Vodka: Not just for comrades anymore

Once upon a time in America, the idea of a non-Russian vodka was sacrilege to sophisticated drinkers. Then, Polish brands began making inroads, then French, and even Swedish and Dutch.

But this is, after all, America, and we like to be No. 1. There was no reason that in this land of abundance we shouldn't be able to turn some of the world's best grains and potatoes and purest water into top- shelf vodka.

So, we did.

At one time, the only commercially viable vodka made in America was Smirnoff, brought here early in the 20th Century by expatriate Russians. Today, several hundred native brands compete for attention as the dominant white spirit.

Vodka can be created from virtually any organic matter, most frequently grain. By U.S. law, basic vodka (the name is the diminutive of the Russian word voda, or water) must be a neutral grain spirit -- colorless, odorless, tasteless. All of which might make it seem like a waste of time to make or drink. But, the filtration process, the quality and combinations of ingredients, and how the distillate holds up to various temperatures and mixes help create nuances. Aficionados debate those with all the ferocity of rabid sports fans defending their teams.

Also, when your product sits on shelves alongside literally dozens of competitors, packaging is paramount to attracting attention. That's why vodka bottles often are a study in artistic concepts.

We tested four unflavored domestic vodkas to assess a range of styles and price points. Each is available locally, although it may take a bit of hunting. Each was sampled three ways: (1.) straight from the bottle, (2.) from the freezer where the fluid becomes syrupy, and (3.) as part of a martini, arguably the most popular way to drink vodka.

Here's the rundown, with average retail prices for 750ml bottles of 80 proof vodka:

Hangar 1 ($39.99) -- This handcrafted offering (seen above) splits from the pack in its base material: the Viognier grape. It's the work of Jorg Rupf, a renowned maker of fruit brandies in his St. George Distillery housed in a former airplane hangar on Alameda Island, near San Francisco. The bottle is a cross between a sleek, aerodynamic look and the classic Russian style.

Inside: Stands up to any competitor, foreign or domestic, for clarity, smoothness and lightly nuanced reaction on the palate. The freezer treatment draws out the taste of the neutral grape spirits blended into the vodka.

Blue Ice ($23.99) -- The name refers to the source of the Rocky Mountain spring water used in making the vodka-- glacial ice so compressed it turns blue from lack of oxygen. The rectangular, blue-coated bottle was created in Germany, sculpted to resemble a rugged glacier.

Inside: Slightly sweet, a tipoff that potatoes are the main ingredient. "Freezing" didn't release any more flavor, but either way it entwined well with Noilly Pratt dry vermouth for a pleasing cocktail.

Peconika ($27.99)-- The unofficial house vodka of the Governor's Mansion in Albany is a mix of 80 percent Midwestern grain and 20 percent potatoes grown near Long Island's Great Peconic Bay. It was introduced to the public in 1999, and just two years later won a double gold in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. The elegantly ribbed, frosted bottle provides a glimpse of a pastoral scene painted by a Hamptons artist.

Inside: This quadruple-distilled liquid is remarkably smooth; absolutely no hint of the ethyl alcohol present in many competitors. From the freezer, it's crisp, with a velvety mouthfeel. The grain/potato mixture provides the body of the former and the clean hint of sweetness of the latter, both of which endured in a martini.

Liquid Ice ($30.99) -- Five organic grains (wheat, oat, barley, corn, rye), distilled four times and filtered three times through charcoal and lava rock to get rid of those harsh alcohols called fusil oils. The Snake River runs under the Idaho distillery, providing water from a pure aquifer. The amazing bottle looks frozen inside a rectangle of ice.

Inside: Remarkably smooth, especially when chilled. There is almost a smoky quality to the bouquet and middle taste.

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