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Stop lying - vodka isn't really tasteless/odorless...uh, right??
September 24, 2012 6:28 AM   Subscribe

I've often heard the claim that vodka is required by law to be "tasteless, odorless, and colorless". Even Alton Brown, who I usually trust on these matters, makes the claim. This claim is often taken to mean that it doesn't matter what brand of vodka you buy - it's all exactly the same (Alton says this as well). How can this possibly be true? Anyone who's ever opened a bottle of vodka knows it has an obvious smell, with words like "paint thinner" describing it. Others will tell you that this just means you're buying cheap vodka, but according to the supposed law, it's all the same! Please help me get set straight. Is there a law or not?

A google search for [vodka laws us] finds many, many references to the supposed law, but I've never found a true legal source. I've read about various blind taste tests that show that most people can't tell the difference between vodkas, but I've never tried such a test myself and I doubt the rigor of many of these experiments.
posted by RobotNinja to Food & Drink (35 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm not American and have no idea where to find the complete rulings:

The standard of identity for vodka was promulgated in 1949, in T.D. 5707, 1949-2 C.B. 252. The standard for vodka provided that it was neutral spirits distilled from any material at or above 190 proof, reduced to not more than 110 proof and not less than 80 proof and, after such reduction in proof, so treated as to be without distinctive character, aroma, or taste. Although no explicit definition of the term "distinctive" could be found in the hearing record, the testimony indicates that vodka is to be as tasteless and odorless as possible.
From here

fwiw, I think vodka tastes and smells like vodka. I've never understood the odourless/tasteless claims either.
posted by Trivia Newton John at 6:36 AM on September 24, 2012


I think the idea is that it has no taste or odor, besides that of ethanol.
posted by that's how you get ants at 6:36 AM on September 24, 2012 [10 favorites]


Well there's this quote:
In the United States, domestic Vodkas are defined by U.S. government regulation as "neutral spirits, so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color." Because American Vodka is, by law, neutral in taste, there are only very subtle distinctions between brands. Many drinkers feel that the only real way of differentiating between them is by alcohol content and price.
First, it only refers to domestic (US-produced) vodka being free from distinctive aromas etc, not vodka from other countries.
Secondly it says "without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color". It doesn't mean it has to be without any aroma or taste.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 6:37 AM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here's the set of legal definitions from the Dept.of the Treasury, Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. It describes vodka as one of two categories of neutral spirits and must fit this descriptor to be marketed as vodka:
Neutral spirits distilled or treated
after distillation with charcoal or
other materials so as to be without
distinctive character, aroma, taste
or color
posted by Miko at 6:37 AM on September 24, 2012


You probably want to look at these regulations from the alcohol and tobacco trade bureau. (Which I assume used to be part of the ATF, which now appears to only regulate guns? I'm not sure, but evidently something changed in 2003).
posted by dpx.mfx at 6:37 AM on September 24, 2012


I found this federal law:

(1) “Vodka” is neutral spirits so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.


The same law also discusses the requirements for the other types of alcohols.
posted by insectosaurus at 6:38 AM on September 24, 2012


There can't be exactly such a law, because of all the flavored vodkas out there.

I guess there could be some kind of amended sub-heading clarifying that the vodka has to be colorless, odorless, and flavorless before flavoring elements are added. But it seems unlikely that flavored vodkas would have become so ubiquitous if someone had to lobby the government to create new legislation that would specifically allow them to be sold.

In any event, you're probably not searching for these laws correctly. The US legislative system doesn't make laws regulating food quality. That's the USDA, which is an agency that is part of the Executive branch. As such, they're not laws in the classic sense, but policies and recommendations that are binding on food producers.

So maybe try searching "USDA vodka regulation"?
posted by Sara C. at 6:39 AM on September 24, 2012


Regarding flavored vodkas, there is actually a regulation that reads as follows:

(i) Class 9; flavored brandy, flavored gin, flavored rum, flavored vodka, and flavored whisky. “Flavored brandy, “flavored gin,” “flavored rum,” “flavored vodka,” and “flavored whisky,” are brandy, gin, rum, vodka, and whisky, respectively, to which have been added natural flavoring materials, with or without the addition of sugar, and bottled at not less than 60° proof. The name of the predominant flavor shall appear as a part of the designation.

