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How to taste vodka ?


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#1 swingers

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Posted 04 July 2003 - 02:27 PM

Hi all,

I would like to know at wich temperature do you taste a new vodka ?

For my part, the first time I try a new vodka, I drink it at room temperature because when the vodka is to freeze it will mask all the “flavours“.

#2 slkinsey

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Posted 04 July 2003 - 03:25 PM

What is the point of tasting the product at a temperature at which it will never be consumed? Any taste judgments you make will only be valid for that temperature. A lot of flavors and aromas change drastically with temperature, not to mention other important variables such as mouthfeel. To my mind, tasting room temperature vodka would be like tasting uncarbonated, room temperature colas because the carbonation and cold temperature are "masking the flavors." Well, anyone who has ever done so can tell you that they all taste cloyingly sweet at room temperature, because sensations of sweetness are influenced by temperature. If you compare impressions of different colas in this form you may decide that you prefer a certain one because it is less cloying than the others, and that same cola might seem lacking in sweetness when consumed cold with carbonation. Similarly, a vodka that is "sweet" at room temperature may turn out dry as a bone coming out of the freezer.

So judging a cold temperature vodka at room temperature might be worthwhile for the professional tasters controlling the production process, but not very enlightening to someone trying to make comparisons and judgments that will have value in the real world. This is one big problem I had with the comparitive gin tastings that the NY Times food writers recently conducted. It is not coincidental, I think, that their judgments, comments and preferences were almost entirely contrary to mine as well as those of most every other gin drinker I know.
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#3 Fat Guy

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Posted 04 July 2003 - 03:29 PM

Isn't the whole point of vodka for it to have no taste? :laugh:

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#4 slkinsey

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Posted 04 July 2003 - 03:41 PM

Isn't the whole point of vodka for it to have no taste?  :laugh:

Exactly! In fact, AFAIK the definition of vodka is that it is supposed to be colorless, tasteless and odorless. Understanding this, I can see how tasting at room temperature might possibly help one identify flaws in the vodka (i.e, tastes and odors).
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#5 Fat Guy

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Posted 04 July 2003 - 03:57 PM

As I said last year on a best vodka thread:

Bill Daley wrote a good article on this in the Hartford Courant in April. I know the article was good because at the end he quoted me, and I know my quote was good because now I see I agree with my man A.J.:


"Vodka ultimately is a pretty bland beverage -- that's the whole point," said Steven A. Shaw, a New York lawyer, food critic and writer who mans the Fat-Guy.com Web site and is a coordinator of the eGullet.com foodie Web site. "I can't take people too seriously when they get all into it and demand that their mixed drinks will taste (badly) if not made with Ketel One or some such nonsense.

"Imagine a food where the point is to have as little taste as possible; that's basically the premise underlying the premium vodka market," he said.


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#6 slkinsey

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Posted 04 July 2003 - 06:34 PM

Indeed. I would be shocked if a "vodka connoisseur" were able to distinguish in a blindfolded test between premium brands out of the freezer or in a martini.
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#7 mickblueeyes

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Posted 04 July 2003 - 10:14 PM

Prepare to be shocked then, because we can. Vodka's point is not to be tasteless and odorless and those regulations only apply to vodka PRODUCED in the US. To the American palate, vodka is supposed to be tasteless and used in mixers, but I assure you that everywhere else in the world that is not the case.

Vodka should be tasted both at room temperature to grasp the true viscosity and aromatics of the spirit and then directly from the freezer to get a feel for the body and finish.

This commonly perpetuated myth that vodka has no flavor and is colorless, is not only false, but absurd. If the point of vodka is to create tasteless spirit, then all vodkas would be distilled to neutrality (about 96% abv) and if that were the case, there would only be need for one vodka. However, I am sure the 1000+ distillers in Poland alone would disagree with you.

#8 Fat Guy

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Posted 05 July 2003 - 07:59 AM

It's certainly an oversimplification to say there's zero difference among vodkas. At the same time, the whole enterprise seems somewhat suspicious. For example, as Slkinsey says, what's the point of tasting it at a temperature other than that at which it will be consumed? If the distinguishing aromatics are suppressed under real drinking conditions, they effectively don't exist.

I can distinguish among vodkas from grain, potatoes, and grapes. I can also distinguish cheap grain-vodka from premium grain-vodka, primarily because the premium vodka has less flavor (which is a good thing, because the flavors and aromas of cheap vodka are disgusting). As between premium brands of grain-vodka, they really do all taste the same to me. I don't doubt I could, with instruction, learn whatever needs to be learned to distinguish them, but what would be the point?

The theoretical ability to distinguish doesn't convince me that the distinctions are particularly meaningful. I just can't take most of it seriously, because the logic is screwy: it's essentially an enterprise where they're trying to get as much flavor removed from the product as possible, and then they're saying, hey, let's distinguish ourselves based on the tiny bit of flavor that remains (and I'm including aroma and mouthfeel in the term flavor).

Likewise, I've rarely seen vodka promotional materials that do anything but fudge the issue of taste. The producers for the most part simply are not attempting to differentiate their brands based on anything having to do with the actual vodka.

Now if this all comes down to America versus the rest of the world, maybe that explains it. But it doesn't explain why all the premium vodka brands are imported. I'm not familiar with the "regulations" but it would seem we take our cues from Europe when it comes to vodka. Do Europeans not consider their premium brands to be any good, instead opting for vodka from small Polish distillers?

Here's the provocative quote from A.J. Liebling that John Whiting posted on the other thread:

"The standard of perfection for vodka (no color, no taste, no smell) was expounded to me long ago by the then Estonian consul-general in New York, and it accounts perfectly for the drink's rising popularity with those who like their alcohol in conjunction with the reassuring tastes of infancy -- tomato juice, orange juice, chicken broth. It is the ideal intoxicant for the drinker who wants no reminder of how hurt Mother would be if she knew what he is doing." _Between Meals_, pp.68-9

It seems to me they should just distill some sort of medically pure alcohol, cut it to a safe strength, and use it as a mixer in bar drinks. But I guess that would acknowledge vodka as purely a drug.

