While the Day 1 Stoli v Van Gogh match was a true thriller, it is within the later rounds that the real TV money is made, and here, right off the Round-2 bat, we have a stellar match-up in the East Regional:
1 Ultimat v 8 Russian Standard
Russian Standard vodka could win a few of the other regions, and go deep into this one, but for it’s current opponent. Straight Martini – there isn’t a vodka in the Field that can touch Ultimat in a martini. Specialty Drink – not surprisingly, Ultimat’s specialty is a martini, dirty if you like, and while a Russian Standard Black Russian is outstanding, it is facing the John Wooden of vodka. Neutral Cocktail – Ultimat is not best suited for the soda, agave mix, though an average Ultimat drink is still phenomenal, and this category, for Ultimat, is at worst a draw.
10 Absolut v 15 Sobieski
In a second round match that might have featured celebrity-sponsored, compulsive-consumer favorite Ciroc (and CBS hates when their media giants drop out early), we instead have an unexpected, but exciting, and quite even contest between these two distinct and delightfully well-priced brands.
Straight Martini – hard to give Sobieski a fair shake here. Every time our judges tried to drink straight Sobieski, facial contortions kept them from properly enjoying themselves. The stuff is just too bold for Western drinking sensibilities. Specialty Drink & Neutral Cocktail – the boldness that makes it hard to handle in a martini makes it wonderful as a mixer. It is already excellently priced, and the fact that you can use less of it and still have a strong, at least strong-tasting drink is invaluable. Absolut did nothing to hurt itself in any test, Sobieski just stands out.
3 Chopin v 11 Stolichnaya
When the original pairings were released, the Vodka Examiner foresaw misfortune when it became clear two of these monsters; Chopin, Stoli, Belvedere and Grey Goose, (see below), would be necessarily going out in the second round. Sinister seed-adjustments were considered until one of the judges pointed out that the deeper each of these vodkas went into the tournament, the longer we’d have to spring for Chopin, Stoli, Belvedere and Grey Goose martinis.
Straight Martini – While an icy Stoli with olives in it is something to look forward to all day, Chopin possesses a smoothness bred for martinis. Specialty Drink & Neutral Cocktail – Get your hate mail ready, but we can’t find any combination of mixers within which you would choose Chopin over Stoli. Martinis sure, but in a drink? It’s Stoli every time.
4 Belvedere v 5 Grey Goose
What CBS may have lost with the absence of Ciroc, is more than made up in this headline contest. Ambitious network executives, and manipulative Vodka Examiners might try to conceive ways to get these two into the Final Four, alas, ultimately we must demure to the selection committee, and choose to enjoy this early, if wasteful, marquee match-up.
Belvedere v Grey Goose possesses all the drama and delivered all the excitement of the Maryland v Michigan State game. Straight Martini – hopeless deadlock. Belvedere drinkers swear by Belvedere, as Grey Goose drinker swear by Grey Goose, and never the two shall meet. Specialty Drink & Neutral Cocktail – Belvedere possesses a distinct internal spirit, which despite its glorious smoothness, helps it stand out in a cocktail. Grey Goose, meanwhile, is a victim of its own purity, and tends to disappear when arbitrarily mixed. With equal parts vodka and mix, Belvedere announces itself with thoroughness, while Grey Goose is just a little too accommodating.
WINNER: Belvedere (insert your irate comments below, we understand. But, hey, someone has to lose).
1 Hangar One Mandarin Blossom v 8 Skyy Infusion Ginger
Straight Martini – as an 8 seed, Skyy Ginger stands up rather well. It is surprisingly easy drinking on its own, Hangar One Mandarin, though, is delicious. Specialty Drink – this Skyy infusion begs to be matched with Ginger Ale, and does so nicely, but again, Hangar One Mandarin does it even better. Our bartender this evening mistakenly poured ginger ale into the Mandarin, and we didn’t have the heart to waste it. Lucky for us ’cause it is fantastic. Neutral Cocktail – we are finding many of these infusions go alarmingly well with agave. Concurrently we are finding our liquor cabinet is not suited to handle the alarming influx of new favorite vodkas. Hangar One is one such addition.
WINNER: Hangar One Mandarin
2 Hangar One Kaffir v 7 Skyy Infusion Passion Fruit
Straight Martini – too close to call. You may not order either vodka straight, but if you happened to find yourself drinking one, or both of them, you could finish it happily. Specialty Drink – while testing Kaffir Gimlets, one judge had a flashback to an unhappy childhood memory when he became sick from lime-flavored candy, and was unable to separate the two tastes in his head. A Skyy Passion and pineapple concoction, which was incredible anyway, won by default. Neutral Cocktail – Skyy Passion Fruit performs better than its vanquished brethren (see above and below), in the neutral category, while Kaffir retreats slightly in this mix.
WINNER: Skyy Passion Fruit
6 Skyy Citrus v 14 Seagram’s Sweet Tea
ESPN and the pundits-that-be are constantly looking for a high-seeded George Mason to embrace and promote throughout the tournament. Fans of these teams appreciate the publicity, then cringe at the jinxing properties of the unfamiliar exposure. This year’s darling is San Diego St., who was picked by many to reach the Sweet Sixteen, then promptly lost their first game. The Aztecs did themselves proud, but I am sure, if asked, would have preferred to win a few games quietly (see Cornell). Seagram’s Sweet Tea is the George Mason of the March Madness Vodka tournament.