Same page I linked to above.
posted by insectosaurus at 6:41 AM on September 24, 2012


Several of you have linked to legislation with the words without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.

Again I'd ask how this could possibly be true? Vodka tastes and smells like vodka. Everyone who doesn't like the taste of vodka knows that! Or are they saying that that's just the smell of ethanol and that the spirit itself does not impart any additional flavor or aroma?
posted by RobotNinja at 6:50 AM on September 24, 2012


they saying that that's just the smell of ethanol and that the spirit itself does not impart any additional flavor or aroma?

That's what they're saying.
posted by royalsong at 6:56 AM on September 24, 2012 [6 favorites]


To clarify: Vodka is not expected to have no taste or odor. It is expected to have no distinctive taste or odor. Therein lies the difference. In any other kind of alcohol, you have distinct tastes. Whiskey, wine, rum, etc are all affected by the ingredients and by the barrels they are aged in. Vodka, however, is supposed to have no such distinctive tastes other than alcohol. It simply tastes, and smells, like ethanol.

Which is why I dislike vodka, incidentally. Blech.
posted by Urban Winter at 6:59 AM on September 24, 2012 [11 favorites]


Ay the lack of a distinctive taste is markedly different from having no taste.

BTW this seems primarily a way to distinguish Vodka from other spirits, primarily whiskeys. Whiskey's are the exact opposite of Vodka's in that the whole goal to those is to create distinctive flavor profiles to the spirit itself. They do this primarily through barrel aging but also through different grains and fermentation techniques. Vodka on the other hand is supposed to be the pure distillation of the alcohol.
posted by bitdamaged at 7:05 AM on September 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yes, they are saying that that's just the smell of ethanol and that the spirit itself does not impart any additional flavor or aroma?

Other booze has flavourings added as part of the distillation process (think gin) or are inherently made from ingredients that impart a flavour (think whiskey.) Vodka is made from stuff that is as flavourless as possible, and nothing is added to impart flavour. "Smells like vodka" is the same as "smells like [similar proof] alcohol".
posted by Kololo at 7:05 AM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Scroll down to the Nov. 5, 2004 entry of this blog on filtering cheap vodka through a Brita filter. Differences in the "distinctive taste" (if any) of vodkas have more to do with the quality and type of water they use and the equipment used to distill, mix, and bottle the water and ethanol combination that makes up vodka. That burning feeling or aftertaste that you get from cheap vodkas is due to impurities in the manufacturing process. Expensive vodkas are marketing their brand as a means of building trust that they have a strict quality control process that won't let the impurities creep in. Filter out those impurities, and it turns out that cheap vodka is very much like good-quality vodka.

Of course there's potato vodka vs. grain vodka, but I don't think it makes that much of a difference.
posted by deanc at 7:06 AM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Urban Winter: "Vodka is not expected to have no taste or odor. It is expected to have no distinctive taste or odor."

IANAL, but I came here to say the same thing. "Distinctive" is the operative word- it has a legal meaning w/r/t patents, and I wouldn't be surprised if that applied here as well.
posted by mkultra at 7:06 AM on September 24, 2012


Several of you have linked to legislation with the words without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color. Again I'd ask how this could possibly be true?

Look at it this way: Grey Goose tastes pretty much exactly like Absolute, but Macallan 25 does not taste like Glenfiddich 12 year. Scotch Whisky distilleries encourage distinctive characteristics and there is huge variation; you do not get that with vodka.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:08 AM on September 24, 2012


This is starting to make sense. The implication to me is that if it is legally allowed to be called "vodka", then it can't possibly taste any different than any of the other (unflavored) vodkas. So is all vodka really the same? Is this like a case of generic vs brand-name drugs where you should always buy the cheapest version?
posted by RobotNinja at 7:08 AM on September 24, 2012


there's potato vodka vs. grain vodka

Almost no difference (speaking from bartending experience).

