Drink of the Month February: Taste-Testing Organic Vodka

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
– William Wordsworth, 1802

The term formative experience refers to an incident encountered when young that shapes an individual’s character later in life, hence Wordsworth’s assertion above that “the child is father of the man”. During my late teens and early twenties, I was very heavily involved in the sport of lacrosse. So much so, in fact, that I earned what I thought at the time to be the distinct honor of representing my country at successive European championships. The first of these tournaments held in Dusseldorf, Germany, was sponsored by the two companies responsible for the, then, new and exciting combination of Absolut Vodka and Red Bull, and, at the tournament’s conclusion, there was a winner’s banquet, also sponsored by said beverage purveyors. It will surprise few who know anything about national boozing proclivities, to learn that throughout the evening my victorious England team and I proceeded to become, shall we say, well refreshed.

Sadly, the combination of exhaustion, dehydration and red bull voddies felled my youthful exuberance not halfway through the evening, and my leaden weight had to be carried back to our hotel by the team doctor and physio. I awoke in the morning feeling dog-rough and swollen, and only after considering my rumpled visage in the bathroom mirror for a few minutes did I notice something out of order - my right eyebrow was missing.

I could go on and relate other tales of febrile misadventure with vodka - including the fateful occasion when traveling in Lithuania that some burly locals kindly decided to take my two friends and I under their wing and immerse us (quite literally) in the mystery of “successfully drinking” their 100 proof – but I’ll stop here, as I’m sure you’ve understood by now the point is that through these and other formative experiences I have developed something of an aversion to vodka, and do not, as a rule, ever drink it.

Good Vodka vs. Tasty Vodka?

It was with a degree of trepidation then, that I approached the research for this month’s drink. In my memory, I associate vodka with pink, bubble-gum flavored fizziness and the humiliation of having to draw my eye-brow back on with my mother’s eye-liner pencil, so I was initially most reluctant to drink it neat, but with you, gentle reader, in mind, I soldiered bravely on.

In fact, this aversion aside, I very nearly discounted vodka as a drink of the month because we’ve become so saturated with it in the last few years. Super-premium, triple or quadruple, pot or batch-distilled vodkas made from champagne grapes, golden potatoes, or white corn are everywhere these days, and P. Diddy’s cheese-dick endorsement of Cirôc vodka is enough to make me avoid all vodka like the plague. However, my enthusiasm was restored by the exciting prospect of a blind taste-test of organic vs. imported premium vodkas.

A perfect vodka, they say, is supposed to be colorless and unflavored. Its crisp, clean taste, supposed to be neutral, neither sweet nor bitter, hence why it not only makes the perfect mixer in thousands of cocktails, but more sinisterly, why it’s often the mickey finn of choice. Indeed, visually, it should be indistinguishable from water. [Vodka actually translates as “little water”, a description that appears to describe the relative volumes of alcohol and H2O.]

Booze = Impartiality

So, what did we discover in our taste-testing? Well, contrary to popular wisdom, when drunk neat (no ice, no mixer, room temperature) vodka does have noticeable flavor. Not only that, but there is a considerable difference in taste between the organic vodka we tried (Prairie) and its imported, non-organic counterparts: Kettle One, Grey Goose, and Pravda.

The results certainly surprised us as much as the difference in flavors. You may not be able to decipher our notes - the problem with taste testing hard liquor being that it becomes exponentially more difficult to retain one’s impartiality after more than one shot – but we ultimately, and contrary to our thoughts before tasting, found in favor of the expensive, high-end, ultra-premium imported vodkas. That’s not to say that we disliked the domestic organic vodka, but we strongly preferred the Grey Goose and Pravda over it. The latter pair had noticeable aromatic flavors, in both cases not unlike a mildly scented gin, with the Prairie organic being more neutral-tasting and slightly sweet.

combined tasting notes

Kettle What?
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of our findings was that Kettle One, when drunk neat at room temperature, is rank – bitter, chemically, and somehow oily in taste. Of course, we don’t drink warm, neat vodka very often, so when chilled and mixed with something, this nastiness will no doubt be disguised, but this knowledge has caused us to rethink our “call” vodka when ordering a mixed drink.

