Bartenders Debate Whether Vodka Deserves Their Hate

Oh snap:
Neyah White, fresh from a dinner sponsored by Absolut, is still having none of it. "I am on the record as blaming Absolut for starting the whole vodka thing with their ad campaigns in the 80's and 90's. They were very cool, but got people looking at the bottle and caring more about it than the stuff inside." He went on to tell us that he doesn't hate on vodka just because it's what all the cool kids are doing, he just genuinely hates it.

"Vodka, as a category, is full of liars. A rudimentary understanding of how a column still works will tell you the much-hyped 'number of times distilled' is completely meaningless. The filtration techniques are a means of hiding poor craftsmanship in the distillation, and they remove anything that might have been interesting to taste or smell from the spirit. The vast majority of 'hand-crafted' vodkas are actually rectified spirit purchased and processed -- people selling themselves as artisanal craftsman are buying tankloads of industrial spirit from the same same factories that supply perfumers and chemical makers, running it through their little copper still a few times, passing it through charcoal to try to get the esters out, and calling it hand-made.

"But my my biggest complaint with the category is that the pricing is just plain disrespectful. The bottle costs more than the juice inside. Compared to every other category, vodka is the cheapest spirit to make. Yet, the premium brands blind the consumer with fancy bottles and meaningless production trivia then charge them $35 a liter. It is quite obvious that the people who put together crap like this do no respect to me or the drinking public. I don't like doing business with people who don't respect me."

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24 Responses:

  1. dasht says:

    a) please talk gin in this series

    b) gathering from the photo earlier you are in NYC? A classy friend recommends: http://www.ward3tribeca.com/ who specialize in bespoke cocktails (not a good fit for a busy music-venue bar, but....)

    • freiheit says:

      Gin is just flavored vodka.

      It's only marketed as a separate category from cranberry/citrus/whatever vodka because historically it was the first flavored vodka. You should assume the same lies apply.

      Cheap gin is flavored with mass-produced gin-extract. Good gin is flavored starting with actual juniper berries and usually some kind of mixture of whole spices (and maybe some herbs). Originally this was usually done because the base spirit in use was terrible tasting and the juniper helped cover it up.

      I've heard straight from the master distiller for Gin 209 that their process is to buy commodity vodka (technically "neutral grain spirit" when purchased in bulk, and I believe they do use a specific grain and minimum quality type) and then concentrate on some fancy pot distillation for the flavoring.

      • dasht says:

        Thanks. That's interesting. Back when I was heavy into my gin binge, some years ago, I tended to zoom in on the highly and distinctively flavored obscure europeanish lables and now you've got me wondering about the disconnect between what I imagined as the mfg. process and the reality. And, gee, I was indeed a sucker for a fancy looking bottle. Juniper, sure, but various other infusions of spices can add a lot. It saddens me to contemplate that, underneath it all, was just 55 gallon drums of cheap industrial rot-gut - but I won't act too surprised.

        I still do like a *good* gin ricky, though. Or a good gin and tonic when the mosquitoes are in season :-)

  2. pavel_lishin says:

    In other news, other products, too, are packaged differently and sold to different classes of consumer.

  3. That's bullshit.

    I've drank 40 roubles vodka in Russia in 2002, that was like $1.5 for 0.5 liters, and it was terrible, it tasted terrible and it produced terrible hangovers.

    Yeah, when you distill wine, one distillation is enough. With wheat or corn, you need more but it would taste nice and even interesting if you stop at two. With Taburetovka or any low grade spirit you need much, much more distilling steps to get rid of the shit.

    But even there, hey, everclear sucks, buy some medical-grade spirit from a medical-grade friend. It doesn't take much skill to make vodka from spirit, Mendeleev was the guy who discovered that at 40% it achieves minimal volume (and also tastes best), it is easy to reproduce. Still you would be ways and ways off from what Absolut delivers. They have a secret recipe or something!

