Adventures in a Giant Box of Booze: Sobieski Vodka

Adventures in a Giant Box of Booze: Sobieski Vodka

The latest interesting bottle to arrive on my doorstep was a bottle of Sobieski Vodka It’s a Polish import whose U.S. minions sent me the sample. I haven’t written about Vodka before, excepting on how it relates to the Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo, but this is a great opportunity to do so.
I probably mix with Vodka more than any other spirit (if you don’t count the Gin for Pegus), and I am one of those folks who can actually tell the difference between many brands by taste. I have won a few bets on that ability. I have also shocked bartenders on two occasions, several years apart, by sending back Martinis that were mixed with Absolut, when I had specified other brands (and no, I didn’t see them do it). That said, I share some of the snootiness about Vodka that characterizes so may cocktailians out there, i.e. Vodkas are sometimes more distinguishable by their Madison Avenue offices, than by what goes on at the distillery. Unlike most other spirits, quality Vodka is usually defined by its absence of character. The trace, or not so trace, elements that distinguish one brand from another are usually negatives. I think that brand loyalty in Vodka is in part a function of one’s tolerance of, familiarity with, or occasionally affection for a particular set of impurities, and in part a function of marketing effectiveness (more on marketing later).
So making a decision about the Vodka to buy is like an Economics study. You chart your tolerance for ingredients you don’t like against the cost of the product, and apply a fudge factor for the size of your own personal wallet. Where the lines intersect you will find a number of brands, and you choose one. That final decision will be based on local availability and/or the fiendish cleverness of the marketing dudes each employs. In the past, I’ve mentally balanced the lines in two places: One for frozen shots or Martinis, and a cheaper one for mixing other cocktails.
This brings us to Sobieski. As I said, it is a Polish brand and is the number one premium vodka in its homeland. I am a particular fan of Polish Vodka. For years, I have kept a bottle of either Belvedere or Chopin at home for making Martinis. For all my bravado, I cannot taste the difference between these two. This is interesting, since Chopin is a potato Vodka and Belvedere, like Sobieski, has a pure rye base. I just find something I really like in Polish Vodkas. Perhaps it is the water, perhaps it is the pixie dust of little Polish Wodka Gremlins…. I was very interested to see how the Sobieski would hold up to its more famous (in America anyway) countrymen.
I mixed myself three scrupulously identical small Martinis: Sobieski, Chopin, and Skyy (my usual mixing Vodka). When at their coldest, all three were excellent. But I sipped very slowly, and let them warm up. The rough edges that distinguish a Vodka get more distinguishable as it warms, and time, as Craddock says, makes a difference. The Skyy was still acceptable, but not the match of the other two. The Sobieski remained every bit as good as the Chopin, and I’m not sure I could tell the difference between the two without a lot more training than would be good for me.
This leaves me very excited, actually.

Why? Seems like you are damning with faint praise here. Sobieski is just about a good as another brand. Um, Whoopeee?!?

Actually, no. It is not faint praise at all to say that the Sobieski is as good as the Chopin. I’ve deliberately left out one important characteristic of Sobieski, its price. You see, in Ohio at least, Sobieski is about 25% the cost of Chopin. Not 25% less, mind you. See?

Umm, yeah.
That could make a difference.

Exactly. That’s why I nattered on at the start about about Economics and about mixing versus Martini Vodkas. Sobieski tastes like a serious premium Vodka, but is priced right in the middle of the Vodkas I usually buy for mixing Cosmopolitans. That, folks, is a find. Of course, your tastes in impurities (or Vodka Gremlin droppings, or whatever) may vary.
In fact, I question their pricing as a marketing decision. It will be hard to get American consumers to give this liquor credit for being as fine as it is, when it sells so cheaply. I have the evidence of my own taste buds, and my inner marketing victim tries to reject the concept. The rest of the brand’s marketing is actually pretty brilliant. Let’s look one of the slogans from the Sobieski website, which manages to appeal both to the cocktail snob and the oh cut the crap common man in me at the same time.

I love this. Sure, there are ultra-pure Vodkas like Stoli Elit that I might like a little better in a Martini. A little bit. But Cut The Crap Boy can buy a bottle of Cointreau for the difference in price…. And Cocktail Snob Boy snorts, Vodka isn’t Single Malt Scotch or premium Gin! Plenty of us would argue that there are no Great Vodkas. Some are very good, but what matters with this spirit is being good enough. And Sobieski is actually more than good enough for me.
It won’t be for everyone. No spirit is. And it probably won’t sound as impressive to the hot chick on the barstool next to you as Grey Goose will. But if you like the Polish school of Vodka, you and your wallet ought to try it out. Let the hot chick focus on your nice watch instead.

  1. Brian

    19 August

    This is my new favorite vodka. A friend brought me to a party that Sobieski threw here in NY as a guest, and I figured, “Free vodka; can’t be all that bad.” I completely assumed this was another $30 a bottle vodka, just playing the Polish angle, because it was pretty damn good, and aside from Belvedere (which seems to have turned itself into the Eurotrash brand) And Chopin, which I barely see anywhere, it’s the only Polish vodka I seem to hear much about these days. I agree with you – I think it’s every bit as good as Belvedere and hadn’t realized it was so inexpensive until someone mentioned it later that evening. I thought they must have gotten their info wrong so I googled it, and, sure enough, it’s shockingly inexpensive. The beauty of this stuff is that I’ll use it on the rocks or in a martini and love it, and I also won’t hesitate to mix it or experiment with infusing. It’s quality martini vodka and inexpensive-enough-to-mix-with vodka all rolled into one. I just hope they’re not trying to hook everyone before jacking the price up to GreyGoose territory.
    PS – These guys knew how to throw a party, including some kickass Polish food. They had to throw half the people out when it was over. Including me.

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  2. I really like the fresh perspective you did on the issue. Really was not expecting that when I started off studying. Your concepts were easy to understand that I wondered why I never looked at it before. Glad to know that there’s an individual out there that definitely understands what he’s discussing. Great job.

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  3. Johnnie

    10 June

    If you can’t taste the difference between Chopin and Belvedere … I’m not sure why we should pay any attention to your opinion? Chopin has a definite creamy texture that comes from distilling potatoes (which I suppose would explain why it’s more expensive than distilling from grains like rye or wheat, etc.). Belvedere has more “taste” if you will, which I guess is characteristic of rye having more taste than a potato.

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  4. Richard

    26 November

    I was browsing the vodka aisle in a Chicago liquor store when a fellow sidled up next to me and said in an unmistakable Polish accent (this is Chicago. we know a Polish accent when we hear it), “Try the Sobieski. It’s the top vodka in Poland, and it’s less expensive here than it is there.” He grabbed a bottle of the stuff and headed for the doors. I looked after him, then picked up the Sobieski and just in case also got what then was my standard Stoli. Sobieski has become one of my standard vodkas since … and I don’t have a problem with the price at all.

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  5. Anthony

    6 September

    Sobieski is the absolute best vodka money can buy due to its insane value factor. “Premium” vodka is generally a huge waste of money (i.e., Grey Goose) by and large because ideally, it is a neutral grain spirit. I haven’t heard of anyone enjoying vodka neat, like a fine single-malt scotch or an old rum. Vodka is a mixer, and its quality is marked by its lack of flavor. Sobeski gives you perfectly good vodka that makes a divine wet martini with Gallon Dry vermouth. A gourmet spirit that doesn’t break the bank will always get my vote.

    Save the overpriced vodka for the foolish and filthy rich. I’d rather take my savings and buy a bottle of Laphroaig or Eagle Rare.

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