My Photo

search the juice

January 2008

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
    1 2 3 4 5
6 7 8 9 10 11 12
13 14 15 16 17 18 19
20 21 22 23 24 25 26
27 28 29 30 31    


  • Food & Drink Blog Top Sites

« Fun with Vulcanology | Main | Cinsault x Pinot Noir = Pinotage »

07 October 2004

Dear Little Vodka

Dear Little Vodka

U.S. consumers spent $9.5 billion on vodka in 2003. $950 million of this was spent on ultra-premium vodka, such as Grey Goose, Ciroc and Ketel One.  This begs the question:  What’s the big friggin deal with vodka?

Vodka originated in either Russia or Poland, depending on whom you ask, a Pole or a Russian.  Vodka is the diminutive form of the word voda, which means water.  So vodka can be roughly translated as, “dear little water.” 

Dear little water indeed.  Vodka, by definition, is a neutral distilled spirit.  It’s basically colorless, odorless and tasteless.  Of course ‘tasteless’ doesn’t refer to the pickling effect that vodka’s 40 or 50 percent alcohol content has on your tongue.  Contrary to what many of us have heard, vodka isn’t distilled from potatoes.  Most vodka is distilled from grain; including wheat, rye, barley and corn.  Again a question:  How does this relatively humble, yet powerful liquid generate $9.5 billion in sales?  My best guess: Marketing.Ciroc_label

The next time you leaf through a magazine notice how many vodka advertisements there are.  Most vodka ads convey sophistication, sexiness, and style.  Stroll through the liquor store and take a look at the premium vodkas.  Some look as though they have been bottled in priceless crystal decanters.  Others look as though a Swedish minimalist designed ultra-chic aluminum bottles to hold the stuff.  With vodka, it’s all about appearance.

To prove (or disprove) my point, I purchased five different brands of vodka; two luxury vodkas, two mid-range vodkas and one bottle of ‘rotgut’ vodka.  My intent was to compare all of them in a blind tasting – a sort of Pepsi Challenge with vodka.  The luxury vodka lineup consisted of Ciroc and AbsolutCiroc is in a beautiful bottle with purple glass at the bottom and a purple bauble embedded near the bottle’s neck I know, I know, I’m a sucker for purple.  This is French vodka whose claim to fame is that it is made from French Grapes and distilled a whopping five times (although how multiple distillations of a neutral liquid do any good is beyond me).  Ciroc rings in at a cool thirty bucks for a 750ml bottle.  Absolut is the well-known premium vodka from Sweden.  On the bottle’s front, elegant text touts its ‘superb’ origins from the ‘rich fields’ of southern Sweden.  Absolut will set you back twenty-one dollars. 

The mid-range vodkas were the old standby Smirnoff of Russia and Canada’s Polar Ice (not to be confused with the chewing gum of the same name).  Smirnoff boasts 50% alcohol, or 100 proof, which makes it the most potent vodka in the lineup.  Smirnoff is bottled simply with the label “III/X” to draw attention to its triple distillation and ten-time filtration.  All this purity for only $15.  Polar Ice Vodka pulled out all the marketing stops on its bottle.  The label includes the following blurb, “Made of the finest grains; quadruple distilled in a state-of-the-art pressurized extractive distillation process to impart an exceptionally unique and smooth finish.”  Sheeesh.  Of course this makes it seem like a steal for only sixteen dollars.

Finally, the, ahem, value-priced vodka was Barton vodka.  “Charcoal filtered 100% neutral spirits distilled from grain.” Barton is made right here in the US of A and retails for about $6.  It comes in a humble plastic bottle.

In front of me, I placed five identical glasses, side by side.  I then closed my eyes (no peeking, honest) and my lovely assistant poured a shot of each of the vodkas into a glass.  Now before someone decides to plan an intervention for me, let me just say that I did not drink all five shots of vodka.  I utilized the same method of tasting that I employ for wine:

Appearance:  all five vodkas are clear.  I suppose I could have skipped this step.

Scent:  The vodka vapors literally curled my nose hair as I sniffed each glass.  With the exception of two, I couldn’t detect any differences.  One glass of vodka didn’t seem quite as pungent as the others (read:  My nose hair only received a body wave instead of a permanent).  This turned out to be Absolut.  Another glass had a slightly sweet scent.  Interestingly enough, this one turned out to be Ciroc; the vodka made from grapes.

