7 Vodkas, 7 Judges, and journalist Janine Stephen’s, who braved the Salt Vodka Bar in Bantry Bay to report on the results and goings on.
Blind tasting vodka is no task for the fainthearted.
You are tasting a liquid that is supposed to be clear, odourless and flavourless.
But vodkas do have a distinct nose and flavour.
A good vodka is clear as a bell. Any perfume or fragrance other than that which hints at the booze’s vegetal origins is a no-no. And while it can bite slightly as you swallow and tease the tongue and throat, it shouldn’t fill the mouth with specific flavours.
You can’t age it, or refine it beyond triple distillation and careful filtering.
It’s truly egalitarian. Which is why the most expensive vodka in the world isn’t that different from your average firewater: it’s just
filtered through crushed diamonds and boasts a gimmicky bottle full of gemstones.
All of which means pinpointing the good stuff isn’t easy, no matter what fans say.
But the steely-eyed panel gathered to sample a selection of vodkas at Salt Vodka Bar – Cape Town’s first official vodka taste test – appeared unconcerned.
The panellists – including The Foodie David Cope; irrepressible Katy Coetzee of blog Naughty Own, designer Ryan Pomeroy; chef and Spill contributor Xolani Mancotywa; Corporate Image brand specialist Ashley Evans; and probably the most famous palate in South Africa, Neil Pendock – had seven glasses of local and imported spirits to sniff, sip and swirl through.
The Foodie promptly knocked a sample all over his tasting notes before having even had a sip. But on the whole, decorum was maintained, possibly thanks to the spittoons. Not that Sylvie, Xolani or The Palate were spitting.
“I think swallowing is quite important, actually,” Neil said, “you get that taste to the back palate.”
The vodkas were all room temperature (“the whole texture changes when they’re cold,” The Foodie said bleakly), but chilling evidently blunts what few notes there are, so warm and oily it was.
Four tastings down, polite sipping started to get a little more animated. Differences were extolled: Number six tasted “cheap, like bar fights and vomit”. Number two positively ponged compared to the others, but not in a bad way, more “like eucalyptus”. Someone found number three “bitter”; number one was ever so slightly sweeter, with “notes of rose and incense”.
Number five was reminiscent of sake, and number seven “less oily”, more watery smooth. By the finish, one taster had downed two or three favourites, and another was found earnestly sniffing the water in search of differentiating aromas.
Next up: the bottle beauty show. Here, the panellists were less confident. Stolichnaya’s Russian ancestry cracked a nod, as did the
uncomplicated Grey Goose design. But most went for a clean-lined Primitiv bottle, despite (or perhaps because of) its blatant flirtation with Absolut’s iconic shape.
Choice vodka cocktails now in hand to ease embarrassment, it was time for the great Reveal.
There was a degree of consensus. Pricey Grey Goose somehow scored lowest of the seven. Entertainingly, Smirnoff regular and black received exactly the same number of points (“it’s the same vodka, what do you bet?”).
One of the local tipples didn’t get out of the starting gates, (Pushkin), although Primitiv came third. But king of the night, knocking the others aside like unstable drunks, was the mighty white Russian Stolichnaya.
One panellist lamented that he invariably chose the most expensive option; others were smug that they’d pinpointed dear old Stoli (Eminem evidently likes it too).
One thing was for sure: they’d blown any theories that all vodka tastes the same.
“I’ve never thought about the brand of vodka I’ve drunk before, but now I think I will specify,” a panellist mused, twirling a cocktail between her fingers.
“Some deserve to be mixed with coke. But the winner, Stoli – that one I could drink alone, on crushed ice.”
4/5. Smirnoff Black&Red. – a tie.
7. Grey Goose.
Packaging Beauty Contest.
One winner – Primitiv Vodka.