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#9 slkinsey

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Posted 05 July 2003 - 09:11 AM

Prepare to be shocked then, because we can. Vodka's point is not to be tasteless and odorless and those regulations only apply to vodka PRODUCED in the US. To the American palate, vodka is supposed to be tasteless and used in mixers, but I assure you that everywhere else in the world that is not the case.

Hmmm... I've been to a lot of places in the world, and the only places that seemed to take vodka really seriously as anything other than mixing alcohol (other than rare afficianados, of course) were the Slavic states. So maybe we should rethink "everywhere else in the world that is not the case."

Vodka should be tasted both at room temperature to grasp the true viscosity and aromatics of the spirit and then directly from the freezer to get a feel for the body and finish.

As I mentioned before, what is the point of tasting a drink at a temperature at which is will not be consumed? Who cares what the aromatics and viscosity are at room temperature? Are you trying to tell me that a vodka that has delicate floral aroma and good viscosity is somehow "better" than one that has a less pleasant aroma and mouthfeel at room temperature when there is no basis for making this comparison at freezer temperature? That, in my mind, would be like a critic going to Peter Luger and insisting on trying a room temperature steak because certain flavors and aromas are less apparent at warmer temperatures. As I pointed out, flavors, aromas, mouthfeel and other sensory perceptions are greatly affected by temperature. This is a fact. So, in my book, it is silly to make judgments about a product by tasting it at a temperature in which it will never be consumed. Besides... why not heat it up to 100 degrees F and try it like that? I guarantee that there will be flavors, aromas and mouthfeel effects that will become apparent at 100F as opposed to 70F. I'd be interested to hear your explanation for why this wouldn't be an equally valid way to taste vodka.

There is a reason wine reviewers don't bother tasting champagnes flat at room temperature... it's because it doesn't matter.

This commonly perpetuated myth that vodka has no flavor and is colorless, is not only false, but absurd. If the point of vodka is to create tasteless spirit, then all vodkas would be distilled to neutrality (about 96% abv) and if that were the case, there would only be need for one vodka. However, I am sure the 1000+ distillers in Poland alone would disagree with you.

It is quite apparent that there are taste differences between vodkas, however microscopic they may be. In my experience they all have to do with mouthfeel and finish at freezer temperatures (which, per the above, are the only temperatures that matter). That said, it is also quite clear that the goal of vodka distilling is to make the drink as colorless, tasteless and odorless as possible and that the characteristic differences that remain are due to inescapable impurities that remain due to the materials used and the way the vodka is distilled. However, I think we can all agree that premium vodkas have, on the whole, less taste, less odor and less color that the "lower" vodkas -- and furthermore that it is precisely the difference in the presence of the aforementioned three characteristics (as well as finish characteristics influenced by the presence of high alcohols) that determines the difference between these two classes of vodka.

I agree with the corpulent one that it is somewhat silly for vodka distillers to try as hard as they can to remove every last bit of color, flavor and odor from their product and then try to distinguish themselves based on the ministule amount of each that remains. But, of course, what are they to do? They have to do something to gain market share and move their products off the shelves.

Regardless, I think we can all agree that there is far less difference between brands of premium vodka than there is between premium brands of any other kind of liquor. So it seems silly to me to spend $35 on a bottle of Belvedere when I can spend $19 on a bottle of Brilliant. This is not like choosing a $45 bottle of Lagavullin over a $30 bottle of Glenlivet where your 15 bucks buys an obvious tangible difference. Similarly, it seems especially silly to buy anything beyond the cheapest premium brand of vodka for mixing -- I always get whatever is on sale.
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#10 beans

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Posted 05 July 2003 - 01:24 PM

To jump in, this is some discussion with some of my esteemed fellow forumites at my favourite bartender webforum -- Webtender. This is the most recent reincarnation of this tasting debate -- flavourless or otherwise. I'm sure there are older threads with regard to this issue, however I didn't dig. Feel free to jump to their discussion too. Pål runs a fine forum of discussion of some rather lovely, worldly sorts. (queneau69 = :wub: and a *sigh* to boot)

vodka discussion

#11 mickblueeyes

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Posted 06 July 2003 - 08:35 AM

[knuckles cracked] Alright, you guys didn't pay much attention to my post. Lets start this from the beginning.

1. Distillation is the purification of a substance through evaporation and condensation. Specifically, for consumable alcohol, we are dealing with Ethanol (EtOH). When any starch/sugar bearing substance is fermented into beer and distilled, it produces EtOH and Congeners, which include acetyl aldehydes, esters and fusel oils. While esters and acetyl aldehydes actually lend pleasant flavor to distillate, fusel oils lend a negative taste. It is still important, however, to minimize both components in the distillation process, so they don't overpower the flavors of the grain and to create balance. All spirits are created through distillation.

2. The Still. There are two types of stills utilized in distillation: pot and continuous. The pot still is shaped somewhat like a Hershey kiss, while the continuous still (also called column) is a tall column. A simple pot still is only capable of distilling to about 70% abv, but by adding two retorts, a pot still can go as high as 85% abv. A column still is much more efficient and is capable of purifying EtOH to the highest possible level of about 96%. The addition of organic acids can allow for further distillation, but it renders the alcohol unconsumable.

3. The sugar source. There are hundreds of sugar sources used in distillation, but several comprise the majority of distillation: Molasses, sugar cane juice, sugar cane syrup, malted barley, rye, corn, maize, wheat, every variety of grape, agave, potatoes, beets, and just about any type of fruit. The sugar source is combined with yeast and water and allowed to ferment. Sacharomyces cervisiae is typically the species utilized and the sub-special proprietary strains are closely guarded. Fermentation is an anaerobic activitiy and produces CO2 (carbon dioxide) and EtOH, our desired product. This "beer" will be distilled to extract the EtOH.

Now that the basics are out of the way, we can begin discussion of the topic at hand.

