Thursday, October 12, 2006

Vodka is Like Water

I know there are a lot of fools out there who insist that $40 for a bottle of "premium" vodka buys you an appreciable bit more satisfaction than your bottom shelf rail pour neutral grain spirits. That you can tell the difference between, say, Grey Goose and Ketel One. That your palate is so finely honed that you can discern differences among over-priced over-packaged alcohols that are, by nature, unflavored. I don't buy it.

I believe that the premium vodka phenomenon is more about purchasing status in a bottle than connoisseurship. It's like any item of clothing with a conspicuous label. You're buying status. Temporary membership into a club that says 'I've got good taste and disposable income.'

I'm not saying that looking for nuance in liquor is folly; I'm saying that vodka is like bottled water. I'm saying that water is water and vodka is vodka. There are only extremes of bad, not extremes of good.

Turns out Eric Asimov, the blogging wine critic at the New York Times agrees. Last January, Asimov covered a blind taste test. The results make me giddy:
After the 21 vodkas were sipped and the results compiled, the Smirnoff was our hands-down favorite.
That's right, Smirnoff. It was added to the list of illustrious premos as a lark. Smirnoff is America's best-selling unflavored vodka, Asimov says. Ketel One and Grey Goose didn't make the group's top ten. He continues:
Shocking? Perhaps. Delving into the world of vodka reveals a spirit unlike almost any other, with standards that make judging it substantially different from evaluating wine, beer, whiskey or even root beer. A malt whiskey should be distinctive, singular. The same goes for a Burgundy or a Belgian ale. But vodka? Vodka is measured by its purity, by an almost Platonic neutrality that makes tasting it more akin to tasting bottled waters, or snowflakes.
I see I wasn't the first to compare vodka to bottled water. He points out that our government classifies vodka thusly: "neutral spirits, so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color." Ah. Without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.

Of course, a group that picks a best vodka out of 21 doesn't see anything wrong with looking for differences among spirits lacking in character, taste, and aroma. And I'll admit that I bought a bottle of Russian Standard, a Russian premium vodka, when I was in St. Petersburg. It really does taste a little different from the others. (But it didn't cost me many Rubles. About $17 for a liter.) But the only time you'll see me buying a really nice vodka is when I'm trying to impress snobs. That don't happen too often.

This all reminds me of a painful episode from my childhood. Does anyone remember the Pepsi Challenge? In the early 80s, maybe 1982, Pepsi started doing blind taste tests pitting their cola against Coke. One of my grade school teachers, giving us a lesson in marketing and adverstising (or was it a lesson in the five senses?), arranged to have Pepsi come to Chelsea Heights Elementary school in St. Paul. It was really just a person with some bottle of pop and a table, but they set up and poured little paper cups full of each cola and revealed with a flourish which one we'd chosen.

I chose wrong. I distinctly remember choosing "the one that didn't fizz up my nose," which, of course, was Coke. I was horrified. I wanted to pick Pepsi. Did I imagine the disappointment in the face of the tester? This was my first lesson in survey bias.

Which of course leads me to a more scientific taste test. Neuroscientist Read Montague gave people both colas while they were hooked up to an MRI:
Montague had his subjects take the Pepsi Challenge while he watched their neural activity with a functional MRI machine, which tracks blood flow to different regions of the brain. Without knowing what they were drinking, about half of them said they preferred Pepsi. But once Montague told them which samples were Coke, three-fourths said that drink tasted better, and their brain activity changed too. Coke "lit up" the medial prefrontal cortex -- a part of the brain that controls higher thinking. Montague's hunch was that the brain was recalling images and ideas from commercials, and the brand was overriding the actual quality of the product. For years, in the face of failed brands and laughably bad ad campaigns, marketers had argued that they could influence consumers' choices. Now, there appeared to be solid neurological proof. Montague published his findings in the October 2004 issue of Neuron, and a cottage industry was born.
That quote was from the PBS show Frontline. Think about what Montague is saying: The brand is overriding the quality of the product. Now think about premium vodka.

This is all the more relevant to me now because I've been taking a wine class. It's at a Manhattan liquor store down the street from my work. The most remarkable thing I learned in the class may not be the wine facts and grape varietals, but the act of slowing down and paying attention to one's senses. This is not a skill, so much as a reawakening to your surroundings that can be applied to everything.

I'm sure this sort of super-focused attention could help me with vodka appreciation, but why bother? Wine can be cheaper by volume and it comes in thousands more varieties. Single malt Scotch has more character. A good Belgian beer can be drunk in greater quantity.

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