Vodka: Tasteless is good

cheap buzz
cheap buzz
Posted: February 02, 2012

WELCOME TO Cheap Buzz, where we eavesdrop as sommelier Marnie Old attempts to teach the joys of wine and fine spirits to Buzz, a guy with no sophistication and not much money. Here's their latest conversation:

BUZZ: Hey Marnie, why do people drink vodka? Isn't it made from potatoes?

MARNIE: Sometimes, Buzz, but not often. Vodka is usually a grain spirit distilled from wheat or rye, like whiskey minus the barrel aging. But it can be made from anything, really, including potatoes and even grapes. Vodka's original claim to fame was that its purity reduced hangovers.

BUZZ: I drink Bloody Marys to reduce my hangovers. That's got vodka, but all I taste is the tomato juice. Why buy a $20 bottle of vodka for that?

MARNIE: Vodka is a bit of an exception in the spirits world. In other categories, the top tiers typically deliver more flavor, more depth or more complexity - either by working with better ingredients, in smaller batches or by aging in barrels. But, for vodka, the whole idea is to take flavor out, not put it in.

BUZZ: If they taste like nothing, why are some vodkas so expensive?

MARNIE: One distiller might use better grain or filter more carefully than another, but to be honest, a lot of the difference in cost comes in the marketing. You might notice a nuanced distinction in a side-by-side taste test, but only if you taste the vodkas plain. There's not much "tasteable" evidence of superior quality, especially once it's mixed.

BUZZ: Sounds like a racket to me. But the vodka section in the store is huge, so I guess the high hats don't mind forking over extra dough to avoid a headache.

MARNIE: There's something to be said for the "headache test," Buzz. Cheap spirits often contain impurities that can cause hangovers. Modern technology allows us to produce pristine vodka for much lower prices than you might think. It's wise to avoid the shoe-level shelves where standard bottles go for under $10. That's hangover central. But even professional judging panels have given high marks and gold medals to vodkas that sell for less than $15 a bottle, so why spend more?

BUZZ: Luckily, my beer gut doesn't allow me to bend over far enough to reach the shoe-level shelves.

Marnie Old is Philadelphia's highest-profile sommelier. She has designed wine lists for restaurants like Parc and Bar Ferdinand. Her latest book, "Wine Secrets," is a collection of wine advice shared by top wine professionals. Marnie consults for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and is an adviser to the beverage trade. Check out her blog at sauceblog.marnieold.com. Buzz's musings are interpreted by Daily News City Editor Gar Joseph.

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