All spirits start with a mash of some sort, whether it is rum or vodka. This mash is composed of the grains/fruits/sugar source used to create said spirit. The grains in the mash determine the flavor of the spirit. If I distill 80% corn, 10% malted barley and 10% rye in a pot still to 70% abv and taste the "white dog" or "new make spirit" fresh from the still, it will have loads of flavor. Often sweet corn, bananas, butterscotch and malt come through on the palate (when tasting "white dog" made from that mashbill--I know, I have tasted several batches fresh from the still). If that spirit is watered down to proof and placed in newly charred oak barrels it becomes bourbon. If it is watered down to proof and placed in a bottle, it is vodka. Master distillers taste whiskey off the still to ascertain its flavor, with vodka, you are given that opportunity. However, that isn't true of US made vodkas.

This brings up an important point regarding the production of vodka. In the US, vodka must be distilled to 190 proof, which by definition of alcohol distillation, means that it will be as close to pure as it can get. Hence, the flavor components (congeners) will be almost completely removed. Vodka in the US, by law, must be tasteless and odorless. When distillation reaches its limit, the sugar source will have very little impact on the flavor, if any at all. A potato vodka distilled to 96% abv will taste very similar to wheat distilled to 96% abv. There will be a nuance of difference, but it will fade, as all you are tasting is EtOH.

However, vodkas made elsewhere in the world don't have to follow US regulations. Stolichnaya (the number one selling vodka in the world--60,000,000+ cases) is double distilled wheat. This means that it probably leaves the still at 80% abv. There is plenty of flavor left in that spirit. It is not odorless or tasteless.

To answer slkinsey's questions:

1. I assure you, you are incorrect if you think the "mixed drink" is as popular in the rest of the world as it is in the US. Most countries in the world distill and most drink their local beverages. In Scotland, they drink Scotch, in the Phillipines they drink Tanduay rum, in Brazil they drink Cachaca, in Peru Pisco, in Greece Ouzo, in Italy Sambuca, Amaro and anisette. Yes there is lots of crossover, but I assure you, most of Europe and Asia drink vodka straight.

2. So I guess we should all drink bourbon with coke in it to ascertain its true flavor? Or gin with tonic in it? Or tequila with margarita mix in it? Or any other ludicrous statement? An absolutely absurd argument.

3. The goal of vodka distilling IS NOT to make the spirit as odorless and tasteless as possible!!!! I dare you to say those words to ANY non-US distiller. The vodka distillers of the world take great pride in making their vodka as flavorful as possible. And NO we cannot all agree that premium vodkas have less taste and odor than lower grade vodkas. IN FACT, the very opposite is true. Premium vodkas have ten times the flavor that gut-rot vodkas do. Most cheap vodka available in the US is made in the US so it has to be flavorless and odorless. Most top shelf vodkas are made outside the US so they don't have to follow asinine congressional regulation.

4. No, we cannot agree that there is far less difference between premium vodkas and any other liquor. To assert so, is ridiculous. The flavor wheel for rum, cognac, tequila, bourbon, gin, armagnac, brandy, etc is pretty simple and occupy a simple range of flavors. However, with Scotch (due to water source and environmental differences) and vodka (due to plethora of options for mash) the flavor wheel is all over the place.

Just because you don't know how to appreciate vodka, don't slam those who know how. Your assertions are weak and unjustifiable with fact.

To Fat Guy:

Real drinking conditions vary. Many Eastern European countries drink vodka warm, but only if it is good vodka. I personally enjoy warm vodka, as do many connoisseurs that have any knowledge of the subject.

With instruction, you could learn to distinguish pot stilled from column stilled, corn mash from wheat mash, or any mixture thereof. Any master distiller will tell you that that is a great skill. No, you won't use it frequently, but it is a great skill none the less. I assist in and put on professional tastings, so it is important for me.

"Likewise, I've rarely seen vodka promotional materials that do anything but fudge the issue of taste. The producers for the most part simply are not attempting to differentiate their brands based on anything having to do with the actual vodka."


Heavily advertised vodka is a poor excuse for vodka. Grey goose--mediocre. Absolut--terrible. Skyy--mediocre. You don't see top shelf imported vodkas advertised much. There is a reason for that--they sell based on taste. And vodka distillers do differentiate based on ingredients and water source. That is the most important thing in vodka: ingredients, ingredients, ingredients. It is naked spirit and it is easy to taste imperfection.

Now if this all comes down to America versus the rest of the world, maybe that explains it. But it doesn't explain why all the premium vodka brands are imported. I'm not familiar with the "regulations" but it would seem we take our cues from Europe when it comes to vodka. Do Europeans not consider their premium brands to be any good, instead opting for vodka from small Polish distillers?


We don't take our cues from Europe, we take them from creators of industrial alcohol. I am not sure of the connection you are trying to draw here, but I think you are trying to say that US vodkas are just like European vodkas?? If so, you could not be any more incorrect. European distillers are some of the best in the world and have been distilling for hundreds of years longer than many other countries. Our vodka is made in an industrial process, theirs is handcrafted.

Here's the provocative quote from A.J. Liebling that John Whiting posted on the other thread:

"The standard of perfection for vodka (no color, no taste, no smell) was expounded to me long ago by the then Estonian consul-general in New York, and it accounts perfectly for the drink's rising popularity with those who like their alcohol in conjunction with the reassuring tastes of infancy -- tomato juice, orange juice, chicken broth. It is the ideal intoxicant for the drinker who wants no reminder of how hurt Mother would be if she knew what he is doing." _Between Meals_, pp.68-9

It seems to me they should just distill some sort of medically pure alcohol, cut it to a safe strength, and use it as a mixer in bar drinks. But I guess that would acknowledge vodka as purely a drug.


A.J. Liebling may subscribe to his Freudian idiocies all he wants, but I assure you, as I have several Eastern European customers, that there is nothing further from the truth. That may be the case in the US, but nowhere else. You need to do some serious studying regarding vodka before you have the minerals to call it a drug. Your argument was at least engaging to that point, but you showed your true bias there.

You, like everyone else on this thread, wish to view vodka as an insignificant spirit when, in fact, it is the forerunner to most every spirit on the planet. It is the lack of education in this country that causes people to buy vodka because it is on sale and then proclaim with their proletariat voices that there is nothing better and to spend more is to waste money. Once again, the American populace shows its lack of education in the liquor arena.

