In response to my CNET article This trick makes a cheap bottle taste like premium vodka, Tom had this to say:
You did quite well on this initial review. Kudos to your tastes buds as well. I’ve been in the spirits business over 26 years (now retired) and can provide some added input to your study.
As you know vodka by federal definition must be odorless, tasteless and colorless. So how does one differentiate brands, essentially so similar? Especially premium brands that have to justify higher pricing?
[bctt tweet="How does #vodka get its taste? What makes a premium vodka? Find out. #spirits " username="alinabradford"]
It starts with the visuals like artisan packaging for one; the livery look of the overall package, bottle designs, closures (caps) that produce similar sounds as fragrance bottle caps, gift boxes/bags, etc. Other added equity enhancements include outer shipper designs, advertising/promotion and most importantly third party endorsements (bartenders and especially industry commentators/writers).
Other brands, like Tito’s vodka, went in the opposite direction for attention and made themselves look pedestrian in every way; plain brand packaging and outer shipper and a simple name with small ads by design (looks like you can’t afford to pay for more glamours ads) in newsprint. Third party endorsements work. Ketle One was launched without any advertising other than bartender recommendations. It grew from there to small ads today.
If all vodkas must conform to the same taste characteristics because the feds don’t allow any added flavors to be included in the final product (without it becoming a “flavored vodka”), how does one create subtle taste differences? It’s what "they choose to leave in" the final distillate that adds a taste difference. Not what they add to the product.
Five column distillation is among the best at removing most of the off-tasting congeners (head and tails of the distillate). So some brands, including Grey Goose, do not distill every thing out. What you are tasting isn’t as clean per say as some of the finer vodkas who take most of these congeners out.
Millipore charcoal filtration further increases the cleanliness of the product but if you start with a slightly less clean product, you end up with some discernible taste you may not recognize but you know it tastes different than other brands. You end up with…"that’s a brand I recognize".
Some of the cleanest vodka brands on the market today are not premium vodkas. Brands like Smirnoff is one example. It consistently comes out among the cleanest tasting brands in most blind taste tests.
Most Polish brands (perhaps among the oldest vodka producers in the world) fall into this extra clean tasting category as well. Sobieski vodka comes to mind; there are others. The lower end vodkas are indeed different by what they blend into/add to the product; alcohol produced from other wine based sources like the by-product of oranges peels, with it's lower tax base being the benefit. It’s these savings from taxes, that make these lower priced vodkas so less expensive. By law they add enough (other than standard alcohol) to the limits allowed to remain a vodka but not enough to create a taste difference (some would argue that they actually do taste awful, me included). But the main benefit is price.
The test you conducted with inexpensive vodkas already had some unclean congeners in it, (i.e. other alcohol) before you provided your added filtration methods. My guess is you were able to match Grey Goose because it wasn’t as clean as most other premium vodkas and you filtered enough to match its taste characteristics. It’s probably distilled from different sources other than just grain.
Well Tom, thanks for your thoughts. I do know the filtering made the vodka taste great and that works for me. :)