So is all vodka really the same? Is this like a case of generic vs brand-name drugs where you should always buy the cheapest version?

Essentially, but see above about the varying levels of impurity. But no, there is not an appreciable difference. Especially when mixing it with anything at all - juices, flavored liquors - there is no detectable difference at all except, perhaps, in 'burn.' No flavor difference.

So ordering fancy vodka is the mark of someone who (a) wants to impress or feel like they're living high on the hog but (b) doesn't know much about alcohol. (speaking from bartending experience).
posted by Miko at 7:12 AM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think the other part of the equation is that the regulations aren't being enforced to strict tolerances. Slight tastes and odors aren't likely to be called out by a Federal regulator, so sloppy quality control can give cheaper brands a bit of an off taste or smell. But in theory, yes, it ought to all taste pretty much the same.
posted by tyllwin at 7:14 AM on September 24, 2012


RobotNinja: "So is all vodka really the same? Is this like a case of generic vs brand-name drugs where you should always buy the cheapest version?"

No, and all due respect to those who are saying "they all taste the same", but you're no more right about that than people who think all red wine tastes the same.

Though, if you're making cocktails with strong mixers (basically anything other than a martini or a vodka tonic), you shouldn't waste your money on high end vodka, and go for mid-range stuff (cheap vodka is nasty). Tito's Handmade Vodka has the best price:performance ratio, IMO.
posted by mkultra at 7:14 AM on September 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Most vodka "distillers" don't distill their own vodka. They buy 96% ethanol from a commercial producer, filter it and dilute it to sale proof.

The taste of the vodka depends on the filtration steps (hence tag-lines like "quadruple-filtered", etc...) and on the water used for dilution. The salts used in the making the vodka change its flavour slightly, just as different mineral water taste different.
posted by bonehead at 7:15 AM on September 24, 2012


Vodka doesn't smell like vodka. Vodka smells like alcohol. There are no other intentional flavoring agents. I will say that there are certain chemical notes that are byproducts of distillation that don't get completely eliminated. This is the reason why better vodkas are distilled multiple times -- multiple distillations eliminate more of those funky notes.

However, a group of friends did a taste-off with me of Grey Goose, Stolichnaya and Stolichnaya filtered with five passes of a Britta filter. Of the 10 tasters, 3 couldn't reliably distinguish between any of the three. 5 of us could immediately taste "chemicals" in the low-end Stoli. Only two of us could distinguish between the filtered Stoli and the Grey Goose but both preferred the filtered Stoli (both of those tasters did it backwards on one of five trials).

Our conclusion was that if you filtered the cheapest vodka you could find, it was just as good (if not better) than the best premium brands. If you mix it into a strongly flavored base, even that is probably a waste of time.
posted by Lame_username at 7:17 AM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm skeptical that the "burn", (which is what I dislike about vodka), comes from impurities. Isn't it from the ethanol?
posted by RobotNinja at 7:17 AM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, if you've ever sampled Chopin and Smirnoff and Ketel One, you know they taste different. They're marketed as tasting different, with some brands commanding a premium.

The deal is this: they all fail in different ways. They have charcoal filtering applied to remove distinctive taste and aroma, and as long as they dutifully filter it thus, it doesn't matter if the end product actually has a distinctive aroma and taste. The difference is in the process - some distillers produce a "cleaner" alcohol than others, others deliberately skew it to introduce a character to their spirits.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:18 AM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


More expensive vodka is smoother. You can buy cheap vodka and put it through a Brita filtering, but it's arguable if there is any cost savings after you do this.

So ordering fancy vodka is the mark of someone who (a) wants to impress or feel like they're living high on the hog but (b) doesn't know much about alcohol.

