Best Premium Imported Vodka Tasting - 2004
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40 members of the Greater New York Chapter of Tasters Guild International tasted and evaluated 13 premium vodkas. Since that tasting, the premium imported vodka category has experienced a growth pattern never before seen. There are new brands seemingly appearing every week, much to the delight of Vodka devotees and disciples. In an effort to "update" the tasting, we changed the rules slightly.
I still had 13 vodkas at hand and contesting but only plain were sought...no flavors...and all were imports. There were 11 of what we then referred to as new ones in addition to two from the 2002 tasting (the winner and last place finisher). At the previous tasting, the vodkas were served in what was referred to as an open manner so that everyone could see and know what they were about to taste. To make this particular tasting more interesting we employed blindfolds, and no one knew what they had before them until it passed their palate. In other words, the vodkas were listed and all knew the brands that were being contested but no one, with the singular exception of myself, actually knew anything more when asked to offer an opinion. Obviously, yours truly did not participate in the tasting or voting.
The 30 tasters invited were all professed vodka drinkers, contrary to the first such gathering where we employed a mix of vodka and wine drinkers per se and mingled them with a number of aficionados with world-wide reputations. So, with a bit of bravado and lack of modesty this time around, several told me they could pick out the vodka they always drank without any problems at all were they asked to do a tasting blind-folded.
The products were served neat with water on the side and Bremner Wafers to cleanse the palate following each taste of a brand of vodka. Then, everyone involved was asked to evaluate each product at least twice, neat and mixed with water, while give the opportunity and option of a retest, if needed. All the while, I explained the derivation of each product, i.e., wheat- or rye-based and, in one example of each, corn and wine grape-based. The tasting notes that follow the rankings are a summary of the results and all replicative commentary has been eliminated while contrasting opinions have been summarized. Each taster was asked to rank the vodkas from their favorite to the least desirable. To insure equality, I then took the 10 vodkas from our summer of 2002 evaluation (having already pulled out the first and last place finisher while dropping the one domestic vodka that had been included) and added them to another round of blind tasting, plus the 13 new vodkas. Because of "palate fatigue," I spread the tasting over a two-day period with 10 new and five past participants.
The votes were weighted from 10 points (number 1) to zero points (numbers 11, 12 and 13). When the vote total was within two points, a tie was declared for that position.
750ml sizes are listed below and a generous markup is applied, but do note that some stores may charge less.
The word vodka, is a derivation of the Russian word for "little water." Vodka came to be a huge part of the Russian culture, as it was being distilled even before the word vodka came into general use. Polish historians claim that vodka was first produced in 1405 and history coupled with rumor state that it reached Russia from Poland. Vodka can be made from potatoes or various cereal grains that contain starch, principally corn, rye and wheat but it can also be made from fruits and vegetables if you feel like setting up your own distillery in a corner of the backyard and/or kitchen some time later today.
The U.S. government officially describes vodka as "a neutral spirit, so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal and other materials as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color." This tasting proved vodka’s range of aroma, texture and flavor. The governmental definition was correct on one point however - vodka does not have any color. Today, vodka is the largest category of distilled spirits on the market accounting for sales of one out of every four bottles of liquor sold in the US.
The Art of Tasting Vodka: While many prefer to drink their vodka ice cold, it is best, for tasting purposes, to pour it into a glass at room temperature. Cold tends to dampen the aroma and deaden the taste buds. Mix the sample with an equal amount of water. Then look at the liquid - it should be clear and bright absent any cloudiness. Second - smell or "nose" the vodka by swirling it in the glass. Watch out for sharp, pungent odors or a perfumed smell. Third - take a small sip and roll it around your tongue. Look for a pleasant flavor and, yes, it varies from person to person. Fourth - draw a little air over the vodka to release its flavors, then swallow it and evaluate the finish. Fifth - vodka should look pure,feel smooth on the tongue...with no "bite," and be pleasant but not overpowering nor have an off-aroma or flavor and little aftertaste. You're ready!!!
THE TASTING This tasting dispelled some myths about vodka! To begin with, the notion of "triple distilled" or "triple filtered" is pure hype. The process of distillation is a continuous one, recirculating the solution until all the alcohol is vaporized out. Also, the source of the vodka (potato, wheat, sugar cane) does not affect the final product, contrary to what you may hear from time to time. When using a sugar product, the fermentation is direct from sugar to alcohol. When using a starch base, the fermentation is starch to sugar (maltose, sugar from grain), then sugar to alcohol. After fermentation, to separate the alcohol from the water in the resulting solution, it is distilled (boiled). Since alcohol has a lower boiling temperature than water (176 degrees), the alcohol vaporizes, leaving the water behind. The vapor is then collected in tubes and cooled; the condensation is collected, boiled again to remove even more water and drawn from the still. Lastly, the most startling one that I have heard was that imported vodka may have up to 2½ % "various ingredients" added, ingredients that do not have to appear on the label. However, American made vodka cannot have any "flavors" added...it must be by law colorless, odorless and tasteless. So much for what you might hear from time to time.
1. The clear (no pun intended) winner is: Iceberg, Canada, $22. Triple distilled using Ontario sweet corn. The sole water source used is from 12,000 year old artic icebergs (perfumed, sweet nose, berry like, orange citrus, smooth, fruity, long finish, aromatic, lots of flavor).
