In the summer of 2002 forty members of the Greater New York Chapter of Tasters Guild International tasted and evaluated 13 premium vodkas. Our speaker for that tasting was educator and author Harriet Lembeck. Since that tasting the premium imported vodka category has exploded with growth. There are new brands appearing seemingly every week. To update this tasting I changed the rules slightly; I still had 13 vodkas but only plain, no flavors and all were imports. Eleven new ones plus two from the 2002 tasting (the winner and last place finisher). For the previous tasting the vodkas were served open so everyone knew what they were tasting. This time the tasting was done singly blind. That is, the vodkas were listed but none except me knew which was which. I did not participate in the tasting or voting. The 30 tasters were all professed vodka drinkers (the first event was a mixture of vodka and wine drinkers) and several told me they could pick out the vodka they always drank. The products were served neat with water on the side and Bremner Wafers to cleanse the palate. They were asked to evaluate each vodka at least twice, neat and mixed with water, and had the option of a retest, if needed. I explained the derivation of each product, that is; wheat or rye based and in one example of each, corn and wine grape based. The tasting notes which follow the rankings are a summary and duplicate comments were eliminated. Any contrasting opinions have been summarized. Each taster was asked to rank the vodkas from their favorite to least.
To make everything equal, I then took the 10 vodkas from our summer of 2002 evaluation (having already pulled out the first and last place finisher and dropping the one domestic vodka that had been included) and added them to another round of blind tasting, plus the 13 new vodkas. Because of palate fatigue, I spread the tasting over a two day period with 10 new and 5 past participants.
The votes were weighted from 10 points (number 1) to 0 points (numbers 11, 12 and 13). When the vote total was within 2 points, I declared a tie for that position. New York City prices for 750ml sizes are listed and a generous markup is used. Most stores charge less.
According to Grossman’s Guide to Wines, Beers & Spirits, revised by Harriet Lembeck, the word vodka is a diminutive of the Russian word for “little water," voda.
Vodka came to be a huge part of the Russian culture, as it was being distilled even before the word vodka came into general use. Polish historians claim that vodka was first produced in 1405 and they say it reached Russia from Poland. Vodka can be made from potatoes or various cereal grains that contain starch, principally corn, rye and wheat. But it can also be made from fruits and vegetables.
The US government officially describes vodka as “a neutral spirit, so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal and other materials as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.” This tasting proved vodka’s range of aroma, texture and flavor. The US government was correct on one point though, vodka does not have any color. Today, vodka is the largest category of distilled spirits, selling one out of every four bottles of liquor sold in the US.
Tasting Vodka: While many prefer to drink their vodka ice cold, for tasting purposes it is best to pour it into a glass at room temperature. Cold tends to dampen the aroma and deaden the taste buds. Mix the sample with an equal amount of water. First: Look at the liquid; it should be clear and bright with no cloudiness. Second: Smell or “nose” the vodka by swirling it in the glass. Watch out for sharp, pungent odors or a perfumed smell. Third: Take a small sip and roll it around your tongue. Look for a pleasant flavor. Fourth: Draw a little air over the vodka to release its flavors then swallow it and evaluate the finish. Fifth: Vodka should look pure, smooth on the tongue, with no bite, pleasant but not overpowering, no off-aroma or flavor and little aftertaste.
This tasting dispelled some myths about vodka! (1) The notion of “triple distilled” or “triple filtered” is hype. The process of distillation is a continuous one, recirculating the solution until all the alcohol is vaporized out. (2) The source of the vodka (potato, wheat, sugar cane) does not affect the final product. When using a sugar product, the fermentation is direct from sugar to alcohol. When using a starch base, the fermentation is starch to sugar (maltose, sugar from grain), then sugar to alcohol. After fermentation, to separate the alcohol from the water in the resulting solution, it is distilled (boiled). Since alcohol has a lower boiling temperature than water (176 degrees), the alcohol vaporizes, leaving the water behind. The vapor is then collected in tubes and cooled; the condensation is collected, boiled again to remove even more water and drawn from the still. (3) The following was for me the most startling news: Imported vodka may have up to 2½ % “various ingredients” added, that do not have to appear on the label. However, American made vodka cannot have any “flavors” added; it must be by law colorless, odorless and tasteless.
And the winner is: Iceberg, Canada, $22. Triple distilled using Ontario sweet corn. The sole water source used is from 12,000 year old artic icebergs (perfumed, sweet nose, berry like, orange citrus, smooth, fruity, long finish, aromatic, lots of flavor).
#2 Tie: Ciroc, France, $32. 100% wine grapes from southwest France; distilled 5 times. The grapes were left on the vines until the first frost when they are high in sugar content (lime, citrus fruit, oranges, strong nose, pepper, complex, clean on palate, lemon aftertaste, serve it straight up). #2 Ketel 1, Holland, $25. Wheat based, named after the original distilling Ketel #1, built in 1864 (Lemon, citrus aroma, easy to drink, spice, long finish, tasteless, round, harsh nose, Vick's vaporub, smooth. Very varied comments).
