Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Vodkas and Their Differences

And, yes, there are differences—a truth known by anyone in the liquor industry with a little sense. But one that is frequently forgotten— partly because our government insists on characterizing vodka as a "colorless, flavorless, odorless" beverage; partly because cocktail zealots like to insist that vodka is a blank canvas and brings nothing to the table, taste-wise; and also partly because the huddled masses who do love vodka, and guzzle copious amounts of it, don't exactly drink for taste, but simply to drink, get drunk, all while covering up the character of their Belvedere and Grey Goose with a fruit salad's worse of juice.

That there are subtle, and sometimes dramatic, differences in flavor and odor between one vodka and another was driven home recently by a daylong seminar hosted by Absolut. This was, indeed, the company's intention. The liquor company invited a few dozen prominent industry bar owners and bartenders to the gathering, hoping the shake them out of the rigid thinking regarding America's favorite intoxicant. Among the assembled: Audrey Saunders (Pegu Club), Jim Meehan (PDT), Giuseppe Gonzalez (Dutch Kills, Painkiller), Eben Freeman (late of Tailor, now roving entrepreneur), Eben Klemm, Toby Cecchini, Dale DeGroff, Franky Marshall (Clover Club), Jeremy F. Thompson (late of Raines Law Room), Lynette Merrero (Rye House), Gary Regan, as well as a handle of journalists such as myself, who were cheerfully tolerated.

Central to the event was a blind tasting of 12 different vodkas. To Absolut's credit, only two of these were Absolut products; it takes a fair amount of confidence and guts to put yourself up against your competition in such a public forum.

I spoke to many of the participants following the tasting, and quite a few were surprised by the findings, not the least of which was how poorly leaders like Grey Goose (hot and sweet) and Ketel One (soft with an abundance of solvent-like notes) showed. A spicy, fruity, well-balanced vodka from Poland called U'luvka impressed some in the room, most of whom were unfamiliar with it. It is distilled from an unusual blend of rye, wheat and barley. The vodka Tito's had a disappointing reception from many who remembered liking the Texas brand when it debuted a decade of so ago; the corn-based recipe has evidently changed, with the company buying a lot of its distillate from other parties. In a blind tasting, the highly singular and meaty Karlsson's, made from Swedish potatoes, came off as even more unusual than I remember upon first encountering it. Still, Zubrowka, a Polish vodka made from Bison Grass, was the weirdo of the bunch, bringing out tasting notes of "hay," "talcum powder," "coconut," "plastic" and "menthol." It's apparently drunk with apple juice in its native land.

Absolut, for the record, came off well, being called creamy, buttery and with distinct grain flavors, and with none of the sweetness that marred other vodkas. The addition of sugar—a fairly common practice—is called "rounding," we learned. How's that for an innocent-sounding term?

The main lesson of the tasting—or re-learned lesson, since many of us in the room knew it already—is that the biggest difference between the flavors of various vodkas derives from the source material, and that difference is easily detected, if you pay attention. Vodka can be distilled from anything, but the most common raw materials are grain and potatoes, with a few using molasses and grapes and other things. Grape-sourced vodka typically has a fruitier character; grain-sourced has the expected bready, yeasty and, yes, grainy notes, with the rye vodkas having more bit and spark than the barley or wheat ones; and potato-sourced vodka has a rounder, sometimes buttery flavor.

So, now that we've all been reminded that vodkas are many and varied, what does the cocktail world do with this information? More thoughts on that in a subsequent post.

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