Taste:  In all honesty I had planned on sipping, swishing, swirling and spitting-out each vodka sample.  Easier said than done.  The sensation of swishing around vodka inside one’s mouth is not especially pleasant.  I resorted to Plan B:  I took a tiny sip of each one.  Each sample tasted like, well, vodka.  Actually, there wasn’t a taste per se; it was more a strong burning feeling in my mouth.  I couldn’t detect the stronger vodka (the 100 proof Smirnoff).  The six-dollar vodka felt just like the thirty-dollar vodka.

I conclude while luxury vodkas look neat in their snazzy bottles, they don’t represent any concrete step-up in texture, flavor or finish.  I’m sure there are vodka connoisseurs out there who swear by their favorite brand.  To all of them I say this:  Line up three or four glasses of different vodkas and see if you can pick out your vodka.  As for me, I plan on doing two things.  First, I will stick to sipping wine rather than vodka.  Second, I’ll keep the nifty bottle of Ciroc and when it runs dry, I’ll refill it from my humble plastic bottle of six-dollar vodka.  No one will ever know the difference.  Na Zdorovia!


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Dear Little Vodka:



I only hope that your friends do not know a quality vodka. Since the taste of Ciroc is far different than the heavy "grain" taste of your, obviously, preferred pallate of plastic tasting vodka. I, along with many, would disagree with your taste or selection of vodka.


You can't taste the difference between Smirnoff and rotgut. Perhaps you're in the wrong line of work.


Ah anonymous Sean from Ireland. So nice to see you lurking. Do a little blind tasting and report back to me. I Would be happy to post results of a methodical blind tasting rather than hear your blind loyalty to whatever brand 'your' vodka might be. Cheerio.

Stan LS

The best vodka I've tried is the french Citadelle.


The reason I buy a particular vodka brand is not because I prefer that brand's supposedly distinct "flavor" over another. It's because the higher the quality of the vodka, the less likely I think it is that the vodka will produce adverse effects. I.e. hangover symptoms such as nausea and headaches. Apparently, over the course of multiple distillations, the toxins which cause hangovers are decreased. I've noticed that when I drink a cheap bargain-basement plastic-bottle liquor, I'll start getting a hangover headache less than 30 minutes after I've started to feel a buzz, or sometimes before I've even finished my drink. With premium vodkas like Grey Goose, however, I can have several drinks, and the adverse effects are mild. What I'd like to see someone do is a comparison test of vodkas based on how much/how little of a hangover they cause, and rank them based on that criteria.


I can tell the difference between potato vodka and grain vodkas easily and prefer the potato. There are also differences in the sweetness depending on fermentation and distillation processes. My friend makes his own vodka and he did a lot of fiddling around with his mash to get it to not taste somewhat sweet.

I've done blind tests. Most I can't tell apart but there are some I can and that I like better. The biggest difference you can note is that the cleaner vodkas hurt less the next day if imbibed in quantity. Polmos, for example, won't hurt the next day and Skol likely will. Very much a marketing driven field but there are a handful of standouts. You just didn't happen to pick them. The standouts also aren't the most expensive ones, in case it matters, they're mid-priced and come in boring, although glass, bottles. They are also not "flavored."



Tom - thanks for the input. I'm certain there are detectable differences in Vodka. However, I doubt the average Vodka drinker is able to detect these differences. As you say, it is a marketing-driven field.


Hey Tom,

I agree w/ the last poster that the average vodka drinker may or may not taste a huge difference in particular vodkas. However, as has been said, a premium vodka is more pure in form and does have less toxins, which to me outweighs your perceived equality of both high and low-end vodkas.


i agree with most of the commenting folks.
u must drink and judge the vodka in a couple ways.

warm vodka is all going to taste the same firstly

please try them mixed (cranberry is traditional)

please do a hangover test(cheap vodka typically do hurt later and/or the "buzz" dispurses quickly)there are exceptions ciroc gets me quickly buzzed and stays a long while but leaves me broken like no other the next day. ymmv

The comments to this entry are closed.

site sponsors

Vino Voyeur