2. Tie: Ciroc, France, $32. 100% wine grapes from southwest France; distilled 5 times. The grapes are left on the vines until the first frost when they are high in sugar content (lime, citrus fruit, oranges, strong nose, pepper, complex, clean on palate, lemon aftertaste, serve it straight up). Ketel One, Holland, $25. Wheat based, named after the original distilling Ketel #1, built in 1864 (Lemon, citrus aroma, easy to drink, spice, long finish, tasteless, round, harsh nose, Vick's vaporub, smooth. Very varied comments).
3. Tie: Citadelle, France, $24. 100% wheat based, distilled 5 times, uses micro-oxygenation (sweet nose, earthy, citrus, vanilla, mine rally, spicy, steely, anise, lots of fruit flavors, smooth, good aftertaste). Stolichnaya, Russia, $24. Winter wheat using glacier water and filtered through quartz and activated charcoal (floral nose, earthy, sweet with a hint of vanilla, licorice, harsh, very flavorful).
4. Tie: Finlandia, Finland, $22. Wheat based from 6 row barley and pure glacial water (no sweetness on the finish, citrus, lacks flavor, clean, herbal and elegant). Zyr, Russia, $32. Distilled & filtered 5 times; winter wheat & rye ( ice water, rough, muted nose, round, smooth, easy to drink, smooth, floral bouquet sweet finish, oily, rubbing alcohol).
5. Three-way Tie: Pearl, Canada, $25. Made from Western Canadian wheat (aromas of butterscotch and maple syrup, caramel, not much taste, clean finish, no nuances, round and smooth). Vincent Van Gogh, Holland, $35. Winter wheat & grains, multiple distillation(?), square shouldered bottles are frosted white, etched & feature some of VVG paintings (refined, harsh, pungent alcohol, round flavors, citrus, clean, minerals, burnt tongue, green apples, unpleasant, different, balanced). Three Olives, Great Britain, $23. Wheat based, triple distilled, and triple charcoal filtered (clean, zesty, lemon grass, citrus, lemon lime, great nose, too alcoholic, harsh, long finish).
6. Tie: Wyborowa, Poland, $18. Rye based, means "exquisite" in Polish (very sweet with vanilla overtones, finishes with a bite, floral, minerals, smooth, burnt, full-bodied). Grey Goose, France, $33. (Finished #1 in 2002 tasting) Five step distillation from a blend of barley, corn, rye & wheat. The water is sourced from Gente Springs in Cognac and filtered through champagne limestone (lemon fresh, floor wax, floral, citrus, smooth, slight sweetness, vanilla, bad cheap rubbing alcohol, steely, rough nose, smells and tastes of licorice with a bit of citrus, caraway & anise, strong nose, clean, crisp, easy to drink). At least 10 of the tasters said they were Grey Goose drinkers, but not one could pick it out and many of them were the most critical.
7. Tie: Absolut, Sweden, $23. Winter wheat based (earthy smell, peppery malt taste, light bodied, licorice and not much character. Are the ads better than the product?). Jewel of Russia, Russia, $30. Wheat & rye based with multiple distillations and a 5 step filtration (sweet, alcohol muted nose, soft on the palate, nondescript, pepper, easy to drink, short finish, Listerine, cherry nose, overpowering, complex).
8. Chopin, Poland, $33. Potato vodka, quadruple distilled; named after Frederic Chopin (earthy, slightly harsh in the mouth, citrus, smooth, wax, bite at the end).
9. Tie: Belvedere, Poland, $33. Made from Rye and quadruple distilled and filtered through diatomaceous earth; Belvedere is the official residence of the Polish President in Warsaw (smells earthy & pungent, sharp, bitter, spice, harsh, vanilla ,sweet taste). Vox, Netherlands, $32. (Finished #13 in 2002 tasting) 100% wheat, demineralized water produced by reverse osmosis. 5 times distilled and filtered (nail polish, rough, harsh, alcoholic, hints of flavor, smooth, strong finish, long & complex, perfumed, undistinguished, licorice).
10. Potocki, Poland, $35. Rye based, 2 distillations, not filtered. Family militarily served the Polish Kings since the 15th Century. Just now being imported into US (pungent, reminded several of whiskey and Gin, not much aroma, flavorless, burnt, pleasant to drink, alcoholic, long finish, aromatic).
11. Turi, Estonia, $31. 100% rye, 4 times distilled (burned edge, harsh on the palate, too sweet, refined, long sweet finish, spicy, burned, cheap, boring, no flavor, short finish, alcoholic, silky texture, smooth). Editors Note: Turi is imported by Bacardi USA.
12. Tie: Fris, Denmark, $21. Wheat based and distilled 6 times; Danish word for frost & ice (flowery, fragrance, alcoholic, poor aftertaste, starts out sweet and finishes savory & salty). Boru, Ireland, $22. Wheat based, filtered through Irish oak charcoal. Named after the first High King of Ireland, Brian Boru in 1014 (delicate, grassy, peppery, perfumed, citrus, not much taste, no nuances of flavor, harsh, rubbing alcohol, mistaken by several people for the grape based vodka, burnt tongue, nasty, smooth fruit flavors, clean, crisp, powerful aftertaste).
13. Tanqueray Sterling, Great Britain, $22. Wheat based and triple distilled (not much aroma, clean but neutral, muted, flavorless, sweet nose & aftertaste, not complex).
14. Ston, Estonia, $21. Distilled 4 times & filtered through limestone. Water is from Artesian wells fed by ancient glaciers (minerals, citrus, hint of vanilla, lemony, slightly sweet, not much character, burnt, no finish, neutral).
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