Is a vodka review like sorting sheep from sheep? I waded my way through twelve bottles in search of the answer.
First published in Prestige Magazine (May 2013 edition).
A decade or so ago there were only two premium vodkas commonly available on the South African market. Today that number has rapidly proliferated to double figures. We have an astounding choice available to us, reflecting the globally changing face of vodka – from cheap, interchangeable and stereotypically quaffed by Russians to cosmopolitan, exclusive and ordered by brand name. Why has this happened, and what does it mean for the vodka drinker? These are important questions because of all the spirits that enjoy any significant international distribution vodka is the largest. I decided to gather up the players, assemble a panel of industry stalwarts, and take a closer look.
The law that governs vodka, that allows vodka to be sold under the name of vodka, states that it should “not have any distinctive characteristic, aroma, taste or colour”. I sometimes wonder how such laws are conceived. Taste and aroma are highly subjective, and of dubious tangibility. What is a characteristic? Is mouth-feel a characteristic? If so chalk up another one for the impalpables. I guess that this can only be put into practice with some sort of a “reasonable man” rule, or the pretence thereof. In this context, assuming our panel to be reasonable men, one of the vodkas we reviewed, the Sean “Puff Diddy Daddy” Combs-championed Cîroc, most definitely and unanimously does have an identifiably distinctive flavour. But what of it? Is this enough that it should be booted from this category? If that were the case it would be vodka’s loss; I’m making the point only to illustrate the unwieldy strangeness and the questionable meaningfulness of these regulations.
However despite its sometimes tenuous justification, and the fact that some products appeared to have tangoed around its outskirts – add Smirnoff Black to this list, made (at least partly) in a pot rather than the clearly stipulated column – the law is the law. So assuming adherence what is the basis on which to prefer one vodka above another? We nosed and tasted twelve different vodkas: Smirnoff Black, Russian Standard, and Stolichnaya (the Russians – albeit a stretch for Smirnoff); Cîroc and Grey Goose (the French); Absolut and Finlandia (the Scandinavians); Wyborowa, Snow Leopard, and Belvedere (the Poles); and Skyy and Skyy 90 (the Americans). Some were a little creamier, some slightly spicier, others a touch sweeter, and one a bit too spirit-ish, but by and large the flavour variance, Cîroc aside, was exceptionally narrow. We didn’t have the time or stamina for a round of blind tastings but I have zero confidence that we’d have been able to consistently tell them apart.
So the critical criterion for judging superior vodka clearly isn’t flavour. Yes, it needs to be a quality liquid, smooth and easily palatable, with enough subtle cues to make some sort of a claim, but aroma and taste aren’t going to set it apart. The dynamic, at least in my analysis, that dictates a person’s preference of this or indeed any other individual product comes down to a weighting of intrinsics, the product itself, and extrinsics, the associated elements. When it comes to vodka the balance of influence is strongly tilted in favour of the latter: the price, the story, the attire, the identity of fellow consumers…any and all factors that have a contributing impact on how a potential drinker would perceive the brand. Vodka brands – make no mistake – are chosen primarily because of these extrinsic motivators. Of course different aspects will appeal to different people; during our evening of vodka appreciation, we noted a few highlights:
Cîroc stands out not only because of its flavour but also (correspondingly perhaps) because it’s made from grapes. All the others are made from grain of various sorts. Note at this point that by definition vodka can be made from any vegetable matter.
Belvedere was felt to have the most attractive packaging – the bottle is tall and elegant, and the printing and finish thereof is exceptionally beautiful. We also felt that Skyy’s packaging was courageous and visually arresting; where all the other brands have opted for traditional, somewhat uninspired flint, Skyy struts about in electric blue. And naturally we felt compelled to doff our caps to Absolut’s iconic bottle shape.
Grey Goose has emulated liquor’s traditional premium clique, the brown spirits, by employing a “cork” stopper instead of the screw-tops used by the others. I can imagine that the pleasing popping sound would enhance the ritual of opening this bottle for many people.
Then there’s provenance of course. Purists might gravitate towards Russian or Polish origins or heritage – there’s a certain comfort in going to the source. Russian Standard overplays this hand somewhat with its name and its largely incomprehensible Cyrillic label. Others may be drawn to some of the ice-cool clinicality of Scandinavia, or to some untraditional French fare from the traditional masters of luxury.
Each of the vodkas we reviewed has its pitch – these are all big, successful international brands. I was left to reflect on the conclusion that one’s choice comes down to the personally appropriate mix of price and image. Vodka may be the world’s most versatile, eager-to-please drink but in its varying shapes and sizes it’s not without its very particular and impressive personalities. The days of generic vodka might just be over. Na zdorovie!
Big thanks to Hector McBeth, Ross Shepherd, and Grant McDonald.