interesting article in the times: T was not exactly a victory for the underdog, but chalk it up as a triumph of the unexpected. The idea for the Dining section's tasting panel was to sample a range of the new high-end unflavored vodkas that have come on the market in the last few years in their beautifully designed bottles and to compare them with a selection of established super-premium brands. To broaden the comparison, or possibly as a bit of mischief, our tasting coordinator, Bernard Kirsch, added to our blind tasting a bottle of Smirnoff, the single best-selling unflavored vodka in the United States, but a definite step down in status, marketing and bottle design. Advertisement After the 21 vodkas were sipped and the results compiled, the Smirnoff was our hands-down favorite. Shocking? Perhaps. Delving into the world of vodka reveals a spirit unlike almost any other, with standards that make judging it substantially different from evaluating wine, beer, whiskey or even root beer. A malt whiskey should be distinctive, singular. The same goes for a Burgundy or a Belgian ale. But vodka? Vodka is measured by its purity, by an almost Platonic neutrality that makes tasting it more akin to tasting bottled waters, or snowflakes. Yet in just a few decades vodka has become the most popular spirit in the country. It is now the default liquor in cocktails once made with gin, and with its glossy merchandising it has set a marketing standard for high-end spirits that the other liquors are all struggling to emulate. It's quite an achievement for something that the government defines as "neutral spirits, so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color." A lack of distinctiveness is a separate matter from a lack of distinction. The vodkas we tasted had character and their own flavors and aromas, even though the differences among them were often subtle and difficult to articulate. "I'm looking for interest," said Eben Klemm, a cocktail expert who joined me for the tasting, along with my colleagues Florence Fabricant and William L. Hamilton, who writes the Shaken and Stirred column for the Sunday Styles section. "Some were so unique that they stood out," he added, "while others were pure, simple and austere." Mr. Klemm, whose heady title is director of cocktail development for B. R. Guest, a restaurant group that includes Dos Caminos, Fiamma and Vento in New York, found himself torn in two directions in assessing the vodkas. Because we tasted them straight, he judged them as solo beverages yet could not help extrapolating how they would taste in cocktails, which are overwhelmingly the vehicle for consuming vodka. Mr. Hamilton, too, wondered whether his perceptions might change. "When deployed in mixed drinks, these slight flavor profiles that I enjoyed might cause trouble," he said. Ms. Fabricant, on the other hand, dismissed such existential issues. "Go with the flow," she suggested, adding that the qualities she sought in the vodkas included elegance, neutrality and balance. "As a vodka drinker who likes vodka on the rocks, I picked out what I would want to drink," she said. I'm not much of a vodka drinker myself, although I do like a good bloody mary. I prefer gin in classic gin drinks like martinis and gimlets that have largely evolved into vodka cocktails. But I appreciate the purity and depth of a fine vodka. Those I liked best were all smooth rather than harsh, and balanced and harmonious rather than burdened by alcoholic heat. They had a presence in the mouth that we sometimes referred to as texture or substance. That being said, at the end of our tasting it was Smirnoff at the top of our list, ahead of many other names that are no doubt of higher status in stylish bars and lounges. Some of those names did not even make our Top 10. Grey Goose from France, one of the most popular vodkas, was felt to lack balance and seemed to have more than a touch of sweetness. Ketel One from the Netherlands, another top name, was felt to be routine and sharp, although Mr. Klemm did describe it as "a good mixer."