As you gaze up the shelves at a nightclub bar or liquor store, vodka can get surprisingly expensive. Quickly. It doesn’t matter if you’re searching for the usual destination brands — Grey Goose, Belvedere, Ketel One — or something like Russo-Baltique, which is billed as “the most expensive vodka in the world” (and stolen from a Danish bar last month). Most of the value for that particular brand ($1.3 million!!!) lies in its packaging: The bottle is covered in over twelve pounds of gold and silver, and the cap is encrusted with diamonds (the bottle makes a cameo in the Netflix series House of Cards, FYI). In fact, packaging, celebrity endorsements, and marketing goes a long way towards explaining price in the vodka world.
Now, it seems a number of new ultra-premium brands are moving beyond status and offering something unique from the actual booze. While the prices aren’t Russian oligarch stratospheric, most run two or three times the cost of the standard top-shelf vodkas. Whiskey fans may deride all vodkas as tasting the same, but the fact is there are significant differences in quality and flavor that are into everything from the water sources to base grain or fruit to the distillation processes. It’s just possible these vodkas are worth cleaning out the piggy bank.
Launched in November, this partnership between Grey Goose cellar master François Thibault and Michelin-starred French chef Alain Ducasse is the second recent upgrade on the classic vodka (Grey Goose XO featured a splash of unaged Cognac eau-de-vie). Chef Ducasse’s goal in the partnership was to introduce a “gastronomic vodka” for food pairings. To achieve that, he and Thibault took the Goose’s regular French winter wheat and toasted it in Ducasse’s cocoa bean roaster. Three different toast levels (light, medium, and dark) were employed, adding subtle but distinctive notes of nuts, toasted bread, and chocolate. As a result, the vodka blends nicely with more vegetal mixers, standing out in the drink just a hair more than the original.
Woody Creek’s flagship label, Colorado Potato Vodka, is already pretty special, employing as it does the Rio Grande, a special breed of high-altitude potato that is perfectly suited for growing in The Centennial State. But the Reserve is another level of swag altogether. Made from Stobrawa, a rare heirloom Polish potato specifically grown to make great vodka, much of the cost for the final product involves sourcing and curating the seed, which requires special permission and care to bring to America.
“It was quite a process,” says head distiller David Matthews (not that Dave Matthews). “It makes an excellent vodka, with an amazing creamy mouthfeel.” And he’s right. The vodka is noticeably different and smooth with a hint of earthy flavor — the result of no filtration. Harvesting their own potatoes means they can only make small batches once each year. The flavor, moisture, and starch differs between those straight-from-the-field spuds versus potatoes that sit in a warehouse for months is night and day. “We call it a ‘martini in a glass.’ It really doesn’t need anything else,” says Matthews.
This is another vodka that emphasizes rare and unusual potatoes at its base. This limited release from Polish purveyor Chopin uses local Zuzanna and Hinga potatoes harvested at a peak starch content. The result is a round, viscous vodka with distinctive notes of earth, potato, stewed apples and apricots. If you want your vodka odorless and flavorless, this one is not for you (in fact, Chopin doesn’t even label the bottle as “vodka” to avoid a beat-down from the U.S. government, which likes its vodka “without distinctive character”). However, if you like your booze to actually taste like something, this one is it. Each batch is from a single harvest, or vintage, of potatoes, so the weather that year has a hand in crafting the finished product. Compare one vintage to another and you’re bound to find differences.
Perhaps the closest thing to a baller vodka on this list, Carbonadi is influenced in part by fine wines, with the heavy dark bottle and fancy script label reflective of that inspiration. Distilled at a longtime family distillery in northern Italy and bottled in California, the vodka is beautifully viscous, even at room temperature. It opens with a hint of fruit and sweetness, and closes with a smooth, spicy note. Though it smells like a standard vodka, you might try and convince yourself otherwise if you were tasting it blind. Components that add to the price include a five-fold distillation process through active charcoal and a final filtering through carbonado diamonds, a porous black diamond actually made up of many composite crystals in one stone. “We pressure through a custom chamber filled with 3,000 carats of uncut carbonados,” says CEO Ricky Miller. “Their microporous attributes extract impurities a conventional filter cannot.” The spirit then goes through a wine method called micro-oxygenation, which mimics the barrel-aging process. “It’s not just priced high to be priced high,” Miller insists. “The process is a very intricate one.”
Dan Aykroyd’s labor of love and conversation maker, Crystal Head, re-released Aurora last year. Despite the novelty skull container and Aykroyd’s insistence that aliens and crystals are a thing, this is a legit vodka out of Newfoundland, Canada. The cool factor is the iridescent skull inspired by Canada’s Northern Lights, but inside, the juice is crafted from English wheat and water from St. John’s, Newfoundland, for a dry, spicy, clean spirit. (The original Crystal Head is made from a corn base for a slightly sweeter vodka). The vodka is filtered first through activated charcoal, then through Herkimer “diamonds,” which are actually a form of quartz crystal. The process of applying the metallic finish through heat application means no two skulls are exactly the same.
If you’ve got some serious coin and don’t want all your money to go to crystal-encrusted Lalique bottles, consider this series of four limited-edition releases from Stoli Elit (already a delicious, cold-filtration upgrade from your average Stoli). By design, vodka is 60 percent water, so it stands to reason that better water makes for better drinking. In this case, the “better water” comes from specific, hard-to-access sources (like underground reservoirs beneath Himalayan glaciers, an Andean spring in Chile, or a remote lake in New Zealand). Trying the Stoli Elit Pristine Water Series side-by-side, there are most definitely unique distinctions among the smooth, subtle vodkas. Bonus: You still get some packaging goodies, like a hand-blown crystal bottle and gold-plated ice pick.
Feature image courtesy of Chopin Vodka/Facebook.