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Among its other qualities, vodka is a curiously contradictory spirit. For most Canadians, it is the neutral base of a handful of favourite cocktails, from the beloved Bloody Caesar to the fruity Cosmopolitan. Yet for a large number of professional mixologists – people who earn their living crafting such cocktails – vodka is scorned for that very neutrality, even banned by some in a misguided display of snobbery.

Both attitudes stem from the same misunderstanding – the erroneous notion that as a clear, straightforward spirit, one vodka is pretty much the same as the next. In fact, the reality is quite different.

Vodka’s diversity begins with its raw ingredients, which can range surprisingly widely. Ferment and distill corn, and you’ll tend to get a sweeter spirit; opt instead for potatoes, and your vodka will likely be creamier. Wheat generally yields a softer spirit, while rye produces more spice. More untraditional ingredients, such as the grapes used in Cîroc, add their own unique flavour identifiers.

The caveat to this is that most vodkas are distilled to a very high proof (as much as 96-per-cent alcohol prior to dilution), so the space available for flavour components – what in the distilling trade are known as congeners – is correspondingly small. So rather than the big, bold flavours found in bourbon, for example – which by law must exit the still at less than 80-per-cent alcohol – the flavour notes in vodka tend to be much more subtle, meaning that the more time taken to savour a vodka, the more enjoyment might be found in it.

This is a truism well understood by Poles and Russians – citizens of the two nations which lay claim to the invention of vodka – and one reinforced when I sip vodka with my Polish friend Janusz Wawro.

While it is true that Central and Eastern European drinkers do enjoy their vodka shots, it is just as common (perhaps more so) for them to sip it neat, usually at room or refrigerator temperature and, according to Wawro, almost always with food. Warmer vodkas are easier to taste than those fresh out of the freezer (frigidity being the enemy of nuance), and traditional foods such as rye bread and pickles serve to calm the fiery character of some vodkas, particularly less expensive ones.

Of course, sipping and conversing while eating are also the very cornerstones of social drinking, and all three help to showcase the sometimes stunning complexity to be found in vodka. All that’s asked of the imbiber is that they take the time to find and enjoy it.

I assembled five well-known and widely available vodkas distilled from different ingredients, plus two small distillery brands crafted from corn, and sampled them with Wawro, who admitted that he had never before been to a vodka tasting. Here is what we found.

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Grey Goose (France; $49-$52/750 ml)

French winter wheat gives this famous premium vodka a soft, soothing, almost silky character and mouthfeel, accented by orangey notes, a sweetish, lightly peppery palate and herbal finish.

Wawro: “It’s got a nice alcohol taste, which I like.”

Monica Carbonell/Handout

Northern Keep (Canada; $28-$31/750 ml)

This new arrival from Alberta Distillers tempers the peppery character of Canadian rye with the light citrus of Prairie wheat, creating a gently assertive spirit with a sweet entry and spicy finish.

Wawro: “In the top three for me. It might be the most balanced.”

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Stealth Corn Vodka (British Columbia; $27/750 ml); Limited Vodka (Ontario; $35/750 ml)

These two corn vodkas from North Vancouver, B.C., and Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., respectively, tame the sometimes cereal-y character of corn with richness and complexity – slightly cotton-candy-like with a dry finish in the case of the former, and more creamy, herbal-spicy in the latter.

Wawro: “I find these somewhat similar – a bit too sweet for my taste, but very rich.”

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Wyborowa (Poland; $35-$44/1.14 L)

The full, peppery character of rye is on vivid display in the spicy aroma of this venerable vodka, with much mellower white pepper and lemon notes in the body, and a clean, faintly vanilla-ish finish.

Wawro: “The finish is very smooth – maybe the smoothest.”

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Finlandia (Finland; $25-$30/750 ml)

A full-bodied vodka crafted from barley, this sports a rich and floral aroma with hints of stone fruit as well as an herbal, citrusy body holding notes of green melon, with a long and smooth finish.

Wawro: “It has a great clarity of flavour; very clean.”

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Chopin (Poland; $44-$50/750 ml)

Potato vodkas tend towards a creaminess in their mouthfeel, and Chopin is no exception in this regard. Earthy on the nose, it has a mild fruitiness on the palate, with hints of melon and pear, and a sweetly spicy finish.

Wawro: “I think this is the sweetest, and also very smooth.”

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