April 01, 1998

Scoring the Taste-Off


We purchased 16 premium vodkas originating in eight countries, including Russia. All are “top-shelf” vodkas that are among the best vodkas from their respective countries, though we mixed in some lesser-known brands to spice things up a bit. All should be available nationwide in the US. These 16 (see table) were the subjects of our Vermont Taste-Off.

This brings us to the knotty question of how one tastes vodka. By definition (provided by the US Bureau of Tobacco and Firearms), vodka is “neutral spirits without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.” So, in theory, one could say we were tasting for tastelessness. But we rejected this theory in designing the event. And the feedback from participants in the Taste-Off bore this out. There were wide differences between vodkas in the tasters’ collective perceptions of character, aroma and taste. Some vodkas were perceived to be patently smoother or creamier than others (usually a preferred sensation), while others were felt to be much harsher, or more medicinal in character. Everyone had their own, built-in rating biases for scoring their vodkas, but by combining together the scores of over 30 independently-minded judges, we hoped to arrive at a fairly authentic polling.

The Taste-Off was completely “blind.” All the vodkas were poured in a closed room, then disguised by cloth napkins and paper bags, with each brand being signified only by a Russian letter (see photo). The vodka was served slightly cooled, rather than “frozen” as is the Russian custom, so that more of the natural flavors and aromas of the vodkas could come through.


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