Diner: Vodka Shmodka

CityBeat's tasting panel picks its top neutral spirits

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Joe Lamb

Below Zero Lounge proved an able home for CityBeat's first-ever vodka-tasting panel.

I've never really understood vodka drinkers. I mean, drinking vodka is practically a cultural necessity in Russia and Poland; whether it's made from potatoes or wheat, it's their national drink. But I've always assumed that others drink vodka because they don't really like the taste of alcohol yet still want to get buzzed.

And those "vodka connoisseurs?" Why would anybody spend top dollar on a beverage whose apogee of quality is signified by the most neutral (that is, non-existent) flavor of all?

"You have to adjust your palate to appreciate neutrality," vodka connoisseur Don Outterson explained to me.

Outterson is the owner of Cincinnati's Woodstone Creek (3641 Newton Ave., Norwood, 513-569-0300), a winery and micro-distillery located just blocks from Xavier University. He makes his own vodka — bourbon and rum, too.

Ohio's arcane (Don might call them "asinine") liquor laws forbid him to sell these products directly to consumers. However, you can find his vodka at several local outlets, including Below Zero Lounge (1122 Walnut St., 513-421-9376), downtown's cool new vodka-centric bar in the former Alchemize space. Our tasting panel gathered there recently, under the watchful pop-art gaze of Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland, to see if we could discern — maybe even appreciate — the difference in quality among 12 well-known vodkas.

Joining dining section writers Lora Arduser, Anne Mitchell and myself were burgeoning vodka-phile Julie Mullins (CityBeat's Listings/Dance Editor) and two local vodka experts: the aforementioned Outterson and Nigel Cotterill, owner of Below Zero.

So, what is vodka? Basically, it's fermented material (usually grain — like wheat, barley or rye — or starch — like corn or potatoes — but it could be anything, even grapes) that's distilled to "purify" the product, creating a clear, flavorless, odorless neutral spirit that's more than 90 percent alcohol (ethanol).

Multiple distillations are often a selling point for vodkas, including Smirnoff (triple distilled), Jean Marc OX (distilled nine times) and Russia's super-lux Kauffman, which reportedly undergoes a whopping 14 distillations. Many producers (Skyy, Stoli and Smirnoff) also emphasize how their products are filtered.

Removing impurities through distillation and filtration also removes "character" from the vodka, so that the finished products (in theory) should taste virtually the same regardless of the substance from which they're distilled.

In fact, Don concurs that vodka ultimately gets much of whatever character it expresses from water. Water is added to the finished product to bring the alcohol content down to a pleasantly ingestible level — usually around 40 percent (80 proof). Naturally, it can significantly affect the flavors expressed in the finished libation if you use "spring water filtered through glacial moraine rock" (Finlandia) or "12,000-year-old melted iceberg water" (Canada's Iceberg vodka) or specially filtered tap water from Cincinnati (Woodstone Creek).

Flavored vodkas are flooding the market place — everything from lemon and green apple to pomegranate, espresso and even bison grass — but we didn't review any of them.

Instead, our panel tasted 12 non-flavored vodkas at a broad range of prices, from the beautifully packaged SV The Silk Vodka from Russia to Popov in unbreakable plastic. (Actually, we blind-tasted the low-priced Popov twice: once straight and a second time after it had passed through a Brita water filter to see if extra filtration made a difference.)

We considered appearance, aroma, taste, mouth feel, finish and smoothness in judging the samples, each of which was tasted blind. That is, we had no idea what was in our glasses until after we had tasted and rated all 12.

In the end, "appreciating neutrality" turned out to be a challenge for most of us. We're all taught to appreciate complexity, distinctiveness and intensity. While one might not enjoy a specific range of flavors, we're still able to appreciate them. So, in tasting these vodkas, many of us tended to prefer those that showed some character rather than those that were truly neutral.

Still, among our panel, two clear-cut winners emerged. And, believe it or not, Outterson's Woodstone Creek, made right here in Cincinnati, was the only sample that scored "Top Five" votes from all six participants. I urge you to go out and try Outterson's small-production masterpiece, which various tasters described as fresh, smooth, pure and mellow with no sweetness. I guessed it was Russian and wrote on my tasting sheet, "This tastes like vodka." There was not a more pure expression of "neutral spirit" in this tasting. Interestingly, Don ranked it No. 1 but did not peg it as his own!

Also at the top of the heap, though for different reasons, was Círoc, a French product made from "snap frost" grapes (Mauzac Blanc and Ugni Blanc). While it failed to score in the Top Five for two tasters (me and Outterson), it was actually ranked in first place by the other four.

This product wears its distinctiveness proudly, and, unlike the Woodstone Creek, it didn't taste like plain vodka. To me, it tasted like it had been blended with lime and quinine. And all of us found it overtly citrus-y and sweet. If that description has you licking your lips, then this is definitely the product for you.

Rounding out our Top Five were SV The Silk Vodka, Smirnoff (made in the United States) and Ketel One from Holland.

At the bottom of the heap were two bottom-shelf participants (McCormick's in 12th place and Popov in 11th). Just above them in 10th place was Chopin from Poland — the only potato vodka in the bunch. Interestingly, the extra-filtered Popov finished in sixth place, way above the non-filtered version, and was even preferred to France's much-admired Grey Goose, Rain (from New Orleans) and Russian standard-bearer Stolichnaya, which landed in ninth, eighth and seventh places, respectively. (For complete tasting notes on each vodka, explanation of judging criteria and retail pricing, see the CityBeat A&E blog here.)

You might wonder whether this experience changed my opinion of vodka. I'm surprised to report that it did. Tasted blind, these vodkas each showed subtle yet discernible differentiations in character. And in the cheapest products, the group did detect off-putting aromas and a harshness that was not present in the preferred samples.

Now, I expect many readers will dismiss this report out of hand, confident that under similarly controlled circumstances they would never place a locally-made vodka way above the highly acclaimed Grey Goose. Well, I can only urge you to put together a panel and try it yourself; I strongly believe your group results will be similar.

To make it easy on you, Cotterill tells me Below Zero will be offering a CityBeat "Top Five" sampler. Have 'em serve it to you blind and add your personal favorite to the lineup to see where you place it among our selections.

In the meantime, go out and buy Woodstone Creek Vodka and serve it proudly to your guests — straight up, as a treat to be savored and enjoyed. If you're going to blend vodka with other ingredients (like OJ or tonic water), just buy Smirnoff — and use that to refill your last bottle of Grey Goose. I think most folks will actually prefer it, and you'll have some extra cash in your pocket to spend on a decent bottle of bourbon or tequila that actually tastes like something.


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