I spent last night at a high-end vodka tasting in San Francisco, choosing to break my normally strict policy about not attending industry dinners or tasting events. I find that I rarely learn more about a brand or product at a large gala than I do in the privacy of the K&L tasting bar, so it's never been a tough decision for me. Yesterday's tasting, however, was something that really piqued my curiosity, so I made an exception. I get a kick out of understanding things that others shrug off, and an even bigger kick out of pointing out to spirit-loving hipsters about why their anti-vodka stance is just as trendy and clichéd as their hatred for all things trendy and clichéd. That's part of what's fueling my recent fascination with vodka appreciation. That and the fact that the world consumes more than four times the amount of vodka than it does whisky. According to the Economist, "Russians alone downed nearly 2 billion litres of the stuff in 2012, equivalent to 14 litres for every man, woman and child. (Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Russians are among the biggest drinkers in the world, according to the most recent World Health Organisation data.)"
There is such a thing as quality vodka. Despite the fact that most vodka is neutral in flavor, there are differences in the way they taste and in how they are perceived on the palate. They differ in weight. They differ in purity. They differ in distillation methods. They differ in base materials. Water plays a big role. Filtration plays a big role. Yet, vodka has played the same role for educated spirits drinkers that white zinfandel long played for educated wine drinkers – it epitomized unsophistication, and no one wants to appear like they're unsophisticated in the food and wine world. But much like quality rosé has shed its association with jugs of Carlo Rossi here in California, I think it's time we start separating the wheat vodkas from the chaff. There are reasons that vodka continues to sell strongly all over the world (at both high and low prices) and there are plenty of people out there who appreciate it. How can I (or anyone, for that matter) consider myself a true student of booze if I'm completely writing off the most popular and widely consumed spirit on the planet? Sounds pretty foolish, right?
When I sat at that tasting last night and I went through the various glasses, I was quite surprised at how un-neutral many of the vodkas appeared on the nose. Some smelled like lime, others like lime with PineSol (that was Ciroc). Some were hot and spicy, while others soft and supple. Many people in the audience reacted positively or negatively to these qualities. I was proud of myself for being able to pick out the Absolut Elyx from the bunch, meaning that I recognized a flavor and profile that was distinct from other vodkas, and I was surprised by how different it was from other brands like Grey Goose, Ketel One, and Belvedere. I'm a bit embarrassed by my lack of vodka knowledge, about the fact that I don't know much about fermentation, distillation, or how filtration affects flavor. I know people laugh at these aspects of production because there's not much flavor when it comes to vodka, but in my opinion these slights are misguided. There's something going on with vodka and millions of vodka drinkers prove that everyday.
Perhaps the best part about vodka is the lack of pretense. Because there's so much nuance and so little boutique culture, there's little snobbery within the aficianado community – that being said, there's a ton of snobbery from the anti-vodka aficianado community to make up for it. But this extreme gulf is what intrigues me right now. I'm searching for enlightenment. Maybe vodka appreciation is the most advanced form of spirits appreciation, rather than the least. Maybe it takes the most sophisticated palate to figure out what quality is! Can one even approach vodka like one approaches other spirits? How does one determine quality? What makes one better from another? I'm going to find out. I'm personally going to drink nothing but vodka for the next week and write about what I learn.
And, of course, I'll share everything with you here.