My in-laws had us over for New Year’s this year for the full feast: a huge roast, veggies, mashed potatoes, dessert; the works. But for the past seven-or-so years they’ve mayyybe had a combined five full drinks, so my assumption was that this would be a fairly dry affair. (And that’s totally fine. It’s not like I have to drink; especially now that I have an eight-month-old baby and could use the sleep.) But this year, my father-in-law, Gary, said (via text to my wife), “let’s make White Russians!”
White Russians! Taken aback, I said, “I’ll bring some vodka!” He replied with, “I already have everything: vodka, Kahlua, and heavy cream!” And because I’m me, I said, “Let’s do a taste-off!” (All these statements were emphatic, as I recall, hence the gratuitous !!!.)
In the red corner, we have Tito’s Handmade Vodka from Austin, TX. Being from Texas, I admit that I’m a bit of a homer here. I want Tito’s to be the best, and it’s been what I’ve been buying for the last decade plus. (I don’t regularly drink vodka though, so it’s not like I have the taste lingering on my conscious.)
Homerism aside, here’s the deets (from the Tito’s website FAQ): Tito’s is made from yellow corn grown in the Midwest (“We tried to get all the corn from Texas but it became impractical.”), is distilled six times (“Any more robs the taste. Any less and there are still impurities.”), and is 80 proof. The history of the company is comparatively pretty limited, only coming to market in 1997 – but the brand has been on a crazy upward trajectory after winning a Double Gold Medal in the 2001 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
In the blue corner, we have Smirnoff No. 21 Vodka, most commonly referred to simply as Smirnoff. Basically, Smirnoff is the corporate giant of the field, and is probably the best selling vodka on the planet. It’s been around since the mid-1800’s, is owned by Diageo (they own virtually every major liquor brand), and can be found everywhere (even your in-law’s house).
According to thebar.com (owned by Diageo), Smirnoff No. 21 is “triple distilled from a blend of different grains, and filtered ten times through seven columns of environmentally sustainable charcoal.” It’s designed to be a cocktail mixer (well, it was probably designed to keep Russians warm and happy, but whatever), thus should taste like nothing.
2 oz vodka
1 oz Kahlua
1 oz heavy cream
Notes: Shake the hell out of the vodka, Kahlua, and heavy cream in ice. If you do a wimp shake, the heavy cream will kind of clump on the ice, so don’t be a softie. Strain into a rocks glass over ice.
Blanketed by thick, creamy ingredients, both drinks looked identical, but the smell test set the scene. Like my experience with cheaper rums, the Smirnoff had that oh-so-slight smell of burn foggy memories. It’s not as toxic as Largo Bay, but it’s not the crisp vodka nothing you’d hope for. Tito’s – nothing.
Gary took his first sip from the Smirnoff glass. “It’s good… I must say.” I wasn’t surprised – anything with Kahlua and heavy cream is going to be tasty – but I half expected Smirnoff to burn a little too much for his non-drinking palette.
After tasting the Tito’s glass though, the light turned on. “This is much smoother. Definitely better.”
My tastes went the same way. The Smirnoff White Russian gave off a little nose burn on the way down, but the drink overall was pretty good. The vodka was only slightly unpleasant, but honestly, that’s kind of the vodka experience I’m used to. I was mildly impressed.
Then the Tito’s White Russian came, and I instantly didn’t want to finish the Smirnoff version. In fact, the Tito’s was so clean that it didn’t add anything to the drink at all – it just seemed like a Kahlua and cream cocktail. If I make another Tito’s White Russian, I’ll probably up the Kahlua quantity a bit to emphasize that coffee note.
Back to Gary. As I was in my headspace picking out the flavors and feels of the cocktails before me, he’d decided the best course of action was to combine his two cups into a super combo of Smirnoff and Tito’s. And you know what? I did too. Mazel tov.
I won’t deny that Smirnoff – at least in this cocktail – is a nice bang-for-your-buck option. But if you’re willing to spend just a bit more, Tito’s is a much better vodka. There’s virtually no burn, and its nothing palette (at least when paired with Kahlua and cream) provides a perfect canvas for getting deliciously trashed. (That’s why people drink vodka, right?)