I assume someone who orders a Ketel One martini likes Ketel One. I would assume anyone who orders a Ketel One screwdriver is an asshole.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:18 AM on September 24, 2012 [9 favorites]


There are many dirty little secrets about vodka. The first one is that 90% of the stuff is made by driving a gigantic Archer Daniel tanker full of industrial alcohol up to a rectifying facility where it is repeatedly diluted and fractionally redistilled until it is as close as possible to azeotropic ethanol. This azeotropic ethanol will be, effectively, odorless, tasteless, colorless and without any distinctive character from the original materials. This is why vodka is somewhat unique among spirits in that it is really defined by the process of making it and the end state, rather than the original ingredients. You could take a rye whiskey mash and run it through the vodka rectification process, and you would wind up with vodka that had nothing in common with rye whiskey. This is what is meant by "no distinctive character."

Note, however, that it is nowhere said that vodka has no "flavor." Things like odor, taste, color, etc. -- these are all senses. Flavor, on the other hand, is a psychological phenomenon that is formed in the brain as the result of multiple sensory perceptions including smell, taste, tactile, visual, temperature, nociception, chemesthesis, etc. These things all combine in various ways to create the psychological phenomenon we call "flavor." Vodka, by and large, has reduced the usual sensory characteristics (smell, taste, color) to the greatest extent possible, and then attempt to differentiate from one another on the basis of what's left over (e.g., the "finish). That these differences are incredibly minute is easily demonstrated by trying to get someone to differentiate between brands of vodka in a double-blind ABX test of, say, vodka and grapefruit drinks.

It is true, of course, that there are some harsh-tasting cheap brands of vodka that are easy to distinguish from better brands in this context, but this is because the cheap brands were insufficiently purified in the rectification and filtration process. Just because vodka is supposed to be colorless, odorless and tasteless doesn't mean that they all are! The point is, however, that the entry price into good quality vodka is not very high. A $15 liter of Luksusowa is going to be just as good as that $70 bottle of Stoli Elit. In fact, when some friends of mind did a comparative blind tasting of vodkas for the New York Times, the highest rated vodka was Smirnoff.

Now comes some of the dirty secret parts. What the vodka companies don't want you to know is (a) most likely their vodka started out as a tanker truck full of industrial alcohol; (b) once they dilute that 95.63% ABV azeotropic ethanol down to 40% ABV bottle proof the stuff in the bottle has effectively more character from the water than it does from the ethanol; and (c) they are "llowed to "add back" certain ingredients such as glycerin for mouthfeel or minute amounts of flavoring agents like vanilla or citrus (etc.), to provide a characteristic "finish" for the vodka.


So, is there some flavor? Sure, there is some. But there is no denying that the vodka making process is to remove as much characteristic flavor as possible, and there is no denying that the vodka marketing process is to then promote the uniqueness of the vodka based on minute differences in the tiny bit of flavor that remains. Oh, and to put it in a really fancy bottle. And to charge a really high price, because the average vodka drinker equates price with quality.
posted by slkinsey at 7:24 AM on September 24, 2012 [18 favorites]


So is all vodka really the same? Is this like a case of generic vs brand-name drugs where you should always buy the cheapest version?

No, no, no.

As somebody who favors vodka as my drink mixer of choice (and whose longest relationship was with a bartender) I can say without qualification that this is definitely not true. Hard liquors have an unpleasant "burn" as they go down your throat - it's hard to describe in any other way. The smoother (and presumably more highscale, though not in all cases) the vodka is, the less of that burning aftereffect you get - even though the low-end and high-end vodka tastes the same.

Some people claim that the aftereffect directly corresponds to the strength of the hangover you get (with the low-end stuff that has a stronger aftereffect giving you a worse hangover) but I have never been willing to test this.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 7:29 AM on September 24, 2012


As somebody who favors vodka as my drink mixer of choice (and whose longest relationship was with a bartender) I can say without qualification that this is definitely not true. Hard liquors have an unpleasant "burn" as they go down your throat - it's hard to describe in any other way. The smoother (and presumably more highscale, though not in all cases) the vodka is, the less of that burning aftereffect you get - even though the low-end and high-end vodka tastes the same.

