Runners Up: Pride & Clarke and Gordon's
Liquor store shelves are sagging under the weight of so many brands of spirits, but we're determined to determine the best in every category. In this first tournament, we'll focus on vodka. Each brand will go head to head with another in the same price bracket in a blind taste test. The winner moves on to the next round, and the winning vodkas have a chance to beat higher-priced brands. Is $10 vodka just as good as the $30 brand? We'll see.
In this first bracket, we considered six brands of vodka that cost under $10 per 750mL bottle in a series of blind taste tests. Each vodka was judged on aroma, flavor, texture, aftertaste, and mixability. Were the vodkas harsh or smooth? Were they pleasant to sip, or painful? And did it make a difference in a Bloody Mary?
Round 1, Match 1: Pride & Clarke vs. Romanoff
Pride & Clarke Vodka
80 proof, around $7 for 750 mL This is a common well vodka at bars, and it smells recognizably like vodka, not like turpentine. It's pretty innocuous, with hints of lemon cleaning fluid up front, and pretty clean and smooth midpalate. The finish is a bit unpleasant, with hints of plastic, but it makes a clean contribution to a Bloody Mary.
80 proof, around $8/liter This vodka smells like vanilla and cream, but the flavor is offputtingly perfumey and a little musty, like rotten fruit. Those flavors come through in the Bloody Mary, too. We'll pass.
Match 1 Winner: Pride & Clarke
Round 1, Match 2: Barton vs. Nikolai
80 proof, around $8 for 750 mL This vodka had a strong rubbing-alcohol aroma and a slightly rubbery aftertaste, but we've had worse. The harshness and bitterness came out strongly when mixed into a Bloody Mary, though.
80 proof, around $8 for 750 mL Nikolai's aroma was less strong, and it's smoother and richer in the mouth; even a little creamy. This is a drinkable vodka, and it makes a solid, smooth and spicy Bloody Mary. (It's fine with juice, too.)
Match 2 Winner: Nikolai
Round 1, Match 3: Gordon's vs. Taaka
80 proof, around $9/liter "This smells like nail polish remover," remarked one taster. It's not super-smooth, and not super-clean tasting. Tasters noted a piney flavor, which worked fine when mixed.
80 proof, around $8 for 750 mL This had a mild aroma of lemon window cleaner. Though this vodka was a bit smoother up front, the burn was markedly more aggressive, and there was a fuel-like aftertaste. This vodka was even worse when mixed; it made for a metallic and unpleasant Bloody Mary.
Match 3 Winner: Gordon's
Round 2: The Best Vodka Under $10
After the initial matches, we tasted the winners Pride & Clarke, Nikolai, and Gordon's against each other in a second round of blind tasting to determine a champion.
All the tasters noted that the Gordon's was the most aromatic, and not necessarily in a good way. "The smell is a huge turnoff compared to the others," said one taster, though another taster did pick it as her favorite. Pride & Clarke won a few votes, but tasters complained that it had the most aggressive burn.
In the end, Nikolai won a narrow victory—even if it wasn't the top pick of every taster, no one picked it as the worst of the bunch. And for $10 vodka, that's about as well as you can do.
Will Nikolai beat more expensive vodkas as the tournament continues? Stay tuned.
Disclosure: all vodkas in this round except the Gordon's and Romanoff were samples provided for review.