Absolut Status

by Shawn Presley

Vodka. There's nothing quite like it, unless you consider rubbing alcohol. Given the close relationship between human taste and smell, rubbing alcohol must be vodka's sibling, if not a fraternal twin.

The Bulletin's story in this issue about the rising cost of higher education made me start to think about what I pay for things and the correlation between price and quality. The pricey designer shirt I buy isn't “better” than a more modestly priced garment. It won't necessarily last longer, and it's probably made in the same sweatshop as the clothes at Wal-Mart. But I'm a sucker for the high-end label, the great customer service from the stores that sell designer brands, and the salespeople who serve me fizzy water while they parade clothes in front of me.

Most of us are status conscious in some area of our lives. I buy generic brands at the grocery store, but the existence of so many “name brands” is proof that plenty of folks like their labels.

There are correlations between price and quality that ring true, but not when it comes to vodka.

Sometime in the 1990s, “premium” and “ultra-premium” vodkas, which is a subtle way to say they cost more, began to proliferate. Fancy-pants bottles and pretty labels have convinced consumers to reach for the top shelf. Vodka connoisseurs like to sip their favorite brands and expound on distinguishing characteristics like a smooth and clean finish, fruity and spicy undertones, and floral aromas.

There's a problem here, though. The world's vodka gods all seem to agree on one thing: the stuff is supposed to have no color, no smell, and no taste. That's the point; vodka's neutrality is what makes it an ideal choice for so many cocktails. How can booze that has no aroma or taste be fruity and spicy?
It can't.

In 2007, ABC's 20/20 conducted a blind taste test to see if premium vodka's taste lived up to its price tag. The results confirm that vodka . . . is vodka.

I once discussed the results of ABC's test with a few Kenyon colleagues. They were skeptical. One was adamant that Grey Goose is a superior vodka; it's always his vodka of choice. While the others weren't as definitive in their preferences, they were eager to challenge the 20/20 test with our own experiment.

We used three brands: lowly Smirnoff, middle-of-the-road Absolut, and the reigning high-end champ, Grey Goose, which is roughly twice the price of Absolut and three times that of Smirnoff.

The results? My Grey Goose pal picked Smirnoff as his favorite. Even better are the results from 20/20. Four of the six participants entered the taste test saying Grey Goose was their favorite. In the end, five of the six agreed on one thing: Grey Goose was their least favorite, at least in the blind taste test. One claimed it was “kind of thick.” Thick vodka? Whatever.

If you're a vodka drinker, save your money and reach for the lower shelf. If you're embarrassed to serve Popov in your home, pour it in a Grey Goose bottle you've fished out of your neighbor's recycling bin. No one will know the difference.

One day I may work on what could be the next big thing: premium rubbing alcohol. I will sell it in a bottle designed by architect Frank Gehry—that is, if he's not under some kind of no-compete clause
for the bottle he designed for Wyborowa Vodka.

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