    • denshi says:

      I believe you missed this line in the article:
      "A rudimentary understanding of how a column still works will tell you the much-hyped 'number of times distilled' is completely meaningless."

      Please spend a similar amount of time that you put into your comment into researching column packing and the effect of numerous condensation points in the column.

      Because right now it sounds like your understanding is based largely on advertisements.

    • fantasygoat says:

      I can use my column still to produce 95% pure ethanol on a single run. Why would I waste perfectly good time running it again when I can just filter it through activated charcoal 4 or 5 times to clean out the remains fusel oils?

      In fact, you can easily turn Everclear in to "Absolute" by running it through charcoal.

      It's not any more complicated or expensive to run a column still properly to produce clean ethanol. I suspect your Russian vodka was pot stilled or something equally terrible.

  4. wisedonkey says:

    Wait, you mean there are those out there that use vodka for things other than a quick way to make other liquids boozy?

    • leolo says:

      Yes, teenagers and many other drinkers think that vodka is a drink rather then an ingredient.

      • caprinus says:

        I get "teenagers". That makes it sound like people who think vodka is a drink are immature. But why add "and many other drinkers"? That undermines the contempt -- you should have gone for an ethnic stereotype.

    • scullin says:

      Well, yeah. I use vodka as a safe way to store my ethanol. Otherwise it's a little too flamey to be handled drunk.

  5. bifrosty2k says:

    As a consumer, I've tried a few varieties.
    Right now, my favorites are Chopin and Russian Standard.
    Chopin is potato vodka, and hopefully thats actually potato since thats pretty cheap on the whole. Russian Standard seems to be regular mishmosh, but it has a flavor that I like, so assuming all things really are the same its not a bad deal.

    • marapfhile says:

      try tito's. i know "corn vodka from texas (made by a mexican)" doesn't exactly scream "buy me", but my usual description is "better than grey goose at half the price".

  6. remonstrare says:

    You know, it's funny, because I was looking at Crystal Skull Vodka, and my thoughts were:

    • Damn, that's a cool skull.
    • I could put all sorts of concoctions in that bottle. Especially rum.
    • Dan Ackroyd!
    • $50 for a bottle? That's pretty pricey, but at least it comes with some free vodka. I could give that to my friend Kevin, he likes vodka.
    • Filtered through crystals, you say?
    • I so want that bottle.
    • I wonder if they do discounts for multiple bottles?
  7. tedlick says:

    I just hope that these folks aren't lying to me: http://www.coldrivervodka.com/

    Love that vodka, at room temp it does have a character/chew. And I think the high price point is due to a lack of "economics of scale"...

    But generally speaking I'm a scotch/bourbon drinker. Famous Grouse is pretty decent for a blended.

    • fantasygoat says:

      It's odd to find someone who likes both bourbon *and* scotch, as the two taste completely different and appeal to different palates. Bourbon is a sweet nectar and scotch tastes like dirt.

      • remonstrare says:

        Scotch (or as they call it here in Scotland, "whisky") ranges from the undrinkable to the divine. Try the peaty goodness of Talisker or the nippy delights of the Macallan. Give the Bells, Grouse and Teachers to your enemies, and be sure to add water so it tastes like musty socks.

        And there's nothing wrong with liking both Whisky and Bourbon. Jack Daniels tastes nice with Coke.

        • I'm with you, though I think the best "why do people drink this stuff" single malt is Balvenie Double Wood, not my fav, but the best for giving someone an idea of what a good single malt can offer.

          On the other hand, for me, there are scotch days, and there are bourbon days. Scotch is much more of needing to be in a mood for it.

  8. fantasygoat says:

    For the record, 25L of high-yield ferment (14%+ alcohol by volume) produces about 2L of usable, clean 95% ethanol, and costs me about $7 to produce - the cost of the yeast, sugar and electricity to run the still.

    Water it down with some nice $1/4L spring water to 40% and it makes about 4 40oz bottles of high-end vodka.

    Good way to drop your well bar costs...