The morning after my first full-scale vodka tasting party was not nearly as painful as I feared it might be. Here is the full report!
Double-blind(ish) tasting, each participant ranks all vodkas, from best (1) to worst (6).
Our vodka experts were invited over for a Saturday afternoon cookout. After the meal we gathered inside for the tasting. I prepared official ballots for the participants. You will note that the ballot lists Ketel One, but this was swapped out for Effen, which Pawel had brought.
(I am amused by the fact that the invite said “if you want anything besides meat and vodka, bring it!”, and Pawel brought more vodka. It is for such reasons that we are friends.)
I set out 42 glasses, and Sotheavy helped me label each set “A” through “F” with little stickers before filling. Then, while people played Beatles Rock Band, I filled each with about a half-shot and wrote down which was which. This would normally make it a single-blind test, but I honestly forgot which vodkas corresponded to which letters by the time I was done. I think this officially qualifies as double-blind-ish.
Here is a picture of the spread.
We all did our tasting at the same time, but not in a structured fashion. Chips and lemon wedges were available for palette cleansing. The goal was simply to rank them according to personal taste, not by price or match to the “correct” vodka.
Nobody did them as shots. We all spent a good amount of time going through the process, tasting and re-tasting, adjusting our rankings. I would estimate the group spent about 15-20 minutes working on it.
After everyone had their ranking finalized, it was time to view the results!
And the results are… (drum roll please)
Vodka Rankings (lower numbers are better)
#1 Effen (2.6 avg rank) #2 Vitali (2.9 avg rank) #3 Absolut (3.0 avg rank) #4 Belvedere (3.1 avg rank) #5 Tie: Grey Goose & Skyy (4.7 avg rank)
Here are the person-by-person rankings.
A closer look at the results is interesting. Turns out that Vitali took the #1 spot more than any other vodka (3 times), but also appeared near the bottom on two lists, bringing down its average. Effen only made #1 once, but made nearly everyone’s top 3. Absolut got the #1 spot on two lists.
Grey Goose never scored better than #3, and got multiple 5′s and 6′s. Skyy was very similar. Belvedere was all over the place, appearing in nearly every possible position.
Austin, henceforth known as “The Vodka Kang”, came the closest to ranking the vodkas in order of pricing. His only swap was putting Skyy below Vitali. This only lends to his apparent vodka expertise, since before the tasting began he announced (with sincere disgust) that Skyy was the nastiest vodka in the world.
Sotheavy came closest to ranking the vodkas in reverse price order. Her only deviation from that was to put Belvedere at #2, which nicely placed the least and most expensive vodkas as her top pair.
So that’s the story with the vodkas. But as as to the people, who won? That depends on your definition of “win”. It could be that Austin won with his accurate price-based ranking. It could be that Dylan, Pawel, and Sotheavy won, by discovering they never need to pay more than $6.99 for a bottle of vodka again.
Personally I think we all won, because we ended up low-res and belting out Rock Band songs for hours.
While playing Rock Band, I made up a few fresh strawberry martinis using each person’s favorite vodka. (Just mash up a couple fresh strawberries, vodka, and a little lemon… shake with ice, strain and serve)
I think Rock Band went until just after 10PM or so. Then a few of us went out and met up with some other cool people to try the Sunset Carnival. Upon arrival, though, the carnival was shutting down — before 11PM on a Saturday. This unfortunately puts Henderson on the Lame-O map. We went to Hooters instead and bought a plate of 50 wings. Probably more enjoyable than the carnival anyway.
Seems like we all had fun and learned a little about our vodka preferences. I have heard of no deaths or killer hangovers stemming from the day’s activities. And that spells success.
My Final Vodka Thoughts
So it seems that different vodkas do taste significantly different to me. I was skeptical of this early on in my vodka drinking career, since the flavors seemed to range only from “rubbing alcohol” to “good rubbing alcohol”. But I’ve done a few tastings now and as much as I hesitate to admit it, there are definitely some that cause more pain than others.
There is no “ultimate” vodka; everyone seems to have different tastes.
For me, good vodka is as neutral as possible… something with no more taste than water and the burn of the alcohol. I hear that in some of the traditional vodka producing regions this is not the case: vodka is supposed to have distinct tastes reflecting its ingredients and preparation.
I am not a traditional vodka producing region.
Despite years of evangelizing the ultra-non-premium Vitali, it turns out that I really don’t like the taste of it at all. But my specific claim that it was “just as good as Grey Goose” seems to to have held up.
I did a little non-blind taste test myself a few weeks back, with Vitali, Smirnoff, Absolut, and Ketel One. Absolut was the surprise clear winner during that test, even though I had never taken it seriously before. The other three seemed noticeably more cringe-worthy to me, even the well-respected Ketel One.
I was surprised to see that Absolut surfaced as my #1 again. I find it an almost pleasant drink. I will consider it my personal benchmark vodka going forward.
For me, the difference between Absolut, Belvedere, and maybe Effen was pretty small. But the difference between any of those and Grey Goose and Vitali was huge.
My original premise, that vodka price is not a good indicator of taste, seems to be holding up so far.
But then, if you’re throwing it in a mixed drink, who really cares?
Some may argue that the measure of a good vodka is not only in the taste, but in how one feels the next day. A valid concern — however my understanding is that vodka has only three things in it: water, ethanol, and impurities. Some degree of hangover is certainly caused by the ethanol, but this is not variable and so is not to be judged. Any significant difference in hangover effects then must be due to the impurities. And I am going to propose that in such a simple beverage, taste is a decent indicator of impurities.
I’m skeptical of hangover causes anyway — I think it’s got a lot more to do with the total quantities of alcohol and water in your body over the course of the night than any particular type of alcohol. With all the crazy things we put into our bodies daily, blaming the fractional percent of vodka impurities for headaches seems a bit of a stretch.
However, anyone who would like to perform a scientific test of hangover effects from different vodkas receives my full encouragement, and deepest sympathies.