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Dec 20, 2012 11:52 AM

The Penultimate Vodka Taste Test

Hi, Capn Jimbo here. By now it should have been well established that vodka, like STP is all about marketing.

When Andy Grantelli was asked what part marketing played in his famous STP car additive, he said "STP? STP is marketing". LIkewise the famous Sydney Frank - who established Grey Goose as the very first "premium vodka" (most used to sell for $10 then, he said (paraphrased) "It's only water and alcohol - if I can triple the price it's all profit!". And he did.

A number of leading publication like Businessweek, the New York Times and ABC did blind taste tastes which demonstrated that diehard, won't-drink-anything-other brand types, not only couldn't pick out their brand, but often picked the cheapest vodka in the blind test.

I believe that. But like the curmudgeion of which I am often accused, I just had to devise the Penultimate Vodka Taste Test, lol. I have just such a friend who swears he owns a bunch of vodkas, has tried others, but won't drink anything but Pinnacle.

So I invited him over for a blind test and told him to bring his vodkas which included his go-to Pinnacle, Absolute, Ketel One and New Amsterdam. I said we had two other vodkas to test: Svedka and a hard to find "Maxim" from France. Except for one thing...

The "Maxim" wasn't vokda! I'd found a bottle of 151 proof Graves Grain Alcohol and diluted it with some Walmart distilled water to 80 proof and poured it in the fancy Maxim bottle.

The test was completely blind with each vodka and the, uh "Maxim", served blind with one cube of ice at his request. After careful consideration here's how it came out.

1. The first vodka he rejected was his own, the Pinnacle.
2. The two vodkas he liked the most were (a) Ketel One and - are you sitting down? - the faux "Maxim" - diluted grain alcohol.
3. Next was the very inexpensive Svedka.

Was he shocked? Is the President from Kenya? Diluted the Graves works out to about $6 per 750ml.

Later, my partner in tasting Sue Sea and I then compared the Ketel One and the "Maxim" at room temperature, and to our surprise we preferred the "Maxim" grain alcohol. In sum...

I rest my case. I urge all of you to set up a blind tasting for your fanatic friends to see how well they do in identifying their "must-have, always order" brand...

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  1. If this is the penultimate taste test, then what's the ultimate one?

    3 Replies
    1. re: EvergreenDan

      I was wondering as i read the heading if someone was going to mention that.

        1. re: sunshine842

          That's what I get for not reading previously posted replies before posting my own.

    2. You know, it's strange. Given that I like mixed drinks and frou frou cocktails, no, I likely can't tell the difference in taste all that much.

      But I know, based on experience, that the cheap crap gives me a hell of a hangover. The only things that give me hangovers are cheap vodka and red wine. Maybe there's a common thread there, I don't know.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Violatp

        I suspect that the cheap ones give you hangovers because if you're drinking cheap booze you're probably drinking a lot more of it in one sitting. At least, in my experience that's how it tends to work...

        1. re: davis_sq_pro

          Nah. Trust me, I've put away a good bit of, say, my favorite, Hangar One, and woken up just fine.

          Two vodka tonics made with vodka from a plastic bottle, though, and yikes.

      2. I refuse to buy a vodka that does not come in a plastic bottle.

        You buy grain alcohol, you add water, you filter it, that is vodka.

        1. Svedka is a very clean distillate. It's stripped too clean. One of the good things about grain vodkas is that you get a hint of breadiness, potatoes give an earthiness, etc. Svedka has nothing -- so it's boring but completely functional.

          While Svedka can come in plastic bottles, I have had some truly wretched stuff in plastic and advise against Redfish's comment (unless they can provide a brand). The local stuff made here (it was either Ruble or Rubinoff) that I bought for a local themed Mixology Monday was harsh if it wasn't perfectly cold; the minute it got slightly warm, it had a methanol aspect to it.

          8 Replies
          1. re: yarm

            We keep Grey Goose in our bar for the vodka drinkers that like to be impressed, but at our cottage we buy Sobieski from Duty Free in large quantities, for the mixed drinks. Nobody is going to argue potatoes v. bread when the vodka is in a spicy, heady cocktail.

            When Grey Goose is all I have in my bar, I feel very guilty using it to make my homemade Moscow Mules. Thankfully, it to is a Duty Free purchase.