#12 beans

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Posted 06 July 2003 - 09:14 AM

mickblueeyes:

Taste is a subjective thing. Isn't it? And what one may like is just that. What you may like may be different. Big whippy skippy, eh? No need to be rude and judge another with a insult because they don't have the same taste as you. :hmmm:

I seem to be repeating myself, but when one judges another, they are not defining them, it in fact defines the one who judges.... or something to that effect. :wacko: :huh: :unsure:

Damn, I need a Glacier on the rocks and to enjoy my inferior vodka in the glorious sunshine on my afternoon off.... I have plenty an will share.... :laugh: Or slkinsey -- how about a glass of that Brilliant? I haven't tried that yet...

Cheers y'all. :raz:

#13 JAZ

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Posted 06 July 2003 - 09:25 AM

You, like everyone else on this thread, wish to view vodka as an insignificant spirit when, in fact, it is the forerunner to most every spirit on the planet.

Rough forms of distilled wine, the forerunners to brandy, were made as early as the 14th century. True, double-distilled, brandies came on the scene in the 16th century; gin was first formulated in 16th century Holland. Rum appeared in the early 17th century. Whiskies were being made in Scotland and Ireland by the 1500's and even in the US, whiskey production began in 1700.

So in what sense is vodka the forerunner to every spirit on the planet?

The fact is that people have learned to distill into alcohol whatever source of sugar they have available.

#14 slkinsey

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Posted 06 July 2003 - 09:48 AM

Yes there is lots of crossover, but I assure you, most of Europe and Asia drink vodka straight.

Having been all over Europe and many other areas of the world (although not particularly much in Asia, I must admit) I feel I can definitively say that this is hogwash. I would say that most of Europe doesn't tend to drink much vodka... I never saw anyone doing it except young people, and they weren't drinking it straight.

2. So I guess we should all drink bourbon with coke in it to ascertain its true flavor? Or gin with tonic in it? Or tequila with margarita mix in it? Or any other ludicrous statement? An absolutely absurd argument.

Mick... don't go making straw arguments and putting words in someone's mouth. No one has suggested this, so using it to support your position is meaningless. That said, I would agree that drinking bourbon with coke or gin with tonic would be the best way to test it if that is the only way the liquor will be consumed. I can only assume your example is in some way intended to counter my comments as to the relevance of tasting vodka at room temperature. If you plan on drinking a lot of room-temperature vodka, then test away by all means. This is the only case where room temperature tasting has any relevance. Just don't tell me that any of your room temperature judgments are valid at freezer temperatures or meaningful to someone who takes their vodka at that temperature.

Also... you never answered my question as to why you wouldn't want to heat the vodka up to 100 F to experience and evaluate the different flavor, aroma and mouthfeel effects at that temperature? If you feel that room temperature evaluations are meaningful to someone who drinks vodka at freezer temperature, please be so kind as to explain why 100 F tastings would not be equally relevant.

Premium vodkas have ten times the flavor that gut-rot vodkas do.

This assertion has got to sound completely ridiculous to anyone who has tasted the two classes of vodka. You may be saying that premium vodkas have ten times the quality or complexity of flavor that rotgut vodkas have... but to suggest that the flavor is stronger is simply ludicrous.

No, we cannot agree that there is far less difference between premium vodkas and any other liquor. To assert so, is ridiculous. The flavor wheel for rum, cognac, tequila, bourbon, gin, armagnac, brandy, etc is pretty simple and occupy a simple range of flavors. However, with Scotch (due to water source and environmental differences) and vodka (due to plethora of options for mash) the flavor wheel is all over the place.

Are you kidding? I mean, really, are you kidding?! Are you trying to tell me that premium vodkas have the same range of flavor and other characteristics as between Patron Silver tequila and Herradura Anejo, between Bacardi Silver rum and Ron Zacapa, between Maker's Mark bourbon and Bookers, between Beefeater gin and Hendricks, between an unaged grappa di prosecco and a grappa di barbera aged in wood, etc.? That's just crazy talk. I bet you can't name any two premium vodkas that exhibit the flavor and character differences as the examples I have made.

Edited by slkinsey, 06 July 2003 - 01:21 PM.

Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

#15 Fat Guy

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Posted 06 July 2003 - 11:30 AM

Now if this all comes down to America versus the rest of the world, maybe that explains it. But it doesn't explain why all the premium vodka brands are imported. I'm not familiar with the "regulations" but it would seem we take our cues from Europe when it comes to vodka. Do Europeans not consider their premium brands to be any good, instead opting for vodka from small Polish distillers?


We don't take our cues from Europe, we take them from creators of industrial alcohol. I am not sure of the connection you are trying to draw here, but I think you are trying to say that US vodkas are just like European vodkas?? If so, you could not be any more incorrect. European distillers are some of the best in the world and have been distilling for hundreds of years longer than many other countries. Our vodka is made in an industrial process, theirs is handcrafted.

This distinction between US and European vodka just doesn't hold up in light of so much of the premium vodka in the US coming from Europe.

It seems the whole militant-pro-vodka argument hinges on the supposition that those of us who don't buy into it have never tasted the real thing. Perhaps that's true. I can't prove a negative. What I can say is that I've tasted most of the major premium brands available in the US -- most of which seem to be from Europe -- and everything I and others have said holds true for them. If there are 1,000 special secret small-batch super-premium ultra-flavorful vodkas made in Poland that get consumed locally, and they have totally different characteristics from any vodka I've ever consumed, then they are effectively a different beverage -- one that I'm not talking about.

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#16 slkinsey

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Posted 06 July 2003 - 12:50 PM

After combing the internet for definitions of vodka and articles detailing the defining characteristics of vodka, it is almost impossible to find anything that does not include the words "unaged" and "colorless" and "odorless" alongside "tasteless/flavorless" or "virtually tasteless/flavorless" or "with no defining or discernable characteristic taste/flavor" or other words to that effect. Representative examples would be something like this or this. I also found it quite interesting that virtually every vodka site I encountered (like this one) say that one should taste vodka out of the freezer.

