Those of us who can remember the old days of the Soviet Union recall the notion of a trip to Siberia, brutal winters and endless sentences to slave in the salt mines, as just about the most severe punishment that could be meted out. Now a hyperpremium vodka—as much as $199 a bottle—deliberately visits that remote region of Russia to garner its uniqueness and a sense of luxury amongst one of the most crowded spirits markets.
And it's taking a very un-Soviet economic view of the world by attaching itself to polo, trans-Atlantic racing and gastronomy.
Beluga Noble Russian Vodka comes from Mariinsk in Kemerovo Oblast, a western Siberian area especially rich in wild life. The spirit is distilled there, using indigenous ingredients, at the Mariinsky distillery, which dates from 1905 and makes a number of other vodkas. Its spring water is silver-filtered. Its grains come from the plains of Siberia, joining other local ingredients like honey and milk thistle extract.
The triple-distilled vodka comes under four marques-Noble, Transatlantic, Allure and Gold Line-the first and last of which are available in the U.S. The Gold Line is the $200 submission and Noble is the entry-level at $40. We tasted the Gold Line, which also includes rice and rhodiola rosea extract among its ingredients. The Gold Line is further distinguished by a 90-day "resting period" after distillation and before bottling. As this process is not done in wood, it is not considered aging, but the company claims that the extra time gives the spirit balance.
Perhaps the most arresting aspect of the vodka-beyond its packaging-is its exceptional smoothness, with an especially soft mouthfeel. On the nose it is light and slightly rosy, almost devoid of alcohol aroma. Sip it and on the tip of the tongue it is all glycerin and honey. No sting occurs until you swallow and feel a slight bite in the back of the throat, when cereal flavors erupt. The liquid is nearly devoid of finish.
The Beluga Gold Line comes in a leather box with a detachable pedestal. The bottle is tall and emblazoned with a metallic label that a raised sturgeon as a nod to the name Beluga. Each bottle is stamped with a number (we sampled 292549). Inside the leather box hangs a tiny wooden hammer with a metallic peen on one side and a brush on the other. No, it isn't intended for use in a salt mine, but for chipping the wax covering off the bottle's cork and then sweeping away the residue. It's all part of the treatment you get when you plop down two hundred bucks on a bottle of vodka.
That is not the most you can spend on the popular spirit, however. That distinction belongs to a small group of spirits that cost in the millions, depending on how you do your accounting. Scotland's Diva vodka, for instance, costs $1.2 million when the bottle comes with the full complement of diamonds. That cost can be pared down to $3,800, if you forgo the ice.
It is also not the most unusual treatment that vodka gets before bottling. That would be G. Spirits vodka (about $150), which is poured over the breasts of the model and Miss International Hungary finalist Evelin Aubert and comes with a certificate to authenticate that condition. We're sure we could taste the difference even without the affidavit.