            1. re: 1sweetpea

              In several of the many blind tests we found, Grey Goose - as the brand that established "super premium" - was included. Thus it was a particularly delicious contradiction that the Grey Goose lovers not only couldn't identify it, but actually rated it very low in comparson to what? Smirnoff's at $13.

              In my case, I think I'll buy a bottle of GG, and after it's gone just refill it with my diluted Graves grain alcohol - I have no doubt that anyone will ever know... and I'll get prestige points! What a joke - can't wait to let em know, AFTER they admire the drinks...

              1. re: Capn Jimbo

                Those painted on labels will wear a lot better than paper ones ever did.

                1. re: Capn Jimbo

                  "What a joke - can't wait to let em know, AFTER they admire the drinks..."

                  You seem to be missing the graciousness of a host. I think a blind test could be interesting, even for a guest who swears they know their favorite vodka. But playing "gotcha" on your friends, calling them jokes, tricking them by serving one spirit in a different bottle, etc. seems to be the antithesis of the convivial cocktail host.

                  Also, since you seem to have missed the more subtle hints, penultimate means "next to last". So while you're laughing at your guests for their taste in spirits they are likely smirking at your language fumbles.

                  I don't drink vodka myself, but as a host my most important duty is to make my guests happy and comfortable. I would avoid embarrassing them in any way I could, not guarantee it. So I keep a bottle of some vodka handy. Once I had a request for a Vesper and I made one for myself, too, and I'm here to say I had a vodka cocktail and I've lived to tell the tale. In fact, it was just fine.

                  1. re: tokyopix

                    Fortunately, I am blessed to have the kind of easygoing friends who simply love a good spoof, don't yours?

                    As far as the "penultimate" blind test, I thought I'd made it clear that my humble test followed a substantial number of previous tests by the NY Times, Bloomberg, ABC, et al. Indeed, one of my members was so taken with my spoof, that he intends to repeat it with his friends using Everclear. Accordingly "next to last" is a reasonably fair descriptor, nicht vahr? I'd say so.

                    In any event, I'm sure you meant well and please accept my sincere wishes for a happy, healthy and hospitable Holiday season. And if you do decide to make Vespers yet again, I'd strongly suggest Stoli Elit...

              2. re: yarm

                Hope this isn't a duplicate. The whole point of this blind test was to confirm the blind tests done by the NY Times, Bloomberg's Business and ABC 20/20. All of these showed that even diehard vodka brand drinkers could not identify their have-to-have brand. Worse yet, quite a few of them rejected their own, and instead chose a very low priced vodka, often Smirnoff.

                My blind test took that one step further and substituted cheap, plain grain alcohol diluted with ordinary distilled water. My testor not only rejected his favorite brand, but thought the grain alcohol was tied for his #1 choice.

                Let's face it - vodka is nothing but marketing. You are buying a bottle, and a story, not the spirit. I daresay most vokda drinkers really can't tell the difference in a blind test, regardless of which grain or grape its made from. Frankly, we are reviewers and we actually preferred the grain alcohol over Ketel One.

                1. re: Capn Jimbo

                  It's not nothing but marketing, but at a certain quality point it is. And that quality point depends on how people drink it. Neat vs from the freezer vs mixed with soda water, seltzer, red bull, or other are all different. Brands like Russian Standard, Sobieski, Tito's, etc. work rather well with no burn when mixed. Drinking vodka neat for the flavor nuances is a different level where Karlssons, U'luvka, and other brands really shine and takes that baseline from $15 to around $30.


                  1. re: yarm

                    At a recent Oktoberfest party, the host set out an interesting bottle of cask-aged vodka, light tan in color. There were lots of other things to drink, so I didn't try it, but it certainly looked interesting. I can't recall the name (and it's probably not readily available in the US.) He is Latvian, and certainly enjoys vodka -- neat I believe. He's recommends Russian Standard Platinum as an affordable sipping vodka, which I think is in the low $20's.

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              3. My parents were not gin drinkers. They would buy a fifth of cheap gin, pour it into an empty quart Beefeaters bottle, and top off with 100 proof vodka. With a top shelf vermouth, the guests never complained or caught them out.

                When they still brewed Busch in Tampa, the tour included a lecture on beer. You got to taste fresh beer versus past date stored in the warm garage beer. About 60% of my group of 50 plus folks got it right.

                I got it wrong.