Vodka is a clear spirit that is distilled from wheat, rye, barley, malt, potatoes, corn, or grapes, and sometimes also blended with fruit, vanilla, herbs, spices, or some other natural flavoring. The mash grain or potato base, once fermented, is distilled for a day or so to a high proof, then filtered and diluted with water. The standard is 40-percent alcohol by volume (ABV), or 80 proof. But unlike other spirits, vodka is considered at its best when it is at its purest-just 40 percent ethanol alcohol with 60 percent water.
Unless blended with additives or “impurities,” vodka should be a colorless, odorless, and flavorless neutral spirit, often described as “the blank canvass of alcohol” on which you can paint your own masterpiece. So, if vodka is meant to be indistinguishable in terms of taste and aroma, how do we determine which brand is best?
One way of distinguishing among brands is through the distillation and filtering processes that were observed in the preparation. During distillation, the fermented liquid is vaporized, then condensed by cooling repeatedly. The longer the distillation process, the better. After distillation comes filtering, and the types of filtering processes can vary. Some brands have special proprietary distillation and filtering processes that clearly distinguishes them from the competition.
Ciroc for instance, uses a lemon-peel distillation process that results in the lemony taste and aroma of their product. Smirnoff, for example, uses deactivated charcoal rather than the usual carbon for filtration. The calcium in the wood-based charcoal filters results in a smoother, less burning sensation in the mouth. Some brands, on the other hand, add nitrogen after filtering, which also leads to a smoother feel in the mouth. Then there is actor Dan Aykroyd’s Crystal Head vodka, which is reportedly distilled four times and filtered seven times, with the last three going through real Herkimer diamond crystal filters.
Despite differences in the distillation and filtration processes, most people typically still won’t be able to distinguish an expensive vodka with a high alcohol content from a cheaper vodka with a lower alcohol content just by blind taste-testing alone. Thus, when you choose to buy the expensive vodka instead of the cheaper one, chances are you are paying more because of the added cost of advertising, packaging, and marketing rather than for any perceivable variances in quality.
For instance, FiftyBest.com, after holding a blind tasting of 27 imported vodkas with 15 pre-qualified judges, lists the following ten at the top of the fifty best vodka brands in the world: Purity, Belvedere, Ozone, Punzone, Silver Lake, North Sea, Spud, Slovenia, Kozuba & Sons, and Russian Standard. Yet, of these, only Russian Standard made it into the list of vodka brands that consumers prefer to buy the most.
The 10 best vodka brands in the world based on sales volume in million 9-liter cases are:
- Diageo’s Smirnoff Vodka, which sold 25.6 million 9-liter cases last year, remains the world’s top-selling vodka brand, with over 35 different labels of flavored Smirnoff vodka drinks on the market. Recently, the company launched a repackaged image for its flagship Smirnoff Red bottles, now with a clear glass background and a footer label featuring the brand’s shield, crown, and signature designs.
- Pernod Ricard’s Absolut Vodka, which sold 11.1 million 9-liter cases last year, has retained its place as the second best-selling vodka brand in the world market.
- Khortytsa, with 7.1 million 9-liter cases sold, is third in the global market and is the dominant vodka brand in the Ukraine with its seven distinct vodka labels.
- Owned by the Bayadera Group, Khlibniy Dar, with 6.6 million 9-liter cases sold, is another established Ukrainian vodka brand that comes in six variant labels.
- Alcohol Siberia Group’s Pyat Ozer, with 5.5 million 9-liter cases sold, is the world’s largest domestic Russian vodka brand.
- Finlandia, with 5.2 million 9-liter cases sold, has recently been named Vodka Brand Champion for the second year running by The Spirits Business magazine. With a taste and aroma that have been described as having vanilla, coconut, almond, and woodruff notes, this Polish vodka brand is uniquely flavored with bison grass tincture, which also gives the drink its distinctive yellowish color.
- Synergy’s Belenkaya, with 4.7 million 9-liter cases sold, is claimed to be produced using the cleanest artesian well water that goes through 13 meters of coal filter in a 9-step purification process.
- Constellation Brands’ Svedka vodka, with 4.2 million 9-liter cases sold, is manufactured by Lantmannen, a Swedish cooperative, for the New York-based company.
- Green Mark, with 4.2 million 9-liter cases sold and owned by Roust (formerly Russian Standard), was a Gold Medal winner with a 94-point rating during the 2011 Beverage Testing Institute’s International Review of Spirits. It is one of the mainstream vodka brands in Russia.
- US-based Brown-Foreman Corporation’s Finlandia, with 4.1 million 9-liter cases sold, is produced in Finland from six-row barley and pure glacial spring water at the Koskenkorva facility.