Clear and Present Flavor

How you drink your vodka should affect the choices you make at the liquor store

Are you putting your bar together and trying to decide what kind of vodka to buy? If you ask your closest friends what their favorite vodkas are, you’re likely to get answers ranging from Mezzaluna to Ketel One to Absolut. But before you seek out new vodkas for your cabinet, know the facts. How you drink your vodka should affect the choices you make in the liquor store.

It’s not always the best idea to gravitate toward the vodkas with the most successful advertising campaigns, or with the heftiest price tags. If all you drink are screwdrivers or vodka tonics (or any other drink that contains a fruit juice or a flavored mixer), you won’t be able to taste the nuances of the spirit—they’ll be masked by the mixer. What may matter more, in these cases, is how much alcohol is in the spirit, because alcohol enhances or amplifies any flavor it meets. A screwdriver made with 100-proof vodka will taste more orange-y than one made with an 80-proof spirit.

If, however, you drink your vodka neat, straight from the freezer, or in very dry martinis, it’ll be easier for you to detect subtle nuances in the spirit’s flavor. This is when it makes more sense to invest in an especially tasty bottle of vodka. But which one? Because most liquor stores have at least 20 kinds of vodkas from which to choose, it’s best to learn what you can about each brand’s distinct flavors before you go shopping. (A good resource is the Wine Enthusiast Magazine web site,, which rates a number of vodkas, and supplies tasting notes for each.) In order to understand what a taster means when she says a vodka tastes “nutty” or “has lemon zest flavors,” though, it’s important to understand where those flavors come from.

How It’s Made
Vodka can be made from a variety of products—indeed, from almost anything that will ferment and yield alcohol—but most are made from grains or potatoes. This is probably the major difference in taste between vodkas. On the whole, though, potato vodkas seem to bear a hint of sweetness that’s not usually found in their grain-based cousins.

Too Much Information
The quality of the water that is used in vodka also makes a difference when it comes to what each product tastes like. (There are companies who claim things like, “Our vodka tastes best because it is made from supplies of 840-year-old pure spring water that a nearly dehydrated traveling monk found.” Legends like this are endless.) It’s true that water’s mineral content can affect the end product in the distillation process, but, with a little special treatment, water can easily be made as pure as the driven snow.

After the final step in the distillation process, vodka is approximately 192 proof, or 96 percent pure alcohol by volume (abv), as opposed to, say, whiskey, which normally runs off the still at 60 to 70 percent abv. This means that whiskey is not as pure as vodka, something you could have probably figured out on your own. The impurities in whiskey are the elements that create flavor during aging; these components are valuable to whiskey producers and abhorrent to vodka distillers. If everyone’s vodka contains the same amount of alcohol, how is it that they can be so different from another?

Water enters the picture again at this point. The alcohol must be diluted before it is bottled (it needs to be at a specific, drinkable proof); though the mineral content of this water can be chemically altered, vodka producers aren’t likely to do it because it won’t affect the distillation process at this juncture. And then there’s the filtration to consider: Vodkas can be filtered through anything from diamond dust, silver-birch charcoal, red ochil granite chips, and quartz to oak chips, activated carbon or diatomaceous earth. Again, it’s nearly impossible to categorize or pass judgments on which materials make the best vodka. On these subjects, everyone has his or her own opinions.

Now that you know about all the various procedures used in the vodka game, we’re here to tell you to forget the hype. Don’t worry if your favorite bottling is made from glacial water or treated city water. Fret not if you discover that your friend’s vodka undergoes six filtrations whereas yours passes through the filter just twice. With most other spirits, similar factors can be taken into account, and logical conclusions drawn. With vodka, it’s just the end result that counts.

The Tasting: Pick a Vodka, Any Vodka
We wouldn’t be going out on a limb to say that a room full of alcohol and good friends promises good times—but whoever thought that it could also be educational? Our own personal experience has taught us that inviting four friends over for a vodka tasting is a cheaper, more entertaining way to decide which vodkas you like best for martinis, and which you’ll choose to spruce up your screwdrivers.

Make a list of the vodkas that you want to try, and assign each guest to bring a bottle. (Or, for even more fun, dare each of your guests to bring the most unusual vodka they can find.) You will also need:

  • Five shot glasses (or old-fashioned glasses) for each guest
  • One plastic cup per guest
  • Notepaper and pens for each guest
  • Five opaque bags, numbered “1” through “5”
  • Ice water to drink between tastes

Cover each bottle with an opaque bag (long, narrow ones that are designed for bottles work best), leaving only the tops exposed. Mix the bottles up (or have someone else do it), and have the guests pour one ounce of each vodka into each of their shot glasses, taking care to keep the glasses in numerical order in front of them.

Each guest should lift the first glass to the nose and inhale, keeping the mouth open, and trying to detect any aromas present. Everyone should record their impressions on their notepads.

Next, participants should take small sips of the vodka, and swirl it around in their mouths while paying attention to texture, body, and any individual flavors, once again making notes of their impressions. If people choose to swallow the vodka, have them make a note of how long any flavors or nuances remain in the mouth, and then record what they think of the finish. Most people, though, will want to spit the vodka into the plastic cups, rather than gulp it down. It’s hard to talk about your impressions of a spirit when you’re not clearheaded.

Next, talk about each vodka after it has been tasted, and swap your impressions. Sometimes one person will be able to put his or her finger on a specific flavor or aroma and help the others along the way.

When the tasting is over, unveil the bottles—you may be surprised to learn which was which. Compare the results that you and your friends obtained with the notes on the chart above, and discuss how well various bottlings lived up to any preconceived notions you might have had.

Our Findings
What has no flavor and no aroma, but can have an herbaceous nose and a peppery palate? Vodka, that’s what, and those aren’t the only aromas and flavors we’ve found in various bottlings—grass, nuts, bread dough, yeast, citrus, and pine have all cropped up at one time or another, even though American law dictates that this spirit must be free of flavor and aroma.

You might be tempted to think that because we spirits writers taste alcoholic beverages all the time, our taste buds are more finely tuned that those of other people. This may or may not be true, but we guarantee that, if you taste two vodkas side by side at room temperature, you will taste and feel differences between them. Whether or not you can describe their subtleties is another matter. Little, other than what you like best, matters at all.

Admittedly, not many people drink their vodka neat and at room temperature. What happens to the spirit when you chill it by keeping it in the fridge or freezer? Well, a whole different facet of this diamond-clear liquor comes into play at that point. It’s true that much of vodka’s flavor, and almost all of its aroma, disappears at low temperatures. A few notches down on the thermostat transforms vodka into a dense, syrupy, concentrated elixir that coats your tongue and slips seductively down your throat. When consumed cold, some bottlings are this velvety smooth, whereas others might send you reeling across the room when they hit the back of your mouth.

Vodkas that have notes of sweetness aren’t usually the best bottlings to use in a martini—martinis are more tasty with tangy vodkas. Spicy bottlings can also be great bases for martinis. Vodkas that are almost flavorless go well with herbal vermouths. These outlines, though, are generalizations, and like all generalizations, they are flawed. Even we find contradictions when we taste.

Looking for a good martini vodka, or something to quaff straight from the freezer? Check out our spirits database.

Published on July 1, 2001

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