Columns, Food & Drink, Libations

Dr. Booze gives a vodka workshop

So I was invited to Lodge 26 of the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes a couple of weeks ago to give a cocktail workshop.  

Most winos only drink single malts – or tequila if they’re trendy – and sneer at cocktails, as a lowbrow sort of drink.  I’m not much on alcoholic milkshakes myself.  But cocktails can be as fine a drink – and as good with a meal if thoughtfully chosen – as any wine.

Almost all cocktails these days are made with vodka, and the vodka makers are in a permanent arms race, introducing new labels, ever fancier bottles etc., to have the most expensive product on the shelf.

I have long maintained an open bet to any drinker: I set up three vodkas for you, and if you can guess which is Grey Goose, I’ll buy the drinks.  If you can’t, you buy my wine.  It occurred to me that there were enough Water Buffaloes, and regular vodka drinkers at that, to provide a statistically not bad vodka-tasting sample.

Five different vodkas were served simultaneously in numbered glasses before anything else was drunk.  Most drinkers cut the vodka at least in half with distilled water, (best practice during a spirits tasting).  They were faced with three tasks: Name the best tasting vodka. Name the most expensive vodka. And a bonus question was an offer to buy a bottle of Grey Goose if anybody could pick it out.

The vodkas I offered were Belvedere  – the old champ from Poland.  Grey Goose – the current heavyweight champ. Chase – a newcomer made from England. Ketel One – a perennial Dutch contender. And Black Stallion, a Russian product.

All of these vodkas are made from different mash bills.  Belvedere  is 100 per cent rye.  Grey Goose is made from French wheat.  Chase is made from organic potatoes. Ketel One is 100 per cent wheat.  Black Stallion is part rye, part wheat. Each has a significant claim to be the best vodka in the world.

If you were in the Monte Carlo Yacht Club in 1995, Belvedere would be the vodka on offer. It was generally conceded to be the best, or at least the most exclusive vodka in the world till then. Since 1997 Grey Goose has been claiming to be the world’s best tasting vodka. Sydney Frank priced it initially by doubling the price of the then most expensive vodka. Chase is pot distilled by the farmers who grow the organic potatoes in Herefordshire. Ketel One claimed hand-crafted status centuries ago, before anybody else thought to make such a claim about liquor. Black Stallion is that rarest of vodkas: Russian.  (Moskovskaya and Stoli are now made elsewhere.)

They all taste quite different – with two exceptions.  Chase has a remarkably different mouth feel, and a slightly sweeter finish.  Belvedere  has a slightly peppery edge to it. Black Stallion is probably the closest to what I think of as a traditional vodka.

The Water Buffaloes found Ketel One and Grey Goose completely interchangeable.  About halfway through the workshop – after a few drinks – I would watch Buffaloes comparing the Goose and Ketel, constantly confusing the two.  I was repeatedly asked for my numbering key.

So which vodka did they like the most?  It was, for all intents and purposes a dead heat.  They agreed that Belvedere  and Chase both had distinctive palates, but this made them slightly less popular, getting three votes each.  Ketel One, Grey Goose and Black Stallion all got four each.

Voting which they thought most expensive the crowd was again evenly divided. Voting for what was Grey Goose though, they picked Ketel One by a clear majority.  (One of the voters was a regular drinker of Goose, and some of the crowd voted with him after seeing him raise his hand.)

Only one guy, out of 18, picked Grey Goose correctly.  He admitted he never drank vodka, and further admitted to picking the drink because absolutely no one else voted for it. As always I think you should drink what you like.  Many people will be flattered when you serve them a glass of super premium booze, and that alone may deserve a vodka like Grey Goose a place on your shelf.

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If you’re curious, I buy Moskovskaya, or blue label Smirnoff.

And if you want to see me I’ll be live on Global Morning Thursday, November 21st, brewing beer live on air.

Belvedere Vodka $53.95 *****

Chase Vodka $52.94 *****

Grey Goose $53.95 ****

Ketel One $29.99 ****

Black Stallion $24.95 ****

James Romanow writes about wine and all things boozy for the Spectator Tribune. Follow him @drbooze.