Is vodka in fact completely flavorless? Of course not -- that is impossible. Even pure H2O produces taste sensations. But it seems utterly futile to argue that vodka is a particularly flavorful beverage when it is readily apparent that it is not -- nor does it show a particularly wide range of flavors. This is especially true when comparing it to most every other liquor available -- all readily provable with a gas chromatograph, I suppose, and I wonder if anyone has done this.

There's a reason there are a zillion kinds of flavored vodkas out there. It is because vodka has no real discernable characteristic flavor to interfere with the added flavoring. There is also a reason one does not see a zillion kinds of flavored rum, tequilla, bourbon, scotch, etc. It's because they have too much flavor.
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#17 beans

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Posted 06 July 2003 - 01:09 PM

For aged vodka, check this out!

"Starka"

Interesting website too. Never had any, but then I haven't been to Poland.

#18 slkinsey

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Posted 06 July 2003 - 01:17 PM

For aged vodka, check this out!

"Starka"

From the site:

Starka is a strong, 50% vodka, made from rye spirits and long aged in oak barrels. The oak essences leached from the wood give this drink a fine, unique bouquet.


I am trying to understand why this is "aged vodka" and not straight rye whiskey.
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#19 beans

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Posted 06 July 2003 - 03:22 PM

This may help:

Polish Vodka Varieties

In Polish, unlike in Western classifications, the word wodki ("vodkas") refers to every kind of drink containing more than 20% alcohol, including brandy, rum, etc. Vodka as known in the West corresponds to the Polish czysta wodka ("clear vodka"), that is, an aqueous solution of ethyl alcohol.


Where as in the U.S., the good folks of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have this to say:

55-552 Grain Neutral Spirits Stored in Wood may not be Labeled as Vodka

Grain Neutral Spirits Stored in Wood may not be Labeled as Vodka. Advice has been requested whether grain neutral spirits, which have obtained a light golden color from storage in wood and which are treated with carbon, may be labeled as vodka if, when bottled, the distillate retains all or part of the light golden color.

Section 21, class 1(a) of Regulations No. 5 defines vodka as neutral spirits distilled from any material at or above 190 degrees of proof, reduced to not more than 110 nor less than 80 degrees of proof, and after such reduction in proof treated by one of the three methods set forth therein so that the resulting product would be without distinctive character, aroma, or taste. That section requires that the distillate, after treatment, be stored only in metal, porcelain, or glass containers or paraffin lined tanks.

It is held that a product with a "light golden" color would not conform to the above definition. Accordingly, such a product may not be labeled as vodka.

27 U.S.C. 205; 27 CFR 5.21 (27 CFR 5.22)

and further:

55-740 Neutral Spirits Subjected to Vodka Process but Stored in Reused Whiskey Barrels may not be Designated or Labeled as Vodka

Neutral Spirits Subjected to Vodka Process but Stored in Reused Whiskey Barrels may not be Designated or Labeled as Vodka. A product produced from neutral spirits at a registered distillery and subjected to the treatment prescribed for the manufacture of vodka, but packaged in reused whisky barrels, may not be designated or labeled as vodka. See Revenue Ruling 55-552 which provides that a product having a light golden color from storage in wooden containers may not be labeled as vodka since it would not be without distinctive character. A product so produced and treated should, upon packaging in the distillery, be branded "neutral spirits-grain," followed by the phrase "subjected to vodka process." The product would then, upon bottling, be eligible for labeling as a specialty with a fanciful name and statement of composition.

26 U.S.C. 5193; 26 CFR 220.544 (27 CFR 201.513)


Depends upon interpretation? After all vodka can be made with rye or other varied grains. Perhaps more discussion from others can help to shed additional light on this?

edit: to repair link, bleh.

Edited by beans, 06 July 2003 - 03:29 PM.


#20 Fat Guy

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Posted 06 July 2003 - 03:30 PM

This may help:

Polish Vodka Varieties

In Polish, unlike in Western classifications, the word wodki ("vodkas") refers to every kind of drink containing more than 20% alcohol, including brandy, rum, etc. Vodka as known in the West corresponds to the Polish czysta wodka ("clear vodka"), that is, an aqueous solution of ethyl alcohol.

That does help. If rum is vodka in Poland, they're using the word in a way that is so radically different from the way we use it here that it's impossible to have a rational discussion if one person is assuming one definition and another person is assuming the other.

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#21 slkinsey

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Posted 06 July 2003 - 03:37 PM

Right... basically what I get out of this is that people over there use the generic term "vodka" (or whatever) to stand for any strong distilled spirit. Needless to say, this usage is not the one we are employing in this discussion.

So, this is my question: We have two distilled spirits made from grape skins. One is a grappa (or marc, etc. depending on country of origin) and the other is a vodka. What makes them different? My understanding is that the one called vodka has 1. undergone further refinement and processing specifically to remove flavor and aroma, and 2. has also not been treated in any way that might contribute flavor or aroma (ageing in wood, etc.).

The point of this is that there must be something which, in our understanding, makes vodka different from rum, whisky, grappa, eau de vie, etc. -- and we can definitively say that is is not the raw ingredients, so it must be something else. Hmmmm... might it be the marked lack of color, flavor and aroma?
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#22 beans

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Posted 06 July 2003 - 03:49 PM

I got too tired reading what the ATF or any other resource deemed or officially defined the "vodka process."

BTW, I'm still on the look out for some Marc de Champagne to make those darned cute little champagne cork truffles, Jacques Torres whipped up in one FN episode, without having to hoof my way around the obscure and out of the way French countryside and happen upon a farmer's sign. A reasonable sub may have to due! :biggrin:

#23 mickblueeyes

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Posted 07 July 2003 - 07:28 AM

Man, you guys are hard-headed and wrong.

