How big of a role, if any at all, does the base ingredient play in the final character of vodka?
The Necessary Justification:
Yes, I’m really writing about vodka.
Here’s the thing — everyone in the craft cocktail world seems to have the same two things to say about vodka:
- Vodka is a spirit without any real character or distinction, and therefore
- There’s no difference between vodkas.
Point #1 is true by definition. Point #2 isn’t true at all.
Vodka is distilled to at least 95% alcohol. When it’s distilled to 95%, one (specious but nonetheless workable) way to look at it is that there’s only 5% flavor left (see Trivia, at bottom). 99 times out of 100, vodka marketing pretends there’s no flavor at all, focusing instead on what it doesn’t taste like, which is hard if what it doesn’t taste like is everything. This is why they all try to bludgeon you to death with the word “smooth.”
I’ll say that what distinctions do exist are easily drowned out by cranberry juice or even tonic water. But taken neat at room temperature, there are surprisingly significant differences: you find that Absolut is relatively viscous and Russian Standard is impressively neutral, that Ketel One has a tongue-numbing bluntness and Ciroc smells like acetone but actually tastes pretty good.
The Necessary Disclaimer:
I’m not saying vodkas are interesting. They’re not. They are, as spirits, savagely fucking dull. After all my tastings and experiments, my official line remains: if you mix it with anything hardier than soda water, buy Sobieski/Svedka/Smirnoff for like 8 dollars and never look back.
So why do any of this? Because science, that’s why. I’d rather actually know the answer than imagine I know it.
There are a galaxy of factors that can make one spirit taste different from another, and because of this, it’s nearly impossible to hold one production decision accountable for any individual flavor or characteristic.
However — Chopin recently debuted wheat and rye vodkas to complement their famous potato vodka. So if we taste them side by side, we can deduce what role the raw ingredients really play in the final flavor of neutral spirits.
Note: I can’t help but want to shake the hand of whoever decided, in the last few years, that what America wanted was more wheat-based products. Distillation removes the gluten protein, but still: I haven’t seen corporate balls like that since Taco Bell introduced a potato burrito in the middle of the Atkins hysteria.
Assumptions: from all I can tell, they use the same yeast, same overall fermentation process, same distillation process, and same filtering for their whole line. The only variable is what they’re made from. So question: how much does base ingredient matter?
nose: Wet newspaper. Strangely enough, it kind of smells like potatoes. Sliced, raw potato. Grainy.
taste: Hot. A little sweetness, like cakebread. Tastes better than it smells. Lemon frosting.
nose: Wet newspaper again. Stale bread.
taste: Drier. That cakebread business is gone. Some faint citrus on the finish. Still a bit of sweetness mid-palate, but nothing like the potato. Dusty grain.
nose: Dried newspaper. These all smell like fiber. The filtering, maybe? The yeast?
taste: Drier still. Very faint sweetness. Extremely impressive neutrality. No flavors really stand out. I detect faint lime on finish, but it might my imagination.
How interesting. Here, with vodka, distilled and filtered within an inch of its life, we still have fairly sizable distinctions between the bottles. A couple things worth noting:
(1) All three have a distinct wet/dry newspaper nose, which I’m betting is their yeast. Either that, or all three got cork contamination, but then this project is totally screwed.
(2) Potato seems to give a perceived sweetness that I find very pleasant, if while being hot (read: alcohol burn) at the same time.
(3) I was looking for spice in the rye, as rye whiskies are generally spicier than their corn and wheat cousins. But nothing. Mostly, I got a sense of the dusty graininess (also frequently seen in rye whiskey).
(4) This is why almost everyone makes vodka from wheat. If neutrality is the point — and for most people, it is — wheat is the most demure of all our cereal grains. The others have character. It may take some teasing out, but it’s there. But for wheat, especially tasting it last, I couldn’t help but define it by all that wasn’t there.
And here, finally, the inevitable problem with rating vodkas. What do you want from it? Many would want it to taste as close to nothing as possible, so the wheat is best. Personally, I like things that are interesting, so I’d go potato. Take it for what it’s worth.
Trivia: The reason it’s specious to say that liquid distilled to 95% ABV only has 5% flavor is that different alcohols (part of the 95%) have flavors and textures all their own. Both the heads (harmful, isopropyl-smelling) and tails (pungent and heavy,called “fusel oils” because they chemically resemble oil) are alcohol, and their levels in the final product will influence it as much as anything else ever could. Facts!