4 Charbay Blood Orange v 5 Charbay Green Tea
This test was too close to call, mostly unfair, and the three rounds it took to come to a decision, though delightful, nearly put our judges into rehab. It is a true shame to have to eliminate one of these. Straight Martini – unbreakable tie; though we tried. Oh, how we tried. As sobriety began to fail us the Charbay Specialty Drink and Neutral Cocktail began to resemble one another, with slight variations for the individual infusions. Charbay Green Tea mixed into an unbelievable agave and ginger ale, with fresh ginger (yeah, I know), while the Blood Orange, Grand Marnier and soda with lime was equally impressive, or rather, nearly as impressive.
WINNER: Charbay Green Tea
9 Tito’s Handmade v 16 Wolfschmidt
We finally broke the seal on Wolfschmidt, and were pleasantly surprised that it is not awful. It is better than Potter’s vodka, much better, and decent enough to vindicate us for advancing it over the Ed Hardy mess. It is not, however, in the same league as Tito’s, and we bid this fine competitor a sorrowful, respectful farewell.
2 Hangar One v 7 Prairie Organic
Straight Martini – for the price of a bottle of Prairie, there is not another vodka in the Field that makes such an enjoyable, drinkable martini, this side of Stoli. Hangar One martinis are delicious, but when the taste results are about even, and the costs are not, our judges lean toward sensibility. Specialty Drink & Neutral Cocktail – Prairie is a fair deal smoother than similarly priced counterparts, and does not announce, or insist upon itself in the manner of a Skyy and soda. Into everything in which we mixed and enjoyed Hangar One, we were able to repeat with Prairie, with similar, pleasurable results. And again, when the voting is close, and the prices are not…
3 Square One Organic v 6 Tru Organic
The Organic Bowl proved enjoyable, if costly for the judges, as yet another must-have vodka has found its way onto our shopping list (see WINNER, below). Straight Martini – Tru Organic’s distinct presence, which separated it positively from Skyy in Round 1, may have cost it against Square One’s silky subtlety. Square One delivers an understated, non-insistent flavor, that when pitted against Grey Goose in an inspired side-trial, the judges agreed it was every bit as smooth. Specialty Drink – a tip came to us from a somewhat independent observer for a Square One martini using fresh basil and cucumber. All due respect to Tru, but we could find no combination to compete with this extraordinary beverage, and we now wish we could go back and revive the Square One Organic Cucumber product that fell in round one. We cannot, though we can, and shall add it to the list. Neutral Cocktail – this contest was too far gone, along with a couple of our judges, by the time the soda cocktails rolled around. Tru fairs very well with agave and soda, though everyone involved had Square One on the brain, and was becoming unruly about our failure to reinstate Organic Cucumber.
WINNER: Square One
4 1860’s Genuine American v 5 Crop
This one had everything you could want in a 4 v 5 match-up. Those who caught yesterday’s Maryland v Michigan State game have a sense what our judges experienced. Straight Martini – Crop delivers an excellent martini, and appeared to grab an early lead, until, in a quick flurry 1860’s martinis seized the judges and tightened the score. Specialty Drink – aware of a Crop cucumber infusion, and awash with enthusiasm, and vodka, from the Square One contest, we mixed basil, cucumber cocktails, and here Crop pulled ahead again. Neutral Cocktail – the agave, soda mix appeared enough to give 1860’s the delicious late push it needed, and with time running out it looked as though this one was over. With most fans exiting the building, content and basking in the glow of a well played match, Crop scored a last second basket, proving 1860’s equal in this category, but at a better price.
1 Belvedere Orange v 9 Absolut Ruby Red
Not one to hold a grudge, even in the face of outrageous fortune, as when Ruby Red pushed Absolut Peppar out of the tournament in the First Round, we leave all decisions in the hands of our independent judges. When they came back with Belvedere as the winner in this round, we decided to retain their services.
2 Grey Goose La Poire v 10 Stolichnaya Razberi
Some of our sentimental favorites have reached the end of their run. I can only hope (Keen readers will note I have switched to first-person singular. I do that when addressing something important.) that this does not cost me further opportunities to enjoy Razberi cocktails on my deck with my amazing new, old friend, but anything short of Van Gogh Dutch Caramel that comes up against this particular Grey Goose is likely going down to defeat.
WINNER: Grey Goose
3 Van Gogh Dutch Caramel v 11 Stolichnaya Vanilla
Stoli is going to have to lean on its impressive showing in the East Region, as here in the Flavored bracket, it has run into the Duke and Kentucky of vodka infusions. Stoli Vanilla and Razberi are spectacular, and if you have a Shula’s near you, get yourself a Vanilla Berry Twist. Van Gogh Dutch Caramel, however, and La Poire, above, are crazy awesome (thank you Demerti Martin), and when these two meet in Round 3, we anticipate losing a few judges to drunkenness before this thing is decided.
WINNER: Van Gogh
4 Van Gogh Acai-Blueberry v 5 Van Gogh Pomegranate
Surprising, and a bit anticlimactic to have a one-sided 4 v 5 match, especially in light of the 1860’s v Crop, and Maryland v Michigan State, earlier in the day, but this one wasn’t that close. Van Gogh Pomegranate is lovely, and performs well in every area. But Acai-Blueberry has something special, perhaps novel, that the Pomegranate lacks, and took it down quite handily.
WINNER: Van Gogh Acai-Blueberry
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