Jaz, it is therozied that Russians and Poles began extremely crude distillation in the 12th century. By the latter 15th century, they were in full production. By the way, any unaged spirit, watered to proof, spirit is vodka. And in a greater sense, prior to aging, every spirit that has come fresh from a still is vodka, whether it is cognac, bourbon, brandy, or tequila. If any of the spirits of the world were bottled unaged, they would be classified as vodka, regardless of mashbill.

slkinsey,

1. I am glad you feel you can speak for all Europeans. Try Norway and Sweeden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovaka, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Italy, Georgia, Armenia, Iceland, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Moldoavia, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Lithuania, Albania, Bulgaria--all of whom produce great quantities of vodka. So I guess you have only been to England (produces no less than 45 vodkas), Spain (only 1 imported to the US), Portugal (only 1 imported into the US), Scotland (1), Ireland (3), France (7), Germany (10), Austria (1), Denmark (4), and Greece (1) or else you have no clue what you are talking about. As I said, most of Europe drinks vodka straight.

2. Straw arguments? Yours is the straw argument. Ask any vodka enthusiast how to drink vodka and most will tell you straight from the freezer or -1 degree celsius. However, you will find that in Eastern Europe and Nordic countries, they often drink very high quality vodkas at room temperature, as do I. Just because a majority of Americans drink bourbon with coke, doesn't mean I should to taste it. They are doing it incorrectly, not I. Just because a majority of individuals in the US are unaware of vodka's pristine state at room temperature, doesn't mean I have to be. You are the one drinking/tasting incorrectly, not I.

3. I do assert that higher quality NON-US vodkas are stronger in flavor with much more complexity. If you cannot agree to that, then you don't even know enough about vodka for me to waste my time. I suggest the following books for you to read before you try and argue a point you know nothing about: The Vodka Companion, Desmond Beggs; Classic Vodka, Nicholas Faith and Ian Wisniewski; Vodkas of the World, Gilbert Delos. When you have read these books and tasted well over 100 vodkas, come back and talk to me.

However, I will be a nice guy and explain this to you. Vodka produced in the US puts a high concentration on purity, hence the legal restriction requiring it to be distilled to 190 proof (which would leave roughly 30 milligrams per liter congeners--still enough for the human chemoreceptors to detect). This is often considered high-quality vodka, but it is not. People in the US regard vodka for its "smoothness", which is in essence for its flavorlessness. This is not the case elsewhere in the world.

Every other country in the world has the choice of what proof to distill to; most choosing to distill between 110-160 proof. This means a probable 2-3 distillations. Most vodkas produced in the US are overdistilled and lose flavor. Vodkas produced everywhere else in the world contain as much as 2500 milligrams per liter of congeners--a vast difference. Stolichnaya, which is the number one selling vodka in the world, but certainly not in the US, is only double distilled wheat, which means it has a great deal of congeners left in the spirit and it has a good range of flavor. This is NOTHING like US vodkas. The less distillation, the more flavor, get it? Vodkas produced in the US have to be OVERDISTILLED BY LAW.

Hence, premium vodka is not made in the US. Premium vodkas are not meant to be distilled 6-50 times, anything that claims it is premium and is distilled more than 5 times is a marketing scam. You compare Stoli to Glacier and you will get the vast difference you are looking for. I guarantee that a gas chromatograph or even photometry will show a vast difference. 2500 mg vs. 30 mg, um, yeah, there's no difference at all.

To address you grappa vs. vodka statement: I know of no vodka produced solely from the must. Grappa, however, is, which gives it the sticky, stemy, brambley taste. Vodkas produced from grapes are usually a product of wine. Your statement regarding vodka is very incorrect however. I am going to try to explain this to you one more time: THERE ARE NO INTERNATIONAL RULES FOR THE PRODUCTION OF VODKA. They only exist in the US. Why can't you understand that--I have said it no less than 10 times on this thread. Vodka can be distilled one time or 50 times, filtered through dog dung and aged in tupperware. It can be flavored with anything and everything. Your insistence on making up information about vodka is baffling. You clearly need to do more research on the subject before you debate.

To address your "flavored vodka" argument. Flavored vodka is a traditional method of manufacture. However, most flavored vodkas are marketing to the US. Flavored vodka originated from the crude distillation methods of the 12th century which left mostly congeners and evaporated a great deal of the EtOH. Hence, the distillate was flavored to cover up negative taste. It became traditional. Also, many herbel medical remedies were mixed with vodka to enhance the potency. Most Eastern Europeans still to this day consider black pepper and a shot of vodka to be a good remedy for an ailing stomach.

Oh, and just so you know, Starka is produced in Poland, so the US laws don't apply to it (once again).

To address your final, very poor, argument. Let me explain this to you once again slowly. There is vodka made from 100% peat-malted barley, double distilled in pot stills. It is unaged. Do you know what it tastes like? Unaged scotch. There is corn based vodka with wheat and barley added, triple or quadruple distilled. Do you know what it tastes like? Unaged bourbon. There is 100% grape based vodka using Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Folle Blanche. Do you know what it tastes like? Unaged cognac. There is 100% sugar cane and 100% molasses vodka. Do you know what it tastes like? Unaged rum. Your argument is ridiculous. These spirits benefit from the wood, but the majority of the flavor comes from grains, water and distillation. That is the point. You drink aged vodka every day. That is vodka's versitility. It can be made from anything, using any method of distillation. If you can't see that, you are a lost cause.

Fat guy:

Regarding the Polish definition, it is far too broad. Let's use this definition: Vodka is the distillate of anything, typically, though not always, unaged and potentially flavored with any substance. That is the industry definition. For our purposes though, let's use the definition of "If it says vodka on the bottle, it's vodka". The Polish definition you are using is a common definition though, not an official one. Like Southerners calling every Carbonated beverage "Coke" or Midwesterners calling them "Pop", just FYI.

You still haven't clarified your argument regarding the European vodkas, so I will have to guess what you mean again. I am guessing that you mean that European vodka is flavorless and you believe I am arguing that the microdistilleries have much to offer. You are incorrect.

Most European vodka that makes it to the US is very flavorless, why? Because that is what appeals to the US palate. Grey Goose, for example, is a poor excuse for vodka. However, Volganaya is a wonder, full-flavored vodka that can be had at $10 a pop. What I am trying to say to you is this: don't believe the hype and marketing.

