No love lost between vodka and me


To my mind, vodka is easily the least interesting of distilled spirits. This is why I rarely review, discuss — or drink — vodka.

Some friends disagree, but I’ve yet to encounter any vodka that merits much attention, let alone one that would make me change my mind.

“Vodka,” according to the Federal regulatory definition “is neutral spirits so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.”

That is another way of saying that vodka is merely ethanol diluted with water — a colorless odorless and tasteless beverage. An 80 proof vodka is typically 40 percent ethanol and 60 percent water.

Obviously, this does not preclude vodka from having any character, aroma, taste or color. And it is not to say, as bourbon expert Chuck Cowdery has aptly put it, that all vodka brands are interchangeable or that “all vodkas are identical, anymore than any two glasses of water from different sources are identical. Humans can detect extremely subtle flavors and especially aromas, so the idea that some vodkas taste better than others is not fantasy.”

The vast majority of U.S. vodka brands start life as a grain-based ethanol, or grain neutral spirit (GNS) manufactured by one of the major producers, like the Illinois-based Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), the Kansas-based Midwest Grain Products (MGP, or the Iowa-based Grain Processing Corporation (GPC).

Note that each of these producers is based in states where most grains are farmed on an industrial scale. GNS, which is a fancy way of saying grain-based ethanol is, after all, a commodity used for beverages, medicines and solvents. Vodka producers buy this commodity on the basis of price and availability and either directly bottle it under whatever brand, or they first process it a bit to “make it their own” in, strictly speaking, merely a marketing sense.

I should note that “flavored vodka” is an entirely separate category, since the point is to infuse the ethanol with distinctive flavor — though these products are often of cheap manufacture.

When drinking vodka, I tend to distinguish brands entirely by how effectively and affordably their vodka functions as a smooth, clean and flavorless ethanol delivery solution. So my top brand is Russian Standard Original (40 percent abv; $20). It is both the top selling premium vodka in Russia, and the top Russian vodka brand globally — which pretty much tells me all I need to know. L’chaim!

Send your wine and spirits questions — except about vodka — to [email protected].

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