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Last Updated: Monday, 11 September 2006, 07:54 GMT 08:54 UK
Stepping blind into the vodka war
By Stephen Mulvey
EU reporter, BBC News

James Bond is well known for ordering his vodka martini shaken not stirred, but he never seems to have specified what the vodka should be made of.

Daniel Baernereuther
Daniel mixes Claridge's own cocktail of orange vodka and port
It is possible that, like many vodka drinkers, he was not even aware that some brands are made from wheat, others from rye, barley, potato, beet and cane sugar, fruit, or even maple syrup.

In one popular Russian novel, vodka is made from a wooden stool - which is not quite so fantastic as it seems, as the drink was once made commercially from the by-products of wood-pulp processing.

EU member states are currently quarrelling over what raw materials should be allowed, with some countries saying any agricultural produce is acceptable and others arguing that real vodka is made only from grain or potato.

As national experts meet in Brussels in search of a compromise, we publish the results of a blind tasting of vodkas from the EU, designed to test whether the raw materials make any difference to the average consumer.

The tasters

All are from countries whose governments say only spirits made from grain or potato should be called vodka.

Reijo Kemppinen
Reijo Kemppinen: That particular tumbler contains water
Daniel Baernereuther, a vodka aficionado at Claridge's Hotel bar, who qualified as Master Bartender in his native Germany. He mainly drinks vodka neat, on ice.

Reijo Kemppinen, a Finn who is the European Commission's top man in the UK. He enjoys ice cold vodka while singing traditional songs as a warm-up for the Finnish May Day feast.

Katarzyna Krause, a Polish diplomat, who says she is "not a connoisseur" of vodka. She mainly drinks it with mixers or in cocktails such as Mad Dog - vodka with raspberry syrup and a dash of Tabasco.

Fred Olsson, Swedish manager of the Below Zero lounge and Absolut Ice Bar in London's West End. Both specialise in vodka cocktails made with Nordic mixers such as elderflower cordial and lingonberry juice.

Michael Siebert, German diplomat with three-and-a-half years' experience of vodka drinking in Russia. He still occasionally drinks ice-cold vodka as an after-dinner digestif.

The vodkas

Absolut: The original Absolut vodka made in Sweden from winter wheat. We paid the equivalent of 21.41 (31.50 euros/$40) per litre.

Bottles of vodka

Ciroc: One of the best-known grape vodkas, made in France by the multinational Diageo. We paid 35 (51.50 euros/$65) for a litre bottle.

Cracovia: A Polish vodka made from potato, first put on the market in 1995. We paid the equivalent of 23.51 (34.60 euros/$43.80) per litre.

Glen's Vodka: A vodka made from sugar beet at the Glen Catrine distillery in Scotland. We paid the equivalent of 11.40 (16.80 euros/$21.25) per litre.

Guessing the raw materials

In total, 20 glasses of vodka were tasted, the five tasters trying each of the four vodkas from identical unlabelled bottles.

Only three times did the tasters guess the raw material more or less correctly. We accepted "fruit" as a correct answer in the case of the grape-based vodka. And we accepted the following in the case of the beet-based vodka: "Fruit maybe?... I would not be surprised if it were sugar beet."

Three correct guesses out of 20 amounts to a success rate of 15%. In all other cases the tasters either guessed wrongly (10 out of 20) or did not want to hazard a guess at all (seven out of 20).

Favourites

Two of our tasters picked Ciroc, and two picked Cracovia. The other picked Glen's.

The taste question

The tasting confirmed that vodkas differ in their smell and taste and the other sensations they produce in the mouth - whether they sting, for example, or glide over the tongue like ether.

Fred Olsson
Fred: Distillation processes affect taste more than raw materials
Our tasters frequently contradicted each other - if one used the word "smooth" another was almost certain to say "not smooth" - but there was a slight tendency to regard Absolut as having a sharp or chemical taste, to describe Cracovia as strong and robust, and Glen's as mild, smooth, or watery.

However, it would be risky to attribute these properties to the ingredients. "The distillation process probably gives a vodka more of its character than the raw material," says Fred Olsson.

Only in the case of Ciroc did our tasters appear to be identifying the flavour of the raw material. Only one guessed that it was made of fruit, but another described the taste as "fruity", another noted a citrus flavour, and the other two mentioned its "sweetness".

Shortcomings of the test

We pitted one expensive vodka, Ciroc, against one cheap and two medium-priced vodkas. So readers may want to factor in the cost and draw their own conclusions about value for money.

We would have chosen a cheaper grape-based vodka if we knew of one available in the UK. We could, equally, have bought expensive "super-premium" vodkas from the makers of Absolut and Cracovia - but the tasters might then have concentrated more on the sensations produced by costly distillation processes, rather than the flavour.

Conclusion

The results of our limited test suggest that there is no strong case for excluding raw materials other than grain and potato.

Our tasters seemed to notice that Ciroc was fruitier than more traditional vodkas. But while some purists might object to this, the two most experienced members of our panel, Daniel and Fred, gave the drink high marks (seven or eight out of 10).

Sugar beet is usually regarded as a raw material for budget brands of vodka, but this could be partly because it is not the most glamorous vegetable, in an industry where image is key. However, it seems to be a perfectly serviceable raw material for the kind of vodka which is distilled to be flavourless.

THE VODKA TASTING CHALLENGE
The panel's verdict in brief:
How many tasters guessed raw material Assorted comments Average mark out of 10
Absolut
(wheat)
0 "Sweet, chemical"; "sharp taste"; "neutral"; "metallic"; "has a sting"; "smooth"; "not smooth" 4.8
Ciroc
(grapes)
1 "A little sweet"; "slightly citrus"; "something fruity added?"; "reminds me of the dentist" 6.8
Cracovia
(potato)
1 "You can smell the alcohol"; "robust"; "round, full"; "very dry, maybe bitter"; "metallic, sharp finish" 6.4
Glen's vodka
(beet)
1 "Not a strong smell, a bit acidic"; "pretty mild"; "watery"; "smooth, you don't taste the alcohol immediately" 5.6






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