Saturday, October 13, 2012

Boston Cocktail Summit: Subtle Nuances of Vodka

"Martinis should be sexy, swanky and clear."
--Tony Abou-Ganim

Vodka is the number one consumed spirit in the U.S. and also in the world. In 2011, vodka grew in the U.S. by 6%, up to 65.8 million cases. Despite its huge popularity, it is still a much maligned spirit, and misconceptions about its taste and aroma abound. That is why I was intrigued to attend a seminar at the Boston Cocktail Summit called The Subtle Nuances of Vodka.

The seminar was led by Tony Abou-Ganim, a well known mixologist and the author of The Modern Mixologist. He has also written a book on vodka which should be published in the near future. Tony did a great job with the seminar, which was both educational and entertaining. The seminar was not only a discussion of the various aromas and flavors that are found in different vodkas, but it included a blind tasting of eight vodkas to show us the subtle differences.

Under U.S. law, “vodka” is defined as "neutral spirits so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color." Does that sound appealing at all? No, and it is the primary view of vodka which many people share. Because of its alleged neutrality, it is an easy spirit to mix in cocktails, and that might be a significant reason for its popularity. But this view of vodka as a truly neutral spirit is plainly incorrect.

Tony believes that vodka is the hardest spirit to taste and evaluate because of its subtleties. He provided us a sheet though of many of the possible descriptors for vodka, including Aroma/Taste, Mouthfeel, Finish, and Overall Character. From personal experience, I have long believed vodka showed a diversity of aromas and flavors, which is why I have certain favorites. If they all tasted the same, or if they all lacked flavor, then I would enjoy them all equally. Yet that is far from the case.

To me, I see vodka in some respects as similar to Sake, as it is another alcohol which often has a more subtle flavor profile. “As easy to drink as water” is a saying sometimes used to describe an excellent Sake, to reflect its clean, pure taste, though that does not mean it lacks aroma or flavor. It is probably an apt phrase to describe some premium vodkas as well. I know that some of my favorite vodkas certainly bring to mind this saying.

Vodka can be made from almost any fermented sugar and Tony even stated: "Gin is flavored vodka." Tony provided a brief history of vodka, noting that it did not really get popular in the U.S. until some time after Prohibition. Smirnoff originally promoted vodka as "white whiskey" though their greatest success may have come from their promotion of the Moscow Mule cocktail, the first time a cocktail was used to promote a specific spirit. But Tony gives much credit for the popularization of vodka to suave James Bond, who prefers his vodka martinis to be shaken, not stirred.

Tony feels that shaking a vodka martini is fine, though he would not do so with gin, but he also believes that vermouth does not work well with vodka. He stated that a good vodka martini should be diluted with about 20% water from the ice, as the water softens the vodka and flowers the nuances. The accompaniment for a vodka martini should complement the inherent flavors of the vodka, such as a blue cheese stuffed olive with a spicy vodka or a grapefruit slice with a citrus vodka. We are not talking flavored vodkas here, just the natural flavors of a straight vodka.

Tony himself keeps about 20-25 vodkas in his freezer, with frozen glasses. It should be slowly sipped, rather than guzzled, so that you experience the vodka as it changes in the glass from warming up in the room. He calls this "lowering the reveal." He also noted that in Russia, they usually drink vodka with food, especially briny foods like caviar, rather than in cocktails. So why aren't more Americans drinking vodka with food? You are starting to see rum, whiskey and other spirit dinners, but vodka dinners seem to be absent. Maybe it is time to change that situation.

We did not know the identities of the vodka in the blind tasting until the very end, after we had sampled all eight. The vodkas ended up including Finlandia, Ketel One, Titos, Stolichnaya, Absolut, Belvedere, Chopin, and Ciroc. One tip Tony gave us is that when smelling the vodkas, we shouldn't just take a big snifff but rather should put our nose in glass and then breathe in through your mouth. This would help prevent our nose from being overwhelmed by alcohol. Tony also differentiated between Old World vs New World vodkas, between those which are more traditional and those which are more approachable.

The blind tasting was educational because even if you could not detect all of the aromas and flavors that others found, you still learned that vodka is actually a diverse spirit, possessed of a range of different aromas and tastes. The main ingredients used to produce the vodka, whether wheat, corn, potato or something else, play a significant role in the flavor and aromas of vodka. It would be a worthwhile experiment for anyone who continues to believe that vodka is odorless and flavorless. Grab a bunch of vodkas and try your own blind tasting at home.

1 comment:

Nick - Wine Club Guide said...

It's great to read your informative post on this subject. Previously I tended to think of vodka as being fairly interchangeable, although I have always maintained that there is a difference between some of the higher end stuff from the lower end. But the vast mid-range I always thought of as being really only differentiated by marketing. So to read these tips on how to detect and appreciate the subtlety of vodka is very much appreciated. And for the record, I don't mind vodka and vermouth, but when it comes to Martinis I still prefer gin! Thanks for an informative post.