THE SIMPLER THINGS APPEAR, the more complex they often turn out to be. Take vodka, for example. The traditional assumptions about this highly popular drink are that it is Russian in origin, has little taste or flavour, and is used primarily to give mixed drinks an alcoholic kick. These are all wrong, or at least contentious. The word 'vodka' is Russian and means 'little water', and the Russians claim it was first distilled in the town of Viatka in about the 12th century. This is not a popular theory in Warsaw, however. All patriotic Poles are convinced the Russians stole it from them, and you query this at your peril. As for it lacking taste and aroma, no vodka martini-lover would countenance that view for a moment, and they are increasingly selective about which vodkas they will drink. The spirits industry, inevitably, is seeking to capitalise on this with a greater range of products and higher prices. Oliver's in the Prince's Building has more than three shelves of vodkas - plain and flavoured - at prices ranging from $115 for a bottle of Stolichnaya to $288 for a bottle of Ketel One. Since it can be made anywhere and its character - unlike that of whisky or brandy - is wholly unconnected to where the base of the distillate is grown or the spirit matured, distillers from all over the world have jumped on the bandwagon. Smirnoff, the mass-market pioneer and still the biggest of the vodka brands in the United States, is American, despite the Russian-sounding name. Finlandia, as you would expect, comes from Finland, and Absolut - one of the biggest marketing successes of the 1980s and 90s and close behind Smirnoff in terms of US, is Swedish. Ketel One, which leads the 'ultra premium' vodka category in the US, is distilled in the Netherlands. According to Patricio de la Fuente Saez of importer Links Concept, Ketel One established its reputation largely through word of mouth among bartenders, unlike Absolut, which built its popularity on advertising and imaginative promotions. 'This,' says Saez, 'is the Dom Perignon of vodkas,' although he concedes that the other 'ultra premiums' are also excellent. Ketel One's main competitors are Belvedere, a Polish vodka made by a company in which Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton has an interest, and Grey Goose, which is made in France. So, bearing in mind you can buy a bottle of generic supermarket brand vodka in Hong Kong for $50, why pay extra for these? It is noticeable that no importers seem to be interested in sales outside of bars. Except for real martini connoisseurs, few people buy premium-priced bottles to take home, but they may get a kick out of insisting on a particular 'ultra premium' vodka in a cocktail bar. Brand snobbery is a big part of the deal. However, these spirits are more expensive to produce. Ketel One takes its name from the traditional copper pot still in which it is made, in small charcoal-filtered batches. Cheaper spirits are made using a larger-scale continuous distillation process, which supposedly produces a rougher, less refined drink. Certainly these top vodkas are not intended for mixed drinks. Although most of them are generally served as martinis, Saez recommends drinking Ketel One on its own with ice - an approach that also works well for Grey Goose and Belvedere. On the other hand, if your favourite way to drink vodka is at home in a bloody Mary, you stand to save yourself a lot of money.