John Hernandez, a bartender at Vickery Park, thinks he knows why potato vodkas don't fare as well as those based on grain. "It's a different flavor," he explains. "People are just used to what they were drinking."
When brand vodkas began attracting real consumer interest during those wild and crazy 1950s--hey, it was the era of cocktail hour for the guys in gray flannel and beatnik clubs for the Maynard G. Krebs sort--grain styles dominated the market. This remained true through the decades to follow, perhaps due to the relative abundance of grain and the general belief that those commie bastards drank potato brands.
Oddly enough, the Ruskies prefer wheat vodka.
Of course, you can distill vodka from a number of things, including rye, corn, beets and honey. Although considered a generally odorless, colorless, tasteless spirit, different base ingredients do yield distinct flavor differences--especially when you sample them neat and at room temperature. Compared to the wheat version, potato vodkas have an earthier bite and strong trace of mineral flavors, ranging from stone to tin. When high-end brands such as Grey Goose came into vogue, they tended to rely on wheat--and fancy bottles.
Hernandez dismisses the emphasis on packaging. "I know what cool bottles look like," he says. "I'm good on that."
Yes, the past five or so years have seen the advent of grape-based vodkas (like Ciroc) and flavored varieties. A few upscale potato-based brands show up, here and there: Chopin, Zodiac, Teton Glacier. The heavily marketed names distill their product multiple times--five, eight, more--which concentrates the alcohol and (with filtering) eliminates impurities that rough up the flavor. This is why the taste of Grey Goose is so clean and, really, nonexistent. But a number of those in-the-know prefer a down and dirty, simple potato brand encased in the plainest of possible bottles: Monopolowa.
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It sounds Polish, but the company is based out of Vienna. Their marketing-unfriendly product consistently dukes it out with the favorites in taste tests.
So on a visit to Nick & Sam's Grill, I decided to pit Mono against Chopin. Many critics rate Luksusowa--a Polish brand--or Teton Glacier a few degrees better than both. But Mono and Chopin are commonly available around Dallas.
Both have the same starchy background, of course. Both walk through the same progression of flavors: sweetness, potato notes and a peppery burn. The Chopin is smoother, softer, more rounded. Behind the initial sweetness, the mineral characters seem to curl away just before reaching their peak. The Monopolowa is a bolder vodka. You taste potato skin and sweeter metallic minerals--a nice contrast. In mouth feel, it's rather oily and there's more of an ethanol follow through. Simply put, it's a more honest and aggressive brand.
For $12 or so at Goody Goody, it's also a bargain.