I have come to Finland, along with five other U.S. writers, to cover the competition. So imagine my surprise when the 12 judges' names are announced, and at the end of the very impressive list, I hear (think Finnish accent) "Ms. Becca Hensley, from the United States of America." I've just been whispering to my fellow writers about what I perceive as the horrors of being a drink judge, especially in the dessert-drink category. (After all, who can fathom sipping multitudinous sweet drinks?) Unfortunately, it must be a karmic thing, because the ambassador announces my fate as if he'd heard every word and aims to punish me. "She will judge in the dessert-drink category." My fate, it seems, is sealed. Flummoxed, I wonder in horror: How can I possibly sip nearly 20 drinks without getting wasted? Fruity, creamy, pretty drinks at that. I ponder my higher calling: journalist or judge? Hmm, judge does have a nice ring to it - even dessert-drink judge. So I accept the challenge. And I vow to be the best Finlandia Vodka Cup judge the event has ever known. I will be good - and I won't get hammered.

After we leave the Klaus K's bar, we head off on a tour of a couple of local sights such as the Rajamäki Spring (the source of Finlandia's "pure glacial water," which defines Finlandia's vodka) and the spring's bottling facility, where, as luck would have it, we're given the chance to partake in a vodka comparative taste test. Three shot glasses are set before us so that we can determine the vodka's essence. We smell, swirl, and sip them, determining which is flowery, which is malty, and which is pristine. We learn that good vodka is neutral vodka (sounds like a song) and that clean and pristine make it so. In our blind taste, most people choose Finlandia for its neutrality, which is a lot like choosing a little black dress when shopping. That is, neutral is not ambiguous or anonymous or dull; neutral is elegant, confident, and transforming. Cocktail dresses and vodka cocktails, two peas in a pod - who knew?

Following a break for lunch (which means just enough reindeer to soak up any errant vodka), we fly to Kittilä, 95 miles north of the Arctic Circle, in Lapland. The Narnia-like world of the region spellbinds­ us instantly. Since the temperature­ is -30° Celsius, we don puffy red suits and put on thermal boots to ensure a toasty comfort. The result is a sort of homogeneous group of Santa Clauses.

We spend the night at the Lainio Snow Hotel. Door-free bedrooms have slabs of ice for beds, and roommates are first come, first served. As it turns out, this is a boon for international relations: Picking a bed (or shall I say a slab of reindeer-pelt-covered ice?) in this sculpted igloo with mazelike halls feels a bit like the Oklahoma Land Run - and most everyone ends up with a roommate from another part of the world. This giant surreal slumber party bonds us all, from bartender to judge, and by morning's light, the day of the competition, we are ready to root for our new friends from different countries.