inspire a new kind of price war. We’ve seen that some boutique producers are pushing the envelope to see how a much we vodka lovers will pay for a new vodka category: "cult" vodka. Our jury is still out on whether all of these rarefied, $50-and-up "über-vodkas" are worth the money, but we are happy to report that most of the exceptional vodkas we reviewed this year were under the $30 retail mark, with two of the top ones under $20. This means that you can try a few of the following recommendations, enjoy a world-class vodka drinking experience, and still have some money left for the holidays. Na Zdrowie!

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