#3 Tie: Citadelle, France, $24. 100% wheat based, distilled 5 times, uses micro-oxygenation (sweet nose, earthy, citrus, vanilla, mine rally, spicy, steely, anise, lots of fruit flavors, smooth, good aftertaste). #3 Stolichnaya, Russia, $24. Winter wheat using glacier water and filtered through quartz and activated charcoal (floral nose, earthy, sweet with a hint of vanilla, licorice, harsh, very flavorful).
#4 Tie: Finlandia, Finland, $22. Wheat based from 6 row barley and pure glacial water (no sweetness on the finish, citrus, lacks flavor, clean, herbal and elegant). #4 Zyr, Russia, $32. Distilled & filtered 5 times; winter wheat & rye ( ice water, rough, muted nose, round, smooth, easy to drink, smooth, floral bouquet sweet finish, oily, rubbing alcohol).
#5 Tie: Pearl, Canada, $25. Made from Western Canadian wheat (aromas of butterscotch and maple syrup, caramel, not much taste, clean finish, no nuances, round & smooth). #5 Vincent Van Gogh, Holland, $35. Winter wheat & grains, multiple distillation(?), square shouldered bottles are frosted white, etched & feature some of VVG paintings (refined, harsh, pungent alcohol, round flavors, citrus, clean, minerals, burnt tongue, green apples, unpleasant, different, balanced). #5 Three Olives, Great Britain, $23. Wheat based, triple distilled, and triple charcoal filtered (clean, zesty, lemon grass, citrus, lemon lime, great nose, too alcoholic, harsh, long finish).
#6 Tie: Wyborowa, Poland, $18. Rye based, means “exquisite” in Polish (very sweet with vanilla overtones, finishes with a bite, floral, minerals, smooth, burnt, full-bodied). #6 Grey Goose, France, $33. (Finished #1 in 2002 tasting) Five step distillation from a blend of barley, corn, rye & wheat. The water is sourced from Gente Springs in Cognac and filtered through champagne limestone (lemon fresh, floor wax, floral, citrus, smooth, slight sweetness, vanilla, bad cheap rubbing alcohol, steely, rough nose, smells and tastes of licorice with a bit of citrus, caraway & anise, strong nose, clean, crisp, easy to drink). At least 10 of the tasters said they were Grey Goose drinkers, but not one could pick it out and many of them were the most critical.
#7 Tie: Absolut- Sweden, $23. Winter wheat based (earthy smell, peppery malt taste, light bodied, licorice and not much character. Are the ads better than the product?). #7 Jewel of Russia, Russia, $30. Wheat & rye based with multiple distillations and a 5 step filtration (sweet, alcohol muted nose, soft on the palate, nondescript, pepper, easy to drink, short finish, Listerine, cherry nose, overpowering, complex).
#8 Chopin, Poland, $33. Potato vodka, quadruple distilled; named after Frederic Chopin (earthy, slightly harsh in the mouth, citrus, smooth, wax, bite at the end).
#9 Tie: Belvedere, Poland, $33. Made from Rye and quadruple distilled and filtered through diatomaceous earth; Belvedere is the official residence of the Polish President in Warsaw (smells earthy & pungent, sharp, bitter, spice, harsh, vanilla ,sweet taste). #9 Vox, Netherlands, $32. (Finished #13 in 2002 tasting) 100% wheat, demineralized water produced by reverse osmosis. 5 times distilled and filtered (nail polish, rough, harsh, alcoholic, hints of flavor, smooth, strong finish, long & complex, perfumed, undistinguished, licorice).
#10 Potacki, Poland,,$35. Rye based, 3 distillations, not filtered. Family militarily served the Polish Kings since the 15th Century. Just now being imported into US (pungent, reminded several of whiskey and Gin, not much aroma, flavorless, burnt, pleasant to drink, alcoholic, long finish, aromatic).
#11 Turi, Estonia, $31. 100% rye, 4 times distilled (burned edge, harsh on the palate, too sweet, refined, long sweet finish, spicy, burned, cheap, boring, no flavor, short finish, alcoholic, silky texture, smooth). Editors Note: Turi is imported by Bacardi USA who is one of the sponsors of my radio program.
#12 Tie: Fris, Denmark, $21. Wheat based and distilled 6 times; Danish word for frost & ice (flowery, fragrance, alcoholic, poor aftertaste, starts out sweet and finishes savory & salty). #12 Boru, Ireland, $22. Wheat based, filtered through Irish oak charcoal. Named after the first High King of Ireland, Brian Boru in 1014 (delicate, grassy, peppery, perfumed, citrus, not much taste, no nuances of flavor, harsh, rubbing alcohol, mistaken by several people for the grape based vodka, burnt tongue, nasty, smooth fruit flavors, clean, crisp, powerful aftertaste).
#13 Tanqueray Sterling, Great Britain, $22. Wheat based and triple distilled (not much aroma, clean but neutral, muted, flavorless, sweet nose & aftertaste, not complex).
#14 Ston, Estonia, $21. Distilled 4 times & filtered through limestone. Water is from Artesian wells fed by ancient glaciers (minerals, citrus, hint of vanilla, lemony, slightly sweet, not much character, burnt, no finish, neutral).