Expensive Vodka – Super Premium or Snake Oil?

I know people – friends, family, casual acquaintances – who have made a cult out of tasting, sipping, guzzling, and cooking with vodka. I never understood it. I mean after all – in most cases it’s just straight-grain alcohol diluted to proof – usually around 80 proof (40 percent alcohol). In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco (BATF) originally defined it as an alcoholic beverage “without distinctive character, aroma, or taste.”

My brother used to rave about his vodka spaghetti sauce recipe. It was all the rage. I scoffed. Like, why bother? If vodka is just clear alcohol diluted to proof – and you cook the sauce long enough to burn the alcohol off, all you are left with is the water used to dilute it in the first place. Makes sense, doesn’t it? It turns out I was wrong. Science suggests that alcohol can extract compounds that are not soluble in water or fat – like esters and terpenes. Esters give tomatoes their aroma and terpenes give them their taste. Arguably, cooking with alcohol breaks down the compounds creating a richer, more intense flavor.

And it’s not just pasta sauce. It turns out that adding vodka to marinade breaks down the collagen in meat, releasing natural flavors and tenderizing tougher cuts of meat. You can even substitute vodka for water in pie dough recipes for a flakier, more tender crust.

Okay, fine. So, I was wrong. But the fact remains that the very qualities of vodka that generate these culinary hacks – colorless, all but odorless, and tasteless (other than a slight alcohol burn), render it unsuitable for bon vivant indulgences. Special tumblers, swirling, sniffing, spitting, clearing the palate, and repeating the process, all the while waxing poetic over delicate all-but intangible nuances of “nose,” “mouth-feel,” or “bouquet” are of dubious utility.

Brandys, Bourbons, Scotches, Whiskeys, and Irish Malts can demand princely prices. But they all have the advantage of being aged in barrels and casks of various woods, under various charring processes, and being aged for anywhere from five to twenty-five years – even longer.

Not so vodka. 

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In May of 2020, the BATF revised their definition of vodka. “Vodka is neutral spirits which may be treated with up to two grams per liter of sugar and up to one gram per liter of citric acid.” But the benefits of aging in charred barrels are out. Not if you want to call it vodka. “Products to be labeled as vodka may not be aged or stored in wood barrels at any time except when stored in paraffin-lined wood barrels and labeled as bottled in bond. The revision also stipulates that: “Vodka treated and filtered with not less than one ounce of activated carbon or activated charcoal per 100 wine gallons of spirits may be labeled as ‘charcoal filtered.’”

            When I think about “original” vodka, I think potatoes. But even back in the earlies, from Russia to Poland, and Latvia to Finland, distillers used what they had – potatoes, wheat, rye, even corn. Nowadays mash can even contain sugar cane or rice.

            All properly functioning stills produce a high-proof clear alcohol. If it’s from potatoes or wheat or rye or corn or sugar cane or rice – even from pears or apples or cherries or grapes, I suspect you could call it “vodka.” You could also call it rum, or brandy, or “unaged whisky,” but until it is barreled, as far as I’m concerned? It’s all just fresh-from-the-still white-lightning moonshine.  

So, what about all these high-priced designer vodkas that seem to be all the rage nowadays? Sure, they are out there. There is Eye of the Dragon vodka which costs $5.5 million; Billionaire Vodka, at $3.75 million; and Russo-Baltique vodka at $1.3 million (yep MILLION). Russo-Baltique is bottled in 30mm-thick bullet-proof glass and its stopper is white and yellow gold, encrusted with diamonds.

You could buy a bottle of Absolut Black Pinstripe Crystal for $10,000 in hand-blown and hand-cut crystal (they’ll throw in a pinstriped bag and two matching crystal tumblers).  There’s no shortage of otherwise non-descript vodkas in fancy bottles that can set you back thousands of dollars. Belver Bears Belvedere can sell for $7,200, Oval Swarovski Crystal for $6,922, Stoli Elit Himalayan for $3,000, and Swarovski Alizé for $2,000. Non-black Absolut Pinstripe can be had for around $1,500.

Even excluding the stunts of bottling unaged alcohol in gem-studded, gold-encrusted, hand-blown limited-edition decanters, vodka can be dear. You can pay $130 for Chopin Family Reserve, $130 for Beluga Noble Gold, $62 for Crystal Head, or $58 for Boyd & Blair Potato Vodka. 

But should you?

Depending upon store markups and state taxes, Beluga Noble Export is a comparative bargain at $50. Grey Goose can weigh in at $40, Tito’s Handmade at around $24, and Ketel One at $23 (per 750 ml bottle).

Come on. It’s only VODKA.

I can find 750 ml bottles of vodka at discount markets for $7, and sometimes, 1.75 L bottles for $11. They might not be in fancy flint glass decanters, but those plastic jugs are recyclable.

Twenty-five years back, McCormick, one of America’s oldest known continuously operating distilleries, was accused of being involved in a smuggling operation shipping pure grain alcohol to Russia. Tinted blue, and exported as “cleaning solvent,” the dye was cooked out “on the other end,” diluted to proof (one gallon of 192 proof ethyl alcohol yields 2.5 gallons at 80 proof), resold and re-marketed as vodka. Imagine buying “genuine” Russian vodka – maybe Krystal, or Stolichnaya, or any number of “authentic” Eastern bloc brand names, and mooning over the “mouth feel,” or “nose,” or delicate caramel, vanilla, or citrus notes – only to read about ethyl alcohol “cleaning solvent” smuggling scams.

I recently hosted a blind vodka-tasting tournament with some chums and acquaintances. Offerings ran the gamut from corn, rice, rye, potato, sugarcane, and wheat-based “vodkas.” For good measure, I included a can of Still House clear corn whiskey, and a disguised bottle of Everclear 190 proof grain alcohol, diluted with plain tap water to 80 proof. For mouthfeel, nose, palate, and finish? The Everclear won. Hands down.

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