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Vodka: Dear Little Water

Here’s the thing about vodka: With a history that dates as far back as the 13th century and spread throughout Eastern Europe, it’s tough to nail down an exact lineage; and you can make the stuff out of damn near anything that’s fermentable.

Vodka’s inherent character (or lack thereof) makes it attractive to those who like sublety  — since the good stuff has little, if any, taste, smell or color. In fact, in most Slavic languages, the word vodka means, “water”; its literal translation is “dear little water.”

You would perhaps be surprised (as were we) that vodka has become the most popular spirit consumed in America, accounting for more than 20 percent of all spirit consumption. We reckon it’s because you can mix it with just about everything.

Although the legendary potato is used in the production of some vodka, most brands today are made from grain — any grain, including rye, wheat and barley, though corn is typically the grain of choice. And, as popular as vodka is now, most Americans hadn’t heard of it until the 1930s — and, even then, it didn’t become a readily available consumer product until after World War II.

Being purists at the Kiddush Club, we decided to stick with straight up, classic vodka — unflavored, unadorned and unabashedly low-key. To give our recommendations a little gravitas, we pub-crawled to various bars within our orbit asking the professionals what they recommend. Here’s what we found:

KETEL ONE (750 ml) $23.99
Far and away the most recommended brand according to the mixologists we spoke with at Biga in Southfield, the Rugby Grille in Birmingham and Ocean Prime in Troy, this Dutch export has been made by the same family for nearly 300 years. The name is derived from Distilleerketel No. 1, the original coal-fired copper pot used to distill the alcohol. By all accounts, this is the vodka for vodka drinkers. No need for adding anything to this one.

GREY GOOSE (750 ml) $29.98
Considered the gold standard nowadays, this French import is lauded for its clean, crisp and smooth taste (if you can taste it at all). With a 96 pt. rating by the National Beverage Tasting Institute, it is what most people think of when the top shelf is being offered. The bartender at Toast in Birmingham said Grey Goose is, hands down, the most popular vodka he consistently serves to customers.

SMIRNOFF (750 ml) $13.99 “Best Buy”
Your best-buy vodka for mixed drinks, said all five bartenders we asked. There’s no need to spend double the money if you are planning to make cocktails. Smirnoff, the quintessentially Russian-sounding brand that got its footing in Kentucky, marketed as “white whiskey,” is now owned by a British conglomerate. At less than half the price of Grey Goose, this vodka only scored six points less (90 pt.) in ratings by the National Beverage Tasting Institute.

VOX VODKA (750 ml) $23.99
A second Dutch offering, this dark-horse contender may not have the name recognition of its more famous (or better marketed) cousin, but vodka lovers who are in the know say Vox is perhaps the smoothest tasting vodka produced today. Made from 100 percent wheat, then distilled five times, its unique bottle and name that rhymes with lox could become your standard Bloody Mary accoutrement at Sunday brunch.

BELVEDERE (750 ml) $26.99
Rumored to be Pope John Paul II’s guilty pleasure, this Polish import is a strong contender to both Ketel and Grey Goose. Made from rye, then distilled four times in small batches, it’s a good seller because of its good taste. Perfect for gimlets and martinis, so say the barkeeps at Ocean Prime, the Rugby Grille and the Corner Bar in Birmingham. It may be a top-shelf price, but we’re told you always pay through the nose for the good stuff! RT



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