To you and all: What you have to realize is that the American palate is terrible. We drink box wine and Arbor Mist. The top selling vodkas in the US are Smirnoff, Popov and Burnetts. The top selling whiskies are Crown Royal and Jack Daniels. The top selling rum is Bacardi. The top selling premium tequila is Patron.

We are being marketed to on a daily basis. Do you realize how much money is spent on liquor advertising in the US every year? Billions. The liquor industry is the most powerful industry in America behind the porn industry and the Oil industry. You are told that X is a premium product and believe that it is, while the fact remains that it is not. Canadians scoff at Crown, Mexicans scoff at Patron, Russians scoff at american produced smirnoff and burnetts and popov--we are dupes. We have been lead to believe that Grey goose, Absolut and Skyy are cream of the crop, when in fact they are not.

Beans, you have been lead to believe that Glacier Teton is the way vodka is supposed to taste, when in fact, it is not. Everywhere else in the world, vodka is judged by its taste and flavor. Only in the West is it judged by smoothness and mixability.

Believe me or not, that is your choice, but I encourage you all to try and find the out-of-print books I mentioned to slkinsey. Unfortunately, you are all very uneducated with regard to Vodka. Sorry to be so blunt about it, but it is the truth. Do some research and stop parroting the same thing everyone else does or what you heard from your liquor reps (who never know anything) or the clerk at your local shop. If you spend some time reading and tasting, you will find that not only every expert in the field agrees with me, but that I am indeed right.

Edited by mickblueeyes, 07 July 2003 - 07:31 AM.


#24 beans

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Posted 07 July 2003 - 09:38 AM

A few random thoughts. We did taste testing just last night. There was very little difference and no one was able to identify any of the following correctly -- this from four bartenders, a restaurant general manager (a former bartender too) and one of the service staff.

Vox, Finlandia, Glacier, Skyy, Ketel One, Grey Goose, Three Olives, Tanqueray Sterling, Stoli Crystal, Belvedere and Chopin.

All smooth. All from various countries, all lacking any distinctive flavour from one or the other.

And I'm not how anyone can scoff at Crown Reserve (maybe at the price) or Patron? I've served Mexicans that adore the stuff.

While I'm painfully aware that Starka is Polish, I posted the CFR's as evidence that it is not recognized to be a "vodka" for having been aged and in direct contact with wooden barrels. Never did I assert American law to govern Starka's production.

I need to locate my self medicating pain relievers and commence rehydration. Not sure it is the inferior, tasteless/flavourless marketing victim vodkas we stock our bar with or if it is mickblueeyes' incessant rhetoric. :rolleyes:

#25 slkinsey

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Posted 07 July 2003 - 11:24 AM

Mick, a few things here:

1. First and foremost, let us keep the personal comments to ourselves. Please feel free to make whatever characterizations you like about my arguments, but not about me personally. I apologize to you if the incredulity of some remarks has made them seem directed towards you personally, and hope we can aspire to an exchange of ideas.

2. After reading your remarks, it is quite clear that we are operating under completely different definitions of "vodka." You seem to be operating under the definition that "vodka" includes any and all distilled beverages. That is clearly not the definition that most people outside of the Slavic countries use. It might be helpful in this discussion if you would answer the following questions:
2a. What criteria would you say are those that define vodka? What is your definition of "vodka"?
2b. What would you say is the difference between bourbon or grappa or scotch or rum straight from the still and vodka?
2c. Is there such a thing as aged vodka?
2d. If the answer to 2c is "yes" -- then what is the difference between, say, bourbon and aged vodka? Or are you saying that bourbon is an aged vodka?

I would suggest that we confine this discussion to the alcoholic beverage sold as and understood to be "vodka" in the US and Western Europe. This does not mean distilled here or produced according to US law, but it does mean sold here under the name "vodka." I assume that the non-US premium vodkas which you keep mentioning are at least available for sale in the US. Does that sound reasonable? Because, if we go from the Slavic definition of vodka, we have no way that I can see to differentiate vodka from any other distilled product and there is no basis for this discussion.

3. All I can say about the European countries you bring up is that I have spent not inconsiderable time in every single country in Western Europe. In my times there I have spent a fair amount of time drinking socially and in places where people gather to drink socially. It was never my observation that people were drinking a lot of what we in the US would call "vodka" and, in my observation, that goes for non-Slavic Europeans as well (note that I am specifically not making reference to vodka produced under US law). Furthermore, the few times I have noticed (mostly young) people drinking vodka, it was almost always in something like a "vodka and orange." In fact, I'm not sure I have ever seen anyone drinking straight vodka in Western Europe. (Keep in mind, that I am using the US understanding of vodka, which would not include things like aquavit, eau de vie, grappa, gin, whisky, etc. Given your seemingly wider definition of vodka, which I hope you will define in a way that we can all understand, these numbers may be higher and may include the aforementioned spirits.) All this is to say that your assertion that most people outside the US drink most of their vodka straight is strongly contradicted by my own personal and somewhat extensive experience. Perhaps someone in the bar or restaurant business in Europe might be able to offer a different view.

4. A "straw man argument" is when someone attacks an argument of his choosing which is different from, and usually weaker than, the opposition's actual best argument. This is what you did by suggesting that my position was "we should all drink bourbon with coke in it to ascertain its true flavor" -- which is an argument I never made, and one much weaker than my actual argument. In fact, my argument was that tasting vodka at room temperature is not a meaningful way to evaluate vodka for people who will be drinking the vodka at freezer temperature. It is not "incorrect" to take the effects of temperature into account when evaluating a liquor. If you want to suggest that room temperature tastings are valid for tasters who drink vodka at room temperature, you won't find any argument from me. Furthermore, I might not argue if you suggested that "true vodka connoisseurs like to drink vodka at room temperature." However, you have still not answered my questions as to how room temperature tastings would be in any way useful or meaningful to someone who drinks vodka at freezer temperature.

