When Stolichnaya became the first Russian brand of vodka to be internationally exported in 1972, it was the hot ticket of premium vodkas. Since then, hundreds of new vodkas have been introduced, including 158 new brands in 2013 in the United States alone. However, in a now-crowded field of vodkas, the brand often called Stoli is still recognized for its quality and taste.
Historically, many vodka drinkers on this side of the Atlantic Ocean see vodka mainly as one to use in cocktails, mixed with other ingredients. As a result, vodkas that are very neutral in taste have dominated the market to a point where most people in North America, Latin America and the Caribbean believe vodka should not have much taste at all.
This view isn’t shared by people living in the “vodka belt” countries of Eastern and Northeastern Europe, where vodka is usually consumed neat, making flavor essential.
Stolichnaya Vodka Global Brand Ambassador Meagan Sacher, who visited Cayman in April to conduct two bartender training sessions on the brand, likens the difference in vodka styles to a wine-like Old World versus New World comparison, with Russia, Poland and the Baltic countries representing the Old World.
“Stoli is a classic Eastern Europe style,” she said. “It’s meant to have flavor and boldness. The tasteless style of vodka is more of a New World style.”
The popularity of flavored vodkas has shown that even vodka drinkers in the Americas want some kind of flavor, and Stoli has been a trendsetter in that market, leading the way with 16 different flavored vodkas by the end of 2013. Some of them, like Stoli Blueberi, have even become popular for shots served neat from a chilled bottle.
Then there’s Stoli Elit, the ultra-luxury vodka that is of such high quality and refined flavor that even some folks in the Americas are drinking this vodka neat, just as they do in Eastern Europe.
Stoli Vodka has been around since 1925. “Stolichnaya has a long history,” Sacher told bartenders during a training session in the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman’s restaurant Seven. “We’re coming up on our 90th anniversary and we continue to be one of the top-selling vodkas in the world.”
Stoli was originally created to supply the Kremlin and at the time, all of the vodka supplied to the Kremlin was called Stolichnaya, Sacher said, adding that it wasn’t until 1935 that the brand was formally created and the recipe officially registered.
In the late 1940s, after World War II, Stolichnaya moved part of its production process to Riga, Latvia, an arrangement that still exists today.
“People will often ask, ‘Is it Russian vodka or is it Latvian vodka?’” Sacher said. “The answer really is both. We like to say we were born in Russia and raised in Latvia.”
The grain used to produce Stoli is grown in Russia, and the fermentation and distillation process also take place there. However, the blending, filtering and bottling of all exported Stoli vodka takes place in Latvia, which is why export Stoli labels now say “Premium Vodka” instead of “Russian Vodka” on the front.
One of the reasons Stoli remains one of the best-selling vodkas in the world is its commitment to quality ingredients and production processes.
Unlike lower quality vodkas that use potatoes, corn, beets or other sugar sources, Stolichnaya is made from grains, primarily winter wheat with a small percentage of rye.
Although some vodka brands boast about being distilled four or five times, Stoli is purposely distilled exactly three times.
“Our belief is that if you’re starting with really high-quality ingredients, you don’t have to over process it,” Sacher said, noting that every distillation that a vodka goes through tends to lessen its flavor characteristics.
Stoli also removes a higher percentage of “heads” and “tails” of the distillate – the lower quality alcohol created during the beginning and end of distillation – than other vodka producers to ensure higher quality. This process also reduces the amount of methyl alcohol in the finished product.
“The higher the quality of spirit, the lower the percentage of methanol, which is what gives you the hangover,” Sacher said.
There is some methanol in every spirit that occurs naturally, but by law, producers have to limit the amount because of its toxicity.
“Stoli goes above and beyond what is required,” she said, noting that Stolichnaya contains much less methanol than other vodka brands, which is one reason it’s known for not causing hangovers.
Another quality process that sets Stoli apart from other vodka brands is its quadruple filtration process. All Stolichnaya vodka undergoes at least four filtrations through different materials, including sand, quartz, Russian birch charcoal and finally cloth.
“The filtration through the charcoal is the most important,” said Sacher. “This is what gives the vodka its flavor.”
Stoli Elit undergoes an additional proprietary filtration – which it calls freeze filtration – where the vodka is cooled to -18C for a minimum of 10 hours, a process that strips out impurities and gives Elit more density than other vodkas. When it was launched in 2004, it was called the world’s first ultra-luxury vodka.
Because of its high quality – Elit is currently one of only three vodkas in the ultra-luxury category – it’s perfect for drinking without mixers or ice, the same way people in Eastern Europe would do it.
“I recommend sipping it neat, that way you’ll really appreciate it,” said Sacher. “It’s all about how vodka was originally consumed and celebrating the spirit itself instead of masking it with mixers.”
Stolichnaya Vodka Global Brand Ambassador Meagan Sacher during a training session on the spirit in Seven Restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman.
Like North America, the Cayman Islands isn’t in the vodka belt, so the Stolichnaya vodkas are mostly used for cocktails here.
Sacher said she was surprised to find Stoli Premium in many bar wells on Grand Cayman.
“That’s great to see,” she said. “It’s a premium well spirit. In the U.S., you’ll often find vodka that comes in plastic bottles in the well.”
Many bars also carry Stoli Elit, which isn’t hard to spot because of its tall, slender, bottle design.
Stoli Premium, which has flavors of pepper, spice and citrus, works well as a base spirit for bold cocktails, everything from Bloody Marys and Caesars to Cosmopolitans and Screwdrivers.
“You can use the syrups and fruit juices and Stoli Premium will still be able to hold its own in these cocktails,” Sacher said.
If using Stoli Elit in a cocktail, Sacher said it works better with lighter flavors like cucumber, mint and a little citrus.
“It’s a great choice for a vodka martini or vodka on the rocks,” she said.
Stolichnaya uses an infusion process for its flavored vodkas, which makes them different than many other flavored vodkas, and perfect for cocktails.
“A lot of flavored vodkas have a kind of syrupy candy flavor,” Sacher said. “Stoli flavored vodkas taste more like you had a Stoli flavorless vodka and added a squeeze of fresh fruit.”
Because of this, Stoli flavored vodkas can be used to make very simple cocktails with few ingredients.
“I like to drink Stoli Peachik and soda,” she said, noting that the cocktail is not only tasty and low in calories, but also doesn’t require someone to have juices on hand.
Stoli also has an “Indulgent” line of flavored vodkas, which include Chocolat Kokonut, Salted Karamel and Chocolat Razberi.
“They are meant to target the savory flavors,” Sacher said, adding that while they can be used to make dessert-style cocktails, they also can make delicious cocktails for any time of the day. She recommended a cocktail of two ounces of Chocolat Kokonut mixed with one ounce each of pineapple juice and coconut water for a refreshing cocktail that can be enjoyed outside on the beach or by the pool.