French wine and spirits giant Pernod Ricard (PERP) recently acquired Swedens's Vin & Spirits for $8.9 billion, the lion's share of which was for the previously state-owned company's Absolut vodka brand. Meantime, Diageo (DEO) paid $900 million for half the worldwide distribution of Dutch vodka Ketel One. And Stolichnaya is looking for a new distribution partner since Pernod will have to give up its rights to the Russian vodka after its Absolut deal clears. Stoli rights could go for a few billion easy. Grey Goose sold for $2.2 billion in 2004.
I admit that when I see prices for vodka range from $8 per bottle for the lowly Popov to $60 for Gold Flakes Supreme, my bull-hockey antennae go up. Vodka is, as it says on the label, a "neutral spirit." There's no aging involved. No oak barrels. But then I am reminded that good branding counts in this world. The brand imagery, billions of dollars, and hype surrounding Grey Goose, Absolut, Ketel One, and of course even Trump Vodka, have all created very definite preferences for something that is meant to be odorless, colorless, and tasteless. If Perrier and Dasani can do it, why not vodka?
With spirits, especially vodka (because there is so little to distinguish one product from another), the design of the bottle and label is crucially important, along with the country of origin and "brand story." Each vodka I tasted had its own brand story that helps deliver the product as much as a lemon wedge or olive.
A Waste of Money?
For all the money that is changing hands over vodka these days, and a recession in full force that might prompt some drinkers to reevaluate how much thy are spending on spirits, I thought it a good time to take a fresh dive into the crowded world of vodka over the course of a few weeks to see which ones really do taste better, and if drinkers of branded vodka are full of good and discriminating taste or wasting their money.
Before we get to the tasting results, a few anecdotes: A friend of mine, Charles, says he knows his vodka. A confirmed martini drinker who favors Absolut, I had him test his palate. First, I had Charles sample, in a blind taste test, Absolut, Popov, Ketel One, Smirnoff, and Vox. I served them frozen, which, to me, is the best way to drink straight vodka. When asked to pick out Absolut, Charles actually chose Smirnoff. Next, for the martini test. We made martinis the way Charles likes them, with a half-shot of dry vermouth and two olives over ice made from distilled water. In this test, we made the drinks with Skyy, Absolut, Smirnoff, and Belvedere. Again, Charles got it wrong, choosing the martini made with Ketel One as his Absolut martini.
I then assembled three regular vodka drinkers who order by brand when they order at a bar or restaurant. One is a confirmed Ketel One drinker, one orders Grey Goose, and another orders drinks made with Belvedere if the bar has it. His back-up brand is Absolut.
This group orders everything from martinis to vodka and tonics to vodka and cranberry juice.
A Lucky Guess
First I served frozen shots to the group in a blind test. Grey Goose, Absolut, Belevedere, Ketel One, and Popov. One, the Ketel One drinker, successfully picked his brand out of the pack, but only after considerable angst and anguish, so much so that I made the group repeat the exercise. It seemed like he guessed and got lucky. In the second pass, none successfully picked their brand.
Next up was one-to-one mixtures of vodka and cranberry. To be cute, I made all the drinks with Popov. I told the panel that we hadn't changed the lineup of vodka brands.
"I like that," said one, who asked the brand of cranberry juice.
By now, the panel of drinkers who thought themselves discerning imbibers were getting antsy, as though they were contestants on Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader and couldn't remember which planet is closest to the sun or who Ronald Reagan's Vice-President was.
Looking at the tasting cards of the group, it was plain to see they were guessing. There were a couple of right answers, but no one in this round said, "I think these are all the same."
Pure and Clear
It isn't surprising to find such results in a vodka taste test. The goal of vodka distilling, according to the spirits executives and distillers I have spoken with over the years, is to come up with a spirit that is as pure and clear as possible. The taste notes of vodkas can be so slight and subtle, most often depending on the grain used, and the number of times the spirit is distilled, that they really only exist when drunk straight with purified ice, at room temperature, served straight up or frozen straight up. Having drunk every brand of vodka we tested over the course of a few weeks, I can honestly say that drinking it frozen is by far the most pleasant way to drink straight vodka. In this, the Russians are right.
The other conclusion I drew was that when it comes to mixing vodka with fruit juice, or unpurified ice, you might as well as save your money and keep a bottle of Popov around. After mixing with fruit juice, muddled mint, simple syrup, or tap-water ice, the slight subtleties of the vodka in these concoctions go out the window faster than the promise of a contractor who says he'll come to your house every day to work until the job is done.
Check out the BusinessWeek.com slide show to see the results of the tasting when I brought my panel together a second time, participated myself, and had a neutral pourer administer the blind test. All these vodkas are unflavored and 80-proof. Prices reflect 750ml bottles. Price/Value was not a determining factor in judging the best "tasting" vodka, but we do make mention of it in some tasting notes.
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