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Spirits: How do you describe vodka?

They look identical; would they taste different? (Jason Wilson)

On Tuesday, I attended an eight-hour "sensory analysis workshop," hosted by Absolut vodka at the Swedish embassy, along with a dozen or so members of the D.C. Craft Bartenders Guild, among them Adam Bernbach (Proof), Gina Chersevani (PS 7's), Clinton Terry (PX), Dan Searing (Room 11), Chantal Tseng (Tabard Inn) and Jason Strich (Rasika).

I admit, I was skeptical. A lot of craft bartenders have taken a dim view of vodka in the past, as have I. What sort of assault on the senses might happen that would last eight hours? Would we be tied to chairs and made to sniff herring and listen to Abba at high volume until we finally cracked and declared, on captured video, that we loved vodka? Even our host, Simon Ford of Pernod Ricard, sheepishly admitted that “for the last seven years I’ve been telling people not to drink vodka” during his work as brand ambassador for Plymouth gin. But all that has changed, he assured us.

Grant Achatz's deconstructed Martinez. (Jason Wilson)

The afternoon began with a sensory-experience Absolut propaganda video during which we wore goggles and were sprayed with water and crushed ice and aromas of such elements as rye bread. The evening ended with a 10-course vodka pairing menu performed by Grant Achatz, the avant-garde, molecular-gastronomical guru of Alinea in Chicago. We were served a Bloody Mary you could eat, then two atomizers (one with lemon and one with anise) that we were instructed to spray into a shot of vodka, and then a deconstructed Martinez cocktail in which a foam of vermouth and maraschino was served on half a cherry. At one point, a fire alarm went off, and a robotic voice urged us to leave the building. Everyone just sat there for a moment, because some of us truly thought this must be some sort of weird molecular gastronomic sensory exercise for the next course. But no, the security guards came in and told everyone we actually had to evacuate the embassy. Luckily, it was a false alarm and we returned to finish the meal 10 minutes later.

This is how it always goes in the spirits industry: A lot of extraneous packaging — fluff — that tends to obscure what’s really important, the liquid in bottle.

Yet we did manage to get beyond the fluff.

The essential part of Absolut’s sensory analysis day camp got at the heart of two questions that nag at vodka, defined by the U.S. government as a “flavorless” and “odorless” neutral spirit. Those questions: 1) What really is the flavor of vodka? 2) How in the world does one describe this flavor?

“We need to find a language for vodka,” said Per Hermansson, director of sensory analysis at Absolut, who guided us through a technical tasting of six key flavor elements: neutral, grainy, bready, fruity, buttery, solvent. Then we did a technical tasting of 12 vodka brands, examples of the different raw ingredients used in vodka production: wheat, potatoes, rye, corn and grapes.

Of course, there was a marketing narrative, and Hermansson is probably not a champion poker player. There was an obvious bias in favor of so-called “clean” and “pure” vodkas (like, um, Absolut) and against potato vodkas that are funkier with more idiosyncratic and bold flavors (including one Swedish vodka in particular that was created by the former Absolut team). He described another potato vodka, Chopin, as tasting “like corked wine,” which I disagree with. Hermansson also slyly suggested that a lot of Russian vodkas are “rounded,” meaning sugar is added after distillation, which often can leave a drier finish (he called it “bitter’). As good old Nietzsche once said: “All of life is a dispute over taste and tasting.”

Still, the session was mostly free-thinking, and spending a couple hours thinking about 12 vodka brands really did hammer home major differences in vodkas: the richer, berry notes of a grape-based vodka like Hangar One; the bready, spicy, white pepper of Belvedere; the fruity, light body of Stolichnaya; the creamy, wheaty, high-octane Absolut 100. It was a significant and valid notion to explore: Vodkas are all different and have their own personalities, just like whiskeys and tequilas and vermouths. Those of us who’ve dived deeply into cocktail and spirits in the past few years would do well to remember this, and not just generally lump all vodkas together and dismiss them.

After the technical tasting, there was further discussion about “communicating flavor” and how to describe vodka, led by a mixologist from Bamboo London named Simon Weston. We were given a glossary of about 200 terms to describe vodka, from "acerbic" to "zesty."

Of course, the difficulty of communicating flavor became immediately apparent as Weston described one cocktail we sipped as having “delivery” from aromatics to aftertaste. I consulted my glossary: “Delivery: In cricket this describes the act of bowling the ball.” Cricket? I wonder how that description would play on a U Street cocktail menu.

-- Jason Wilson

By The Food Section  |  March 5, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Spirits  | Tags: Jason Wilson, Spirits, vodka  
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Hi Jason,

Just wanted to let you know that Hangar One Vodka is actually made from wheat...not grapes.

Thanks for the mention nonetheless...



Posted by: annieosfan | March 5, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse

p.s. There is indeed a little bit of viognier grape vodka in Hangar One but wheat is the base.

Posted by: annieosfan | March 5, 2010 3:22 PM | Report abuse

That's not what Hangar One says. In fact, you can check out what they say on their website, next to a big bunch of...Viognier grapes. "We use the viognier vodka to diminish the alcoholic overtone found in most other vodkas."

Posted by: jasonwilson1 | March 5, 2010 3:55 PM | Report abuse

Keep reading Jason.

Posted by: saz2 | March 5, 2010 6:49 PM | Report abuse

Saz2, you should keep reading, too:

"First, we pot-distill a vodka using wine from excellent viognier grapes, which is a very expensive thing to do. This is lovely stuff - soft, aromatic, and unbelievably smooth. Next, we blend this viognier wine vodka into well-made column-still wheat vodka.

"The viognier wine vodka makes Hangar One Straight vodka pure, elegant, tasty, and very, very smooth. There’s no unpleasant ethanol/alcohol overtone, no burn on your tongue, no roughness in the back of your mouth. When you mix the Straight with other things, the vodka brings out the flavor without making the drink taste alcoholic. This is the way it’s supposed to be: you should just plain enjoy what you’re drinking."

Posted by: joeyonan | March 6, 2010 7:26 AM | Report abuse

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