5. You keep on coming back to an argument based on US laws for vodka produced in the US. Let us leave aside US-produced vodkas and the laws regulating their production. I think we all agree that the best vodkas are not manufactured in the USA, and indeed most premium vodkas that are available in the US are not manufactured here. Perhaps you could give an example of a highly flavorful premium non-US vodka that is available for sale in the US? I notice that you use Stolichnaya as an example... I have tried plenty of Stoli in my day, including American-bought, European-bought and Russian-bought examples, and I would still not say that it is particularly flavorful. Compared to Skyy, sure... but not compared to gin or grappa or eau de vie or rum or bourbon or scotch, etc. Maybe you have another example? If you can point me to a representative brand of flavorful vodka I can buy in NYC, I'd be more than happy to give it a try.

6. You say, "...compare Stoli to Glacier and you will get the vast difference you are looking for." Are you suggesting that the flavor difference between Stoli and Glacier is as wide as the difference between Bacardi Silver rum and Ron Zacapa? Or any of the other examples that I made? Even if Glacier has absolutely no flavor whatsoever, I hardly see how this could be possible. As I have pointed out earlier, I have a bottle of practically tasteless Brilliant at home right now. I'd be perfectly willing to get some Stoli and compare side-by-side tastings of Stoli versus Brilliant and Barardi Silver versus Ron Zacapa using whatever temperatures and methods you would suggest. But I don't think you're going to want to hear what I'd have to say. Who knows... maybe I'd be really shocked at how the difference between the vodkas was so much more than between the rums and how the vodkas had so much more flavor than the rums -- but somehow I really, really doubt it.

7. You say, "Vodkas produced everywhere else in the world contain as much as 2500 milligrams per liter of congeners." I would be interested to hear what vodkas there are out there (that we would define as "vodka") with 2500 mg/l of congeners.

8. Perhaps you will address this with your definition of what constitutes "vodka" -- but I am interested to hear you explain what, exactly, would make something distilled from grape must (i.e., grappa) not a vodka. Also, if I understand you correctly, you are suggesting that raw scotch from the still is, in effect, vodka. What happens to it to make it scotch and different from vodka? Is it the aging in wood? Wouldn't this tend to suggest that aging vodka transforms it into something that is not vodka (i.e. that there is no such thing as "aged vodka")? Or would you suggest that aged scotch is vodka?

Edited by slkinsey, 07 July 2003 - 11:53 AM.

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#26 slkinsey

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Posted 07 July 2003 - 12:49 PM

Let's use this definition: Vodka is the distillate of anything, typically, though not always, unaged and potentially flavored with any substance. That is the industry definition. For our purposes though, let's use the definition of "If it says vodka on the bottle, it's vodka".

Just reread through the thread and saw that I had skipped over the above. This answers a few of my questions and makes some of your positions understandable.

I would suggest that your definition of vodka, however correct it may be in a purely technical sense, is not a very useful one, and not particularly one that is shared by most people in the non-Slavic world. Your definition, in effect, says that all unaged distilled alcoholic beverages that choose to call themselves "vodka" are vodka. Your definition may be a "purist definition" based in the Slavic language meanings of the word, but I think it is very clear that people have something more specific in their minds when they think "vodka." I think it is reasonable to assert that vodka is not every kind of unaged distilled beverage, but a specific kind of unaged distilled beverage.

Clearly, there is something in the general conception of this category of distilled beverage other than the name that makes vodka different from other unaged distillates such as grappa, eau de vie, marc, silver rums, silver tequillas, gin, aquavit, etc. There is something that makes people taste an unaged silver tequilla and say, "this doesn't seem like vodka to me... this seems like tequilla." Similarly, there is something about things like gin and aquavit that makes them fudamentally distinct from vodka, even though they might technically be termed "flavored vodkas" (this makes me question the utility of "flavored vodka" as a distinct category more than it does gin or aquavit as distinct categories). Under your definition, a bottle of Patron Silver or Beefeater that said "vodka" on the bottle would, in fact, be vodka. I don't think this is a particularly useful way to think about vodka, I don't think it is the way most of the world thinks about vodka, and I surely don't think anyone in this thread besides you was thinking that way about vodka.

If one looks around at the distilled beverages called "vodka" one can reasonably conclude that there are certain characteristics which make these beverages coherent as a group and distinctly different from other unaged distilled beverages. It also seems reasonable to observe that the characteristics that make these unaged distilled beverages called "vodka" hang together as a group distinctly different from other unaged distilled beverages, regardless of country of origin, is that they are refined and otherwise treated in such a way so as to markedly reduce the presence and strength of flavor, color and odor in comparison with other unaged distilled beverages that might otherwise be similar.
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#27 Capn Jimbo

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Posted 10 March 2011 - 06:53 AM

Having waded through the to-and-fro of this exchange, perhaps a "final word" is in order, lol...

Bottom line:

Tasting and reviewing - at least by the very best and most respected reviewers (think the likes of F. Paul Pacult, Dave Broom, et al) - is conducted at room temperature to facilitate the complete understanding of any spirit, vodka included.

Such respected experts use the same technique, at room temperature, for all spirits. Professional tasting/reviewing typically takes up to 20 or 30 minutes. Nosing alone can take 15 minutes, if not more. How a spirit is typically consumed has very little to do with how a proper and reliable review is conducted.

Cooling or heaven forbid, freezing the spirit, however traditional in drinking (not reviewing) only inhibits analysis and review. This is especially true in something like vodka where the differences are subtle (but no less significant). Subtle does not mean absent.

#28 Mjx

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Posted 10 March 2011 - 07:35 AM

As far as I've noticed (among the cohort of academics and geeks that I run with), in the EU countries in which I've been, vodka is only drunk cold if it's cheap, or if people want to get drunk fast... I sort of associate frozen vodka with the likelihood that those consuming much of it will be doing 'body sild' by 1.00 am.

Before anyone starts screaming, I'm not passing judgement, it's just observation; I prefer frozen vodka myself, because freezing mitigates the appalling burning vodka causes. Then again, I think 'sugary' is an attractive description of drink, so I'm aware of the, erm... limitations of my views on alcohol.

But the idea that vodka should be tested at whatever temperature it will be drunk makes excellent sense.

Edited by Mjx, 10 March 2011 - 07:35 AM.

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