As I drove to the Russian Embassy on Tuesday night to sample the ultra-premium Imperia vodka, which just debuted here, I called a colleague back in Houston, Igor Alexander, to get some etiquette tips about drinking the spirit with post-Soviet-era diplomats. Instead, he told me that no Russian vodka compares to those premium brands produced by Cristall.
Armed with the information, I entered the forbidding, monolithic embassy on Wisconsin Avenue. I was met with a photographer who, in the marble entrance, was snapping everyone’s picture against wallpaper stamped with the logos of Russian Standard Vodka and Imperia, two premium brands produced by the fast-growing Russian Standard Corp. Standing behind this red-carpet photo-op were a number of silent blond women wearing form-fitting red dresses. They looked like a cross between the fem bots from Austin Powers and Bond girls.
Feeling like I was being profiled for counter-espionage purposes, I asked the person standing next to the shooter why they were snapping everyone’s picture. “Just mementos,” he replied. Whose mementos, I wasn’t sure. I received nothing on the way out of the embassy.
What I got instead was a taste of post-Soviet Russia, which tasted a lot like Soviet Russia, just with a better sense of marketing. The gorgeous ballroom—-the huge space is bookended with folky tile landscapes depicting various Russian cities, yesterday and today—-was outfitted with several bars serving martinis, cosmos, and straight shots of Imperia vodka. Tables were located on each end of the room, where servers handed out heaping spoonfuls of Petrossian caviar as if it were still the turn of the 20th century. A few young men and women performed some athletic and romantic folk dances, accompanied by musicians on balalaika, garmoshka, and domra.
Early in the evening, the Russian ambassador to the United States, Yuri V. Ushakov, took to the podium to say a few words about Imperia. “This is indeed the best vodka in the world,” he told a packed audience imbibing the star liquid. I wasn’t about to disagree. I found the spirit to be astonishingly smooth, with a slightly nutty aroma and no hint of the classic vodka burn. But to be fair to my friend, Igor, I asked the ambassador about Cristall and which brand he preferred.
Ushakov was quite familiar with the Cristall brands, which he called “very famous.” When I asked which he liked better, one of Cristall’s premium brands or Imperia, he replied, “You can’t compare, but I do like this vodka [Imperia]. Yes, I do like it.”