I have to say that the extent to which "hard liquors" (e.g., whiskey, rum, brandy, gin, etc.) has an unpleasant burn often has to do with either the quality of the spirit or the proof of the spirit. There is no way you should be getting a burn drinking, say, Martel Cordon Bleu.

On the other hand, some of this burn or bitterness comes from the fact that the very same chemicals that give rise to strong flavors can also give rise to a burning aftereffect if you glug them straight as a shot. This is something that the experienced drinker not only gets used to, but comes to appreciate and seek out. I can drink most whiskey at 100 proof or less completely straight without any desire to make "the face." On the other hand, I don't tend to throw it down my throat all at once out of a shot-glass.

One of my most popular cocktail inventions is a simple 50/50 mixture of Smith & Cross Navy Strength Rum (114 proof, funky, bitter, and full of hogo) with Bonal Gentiane-Quina (aperitif wine on a base of mistelle with a strong bitter component from both gentian and quinine) with a few dashes of Angostura bitters. This is a strongly alcoholic, bitter and aggressive drink that seems to buzz on the tongue, and people seem to love it,
posted by slkinsey at 7:45 AM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Modern vodka is just raw ethanol diluted with water. It mostly comes from the same few sources. It's not like distilleries are actually producing it themselves, they just buy it from industrial supply places.

The "flavor" you taste is that of ethanol + any water impurities.
posted by zug at 7:53 AM on September 24, 2012


Blind vodka taste tests:

Does Premium Vodka Live Up to its High Price Tag?
World's Best Vodka: It's Anybody's Guess
A Humble Old Label Ices its Rivals - the NYT test mentioned above.

I'll concede that they don't taste exactly the same, as in, undistinguishable, identical. But they don't taste very different, either, - or, one might say, very distinctive, in the same way whiskies or gins do - and certainly are not worth much particularity. And in the last 15 years or so, the marketing hype associated with vodka's 'arrival' has almost completely obscured any actual qualities inherent in the liquor.
posted by Miko at 8:08 AM on September 24, 2012


Anyone got a link to a real scientific study? I 'm looking for hundreds of participants with an experienced proctor, not 6 friends of a journalist.
posted by RobotNinja at 8:22 AM on September 24, 2012


Whom do you think would pay for such a study? Certainly not the spirits industry, or academia (although I'd like to see that grant proposal!), or the government...
posted by nicwolff at 8:31 AM on September 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Wife's lab at school has this stuff they use for psych experiments where the subject shouldn't be aware of which item has been spiked, they call it 'lab-ahol' for short, and they say it's flavorless to the umpteenth degree or some such. No idea how this factors into the whole tasteless / odorless discussion but they're actually proud and pretty protective of the stuff.

I always assumed it was just a really well filtered vodka but maybe someone else here can comment on it and provide some insight to what may, or may not, make it special on a chemical level.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:33 AM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Having done a vodka tasting, they actually do taste different.

Anyway, cheaper vodkas will have an unpleasant taste to them that more expensive vodkas do not. Buy the cheapest one that you're willing to drink, sure, but they do taste different. Does that matter after you mix them with OJ? Nope, which is why vodka is my well drink of choice.

I don't know, I think you're overestimating the power that the US federal government is willing and able to exercise over minor characteristics of alcohol.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:31 PM on September 24, 2012


Over the years I've done blind tastings at home of different vodkas, and yes, they are (or can be) distinct from each other, albeit subtly. I think part of the misunderstanding is that people tend to drink vodka freezing cold, which tends to obliterate the flavor of it on the tongue.

Note that none of this implies that high-end vodka necessarily tastes better than any other vodka, just that there are definitely flavor differences. Also that, since the differences mainly emerge from room-temperature vodka, if you drink your vodka super cold, then no, there's effectively no difference for you.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 2:33 PM on September 24, 2012


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