How is it that a spirit defined by the U.S. Standards of Identity as “without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color” became one of the world’s largest sellers? Even when a Russian emigre bought the rights to make Smirnoff vodka in the U.S. in the 1930s, it was advertised as “White Whisky -- No taste. No smell.” Which meant no telltale booze breath.
In 1987, when Poland was still a Soviet state, I visited the Wyborowa distillery outside Warsaw, where I was challenged to taste the difference between vodka made from potatoes and that made from rye, the latter the basis of Wyborowa’s distillate and its big selling point.
After sniffing and sipping and finding virtually no difference, I simply guessed which was which.
Vodka may be distilled from any starch/sugar-rich plant matter, including sorghum, sugar beets, corn, rye, wheat, or even grapes, though this last is controversial among European Union nations for being too far from the original idea.
The result of distillation is almost pure alcohol, which is then cut with water to achieve the standard 40 percent level in the bottle (although some devastating rarities can hit 95 percent). Rarely is vodka aged.
The fact is, vodka has traditionally been sold by ad campaigns, not flavor. Like Sweden’s Absolut ads, which fits the brand’s distinctive bottle shape into a theme: Absolut Psycho, for example, has a shower curtain torn into the shape of the bottle.
Stolichnaya makes much of its Russian heritage, while a recent TV ad for Holland’s Ketel One refers to a time “when men were men” and “didn’t drink their vodka from delicately painted perfume bottles.”
Other brands say their vodkas are all the more pure for being made with million-year-old water poured through diamonds and quintuple distilled.
Still, it’s hard to increase sales of a neutral, tasteless, odorless spirit on ads alone, which is why the industry has come up with so many flavored versions, like Kubanskaya with dried lemon and orange peels; Ciroc, with coconut and red berry; Pertsovka, with black pepper and chilies; and Okhotnichya, with ginger, cloves, lemon peel, coffee, anise, sugar and white port.
Vodka is also the basis for the Bloody Mary, created at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris during Prohibition; for James Bond’s enormously influential 1950s vodka martini; the screwdriver and the cosmopolitan made famous by the women of “Sex & the City;” and, thanks to the 1998 movie “The Big Lebowksi,” the white Russian.
Given how vodka adds little or no flavor to cocktails made with orange juice or Kahlua, it’s baffling to me when vodka aficionados order an expensive brand for such concoctions.
So I decided to do a blind tasting of a dozen unflavored vodkas, most fairly new in the market, some old timers, to see what differences I could detect. They were not, shall we say, pronounced. I doubt many people who swear by their favorite brand could ever pick it out in such an array. All the vodkas were 40 percent alcohol and were tasted neat.
One that no one will mistake is the new Vampyre from England ($22), which is “naturally colored” a viscous blood red and whose ad says it was specially created to attract those creatures of the night. Whatever. It’s pretty bland with little aroma but velvety on the tongue. And fun to drink.
The potato-based Luksusowa ($14-$18) has a strong nose with real citrus in it and a light burn on the tongue. A nice entry level example from Poland.
The popular but expensive Chopin ($26-$30), also a potato-based Polish vodka, smells like little more than alcohol and has a faintly sweet flavor with a mild burn. Not at all distinctive.
Medea, which runs $40 and up, is from Holland, with a fairly bland nose and a sharp burn to the sinuses. Not worth the money.
Sweden’s Svedka ($14-$17) has built a following among young drinkers, maybe because it’s very smooth, but it’s almost flabby too, with an unpleasant aroma.
Turning to U.S.-made vodkas -- and there’s a slew of them out there -- I wasn’t surprised that good old Smirnoff ($14) pleased me with its bountiful flavor, though the aroma was slightly diesel-like. It’s a solid, good example with light burn.
Smooth Ambler Whitewater ($30) is an “artisanal” grain vodka made in West Virginia that I could have sworn was apple-based calvados, from aroma to finish. It has some real taste to it and would probably stand out in a crowd of vodkas.
Star ($30), made in “Oregon’s scenic Cascade Mountains,” is a small batch vodka made from “handpicked” corn, though I’d never mistake it for aged bourbon. It’s filtered five times (most premium vodkas go through thrice), which seems to smooth it out but may rob it of its nose.
Bottles of Moon Mountain ($20) from Indiana are numbered and signed by master distiller Gerry Webb, who gives the product a lush, fruity aroma and spice, all solidly knit together.
Tito’s ($22) from Texas has a very light nose, shows tangy on the palate, but then finishes hot as hell on the back of the throat. You’ll know it’s from Texas.
Crystal Head takes its name from the eerie skull-shaped bottle it comes in, together with two little skull jiggers. It’s based on the legend of the magical 13 crystal skulls (in the title of the last Indiana Jones movie), and the founder of the company is actor Dan Ackroyd. It has a pleasantly grassy bouquet, is very smooth, aromatic and not at all hot. And it comes from Newfoundland. The oddity has developed something of a cult following that will pay up to $50 a bottle.
Lastly, there’s Ciroc ($29-$32), made from French grapes, like brandy; in fact, one of the grapes used, ugni blanc, is also used to make cognac. It has a very citrusy nose and pretty tropical notes and a tangy, mild burn. I could swear there is a light flavoring in it, but it’s probably just the natural grape flavors. Sales have been very good, especially since rap artist Sean “Diddy” Combs became a spokesman in 2007.
As I said, the key to selling a tasteless, odorless, colorless spirit is a good ad campaign.
(John Mariani writes on wine for Muse, the arts and lifestyle section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)