From Behind the Bar: On Cheap and Fancy Vodka
More Behind The Bar
What I'm Drinking:
Luksosowa Potato Vodka (neat)
Small Bottle Pelligrino
When I was young, all the world's problems appeared easily solved. It never made sense that I—and my small group of like-minded friends—had all the answers just waiting in our energetic minds, yet no one was wise enough to pay attention to us.
I'm now sufficiently seasoned to understand what Socrates meant when he said, "The only thing I know is my own ignorance." The certainty of my youth has been leavened by a healthy measure of failure, practicality, and a host of tough lessons on how the world works. In short, I don't know anything, and am happy to admit it. My flaws are legion, and the people who have the right to point out how little I know keep themselves busy doing so on a regular basis.
The upside of ignorance is that it offers one the opportunity to constantly learn new things. I was recently reminded of this when I was engaged as an "expert" judge for the New York International Spirits Competition, an annual blind tasting where a bunch of people who buy booze (professionally) sit down and judge the quality of various spirits according to their category and price range. I curate the spirits selection for two bars, and was honored to be selected as one of the judges.
Before the event, I had been asked what exactly I am an expert on. While I don't claim the title, I enjoy whiskey, have studied it for many years, and spend a lot of time tasting bottlings from all manner of countries and regions. I could say the same for rum, which is possibly more varied in its character and execution.
The one spirit I felt least qualified to judge was vodka. I hold no contempt for vodka, but I don't have many opinions on its character. When I arrived at the tasting, there was one empty chair, so I took it. What spirits were lined up for me to evaluate that day?
Vodkas. Thirty-three, to be precise. I had low expectations for what I could offer, but dove in nonetheless.
When evaluating each vodka, my biggest question was, "Would I make a martini with this?" The vodka martini is judged on the merits of its components, so I approached each spirit with the assumption that it had to stand on its own. Maybe a hint of dry vermouth. Maybe some brine from an olive, or oil from a lemon peel. The martini is the baseline cocktail for a vodka, so I evaluated each with those flavors in mind.
The most surprising conclusion my fellow judges and I came to was that expensive vodkas are not always better. Quite the contrary. While some of the lower-priced vodkas had the medicinal mouth-feel and characteristic burn of cheap booze, a surprising number were clean, crisp, light, and had aromas that tended towards citrus and spice. The best were both mixable and drinkable, and I found myself going back to them to calibrate my palate.
When we tasted the "premium" vodkas—those retailing for $30 and above—and we didn't like any of them. They were oily on the palate, very sweet, and gave off aggressive flavors of herbs, berries, and lots of vanilla. One judge commented, "this vodka tastes like a really bad rum." It wasn't until we moved up again to the "super-premium" category, vodkas priced over $50, that we tasted anything close to drinkable. Even then, the difference in quality between the cheap and expensive was so small that we awarded most of our medals to those vodkas costing less than $20.
I was at a table of professionals, and none of us had ever sat down to sample anywhere near the number of vodkas we tasted that day, which goes to show that there is always something new even we "experts" can learn. In a bar, a customer's preference in vodka is most often chalked up to personal taste, or the influence exerted by one brand's marketing campaign over another. While I still believe this, my experience reminded me that even the most pedestrian of spirits deserves a second look.