Foreign Substances

It's almost as if foreigners have a different word for everything.

Really, it's the fact that "beer" sounds like "alus" in Lithuanian, "sor" in Hungarian and "Budweiser" in Oklahoman that makes life so damn confusing. Dan Quayle admitted as much when he apologized for his inability to converse with Latin Americans in their native Latin. Even President Bush once blurted that his answers would sound the same in English and in Mexican.

Lest you think politics is the only realm hindered by this deplorable multilingual babbling, consider for a moment the serious question of vodka.

Vodka is a potent weapon, destroying brain cells, rotting internal organs, tearing throats raw with its 80 proof claws, clouding judgment and memory--one shot at a time. Yet the word is merely a Russian diminutive for water, a trickle describing a roaring torrent. Even more confusing, this lifeblood of a hard-drinking people, this rough-hewn spirit of a drab Second World country, now appears on neat shelves, behind fancy labels, backed by New York marketing power and wearing hefty price tags. American consumers can pay anywhere between $12 and $40 for a good bottle of "little water" these days. Considering that vodka is essentially odorless, colorless and relatively tasteless, this week's Burning Question asks: What's the diff?

"There are subtle differences lent by the ingredients: the nose, the taste, the texture," explains Ben Caudle of Martini Ranch. "There are texture differences between grain and potato. The potato vodkas are softer and feel more full-bodied." Vodka is produced by fermenting and distilling wheat, rye, potatoes, beets, rice, molasses or just about anything else that grows, apparently. It emerges from stills as a clear, harsh, bland spirit. Thus vodkas flavored with everything from citrus peel to buffalo grass (zubrovka) appeared many centuries ago as producers attempted to add flavor or mute the unpleasant burn. The distilling process and the effects of modern-day filtering also affect vodka's character, but not so much that anyone other than connoisseurs recognize a difference. Indeed, Caudle sometimes chuckles at patrons. "I've had people send back a vodka because they said it wasn't what they ordered," he relates. "I'll pour another from the same bottle and they say, 'Yeah, that's it.'"

"There are a lot of people who don't appreciate vodka," adds Dan Carr, bartender at Capital Grille. "They just drink it because it's trendy."

It's so trendy, in fact, that many bars carry more than a dozen different nonflavored brands, distilled in traditional venues, such as Russia and Poland, and everywhere else around the world: Finland, Sweden, France, Japan, Britain, the Czech Republic and even the United States. Sales hit almost 40 million cases last year, and, according to Allied-Domecq, responsible for marketing Stolichnaya in the United States, bartenders mix vodka into one of every four cocktails or mixed drinks sold.

But the price disparity and overall popularity cannot obscure the fact that, aside from advertising and packaging, the brands are distinguished by differences so subtle that few can pick them apart. "A lot of it is hype," Carr says. "If you start lining them up, could you say 'this is distilled four times and this eight times?' Uh-uh." Others agree, somewhat. "If you line them up, I can probably tell what's what," contends Chris Michael at Bali Bar. "But no one lines them up, so no one can really tell Grey Goose from Skyy. Anyone who says they can is lying."

Naturally, that sounded like a challenge to the Burning Question crew. We had slipped into a fugue state when this particular question slid through our mail slot, and we became quite uncontrollable at the prospect of a vodka taste test. Indeed, shortly after the test we stumbled through a series of mildly amusing adventures that all ended with the phrase "community service."

We sampled Vox, Ketel One, Belvedere, Grey Goose, Chopin and Christiania. We keep several bottles of Monopolowa at home and used this inexpensive brand ($12) as our basis for comparison. The more expensive brands tasted smooth and almost gentle, but otherwise lacked flavor and bite. Only Grey Goose hinted at the texture and sting of Monopolowa, but at twice the price.

"It's all up to personal taste," Caudle says with a shrug. "I like Ketel One, but I drink Monopolowa at home." Most bartenders agree that marketing drives brand popularity. "It's a matter of identification," Michael says. "Do you identify with Skyy ads? Do you appreciate a good deal and drink Monopolowa? What are you trying to express through your vodka consumption?" Flavored vodkas drive the market anyway, and most patrons down the plain versions only as mixers. "The definition of better now is smoother," Carr acknowledges. The various brands encourage this by touting the number of times they distill and filter their product. Mezzaluna, for example, blabs about the value of its triple-distilled and quadruple-filtered ultra-smooth spirit. Monopolowa, by contrast, steadfastly refuses to filter out the natural flavor. "Some people like a little taste," says Lindy Moyse of Sevy's Grill, "but the trend is filtering, filtering, filtering, and bottle design."

Ah, the bottles. The Burning Question crew bumped into Allison Petty at Bali Bar, who admitted to ordering Grey Goose based on bottling alone: "I like the Grey Goose bottle, it's pretty." Some bottles feature artwork. Some look great on a shelf. Liquid Ice comes in a nifty bit of glass shaped like an ice cube.

"I don't think taste is the first thing for most people," Moyse says.

So why buy a Chopin or Grey Goose? "The accoutrements of premium vodkas are well worth it," Michael points out. "You're not getting laid if you're drinking cheap vodka." In other words, lay off the stuff in plastic jugs.

This week's Burning Question left us with several hours of penance and a nagging feeling that we failed to settle the problem at hand. The difference between vodkas on the premium level is slight. We prefer Monopolowa; it's cheaper and refuses to hide the spirit's characteristic bite. Otherwise, it depends on your adherence to advertising spiels and image. It's difficult to find bad vodka at the premium level, so the real question, in Caudle's mind, is this: "What's the best colorless, odorless, tasteless substance you can get?"

And that's a pretty damn confusing question.


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