Alcohol vs. Therapy
To summarize our tasting, I think it’s worth mentioning that the Prairie vodka seemed to us to be a “better vodka”, in the sense that it was more neutral-tasting, but our general sense was that in the world of vodkas you seem to get what you pay for. The two expensive imported bottles did taste significantly better than the cheaper organic, as well as the cheaper imported variety, so we would recommend that you stump up if you want to drink it neat, or use it in desserts like granita or sorbet. Of course, buying organic domestic vodka is much more environmentally- sound, and since it is still a very nice drink, you could definitely do worse than getting yourself a bottle of Prairie Organic.

On a very personal level, I feel I have overcome most of my erstwhile aversion to vodka, because now that I know and like (the expensive) vodka(s), I understand that it was the filthy ephadrine-laced Red Bull that was so repellent. Perhaps this weekend’s tasting will henceforth be considered a new, or re-, formative experience for me, and I do feel more liberated to have gotten over this particular issue. Who says alcohol is no substitute for therapy?

The Morning After
Inevitably perhaps, after strenuously exerting ourselves tasting numerous vodkas on your behalf, we were both a little shaky the following morning, and what better than a large bloody mary as hair of the dog? Well, as luck would have it, our good friend Heather of Gild the Voodoolily had recently sent us a jar of her homemade organic heirloom tomato bloody mary mix, which when combined with a liberal dose of organic vodka(of course!) - by virtue of its horseradish and hot pepper tang, gave us the sharp kick in the jacksee we needed. Thanks Heather, you, were there for us in our hour of need.

If you’re interested in seeing some videos on “gourmet” drink-making (including a nice one for a Passionfruit and Chili Martini), check it out here.

25 thoughts on “Drink of the Month February: Taste-Testing Organic Vodka

  1. Ok, we are vodka connoisseurs (so we think!). It is our drink of choice.

    I do not like Kettel One at all, chemical taste is right……..I have always been a Russian at heart, but have been enjoying San Francisco’s HANGER ONE, the unflavored as well as the Mandarin is excellent.
    Also a handmade vodka from Austin, Texas called Tito’s is excellent on the rocks.
    It’s strictly a personal choice. Did you know Smirnoff won in a taste test agains Goose, Stoli and other name brands?
    Truth be told!

  2. Stacey – I think we could use the benefit of your expertise, oh connoisseur, though testing more than four bottles would have broken the bank and our livers! Funny you should mention Tito’s, it’s officially a secret but I actually got back on the vodka wagon at a thanksgiving party last year drinking that. I didn’t know that Smirnoff beat out the others in a taste test, that is interesting. Was it a particular kind of smirnoff as they seem to make more than one kind – blue, red and black?

  3. Thank you so much for looking past your aversions to vodka for the sake of your readers. I for one thank you. If it was me who had my eyebrow shaved, I don’t think I could have been so brave.

  4. Johnny, my affinity for you two grows.
    1. Lacrosse is THE ONLY sporting game that I have ever enjoyed watching, live or on tv.
    2. Vodka makes me happy.
    3. Caesars also = happiness.
    I agree with your summary of Kettle One. There are a lot of really good vodkas on the market which are actually superior in the quality and cleanliness of their flavor (as compared to classics like de goose), but for surprisingly affordable prices…which is great, in my books, because I refuse to spend money just for the name.

  5. Vodka gives me hives, not literally, but psychologically, after living in Russia for a bit, and spending one too many sodden evenings.

    It was a lovely vicarious pleasure, however, to hear your report and not have had to drink one drop.


  6. hey, jonny.

    on behalf of the farmers and craftsmen (and women) whose passion goes into every bottle of Prairie Organic Vodka, we extend our heartfelt thanks for including us in your review. great blog!

    dean phillips

  7. I’m personally not a big vodka drinker but my dad is a huge vodka connoisseur (being from Russia and all) and he got my husband into tasting different vodkas too. I know they like Grey Goose and more recently Vox and Van Gough from the Netherlands. On our recent trip to New York, we had a fabulous vodka tasting at a Russian restaurant called Firebird.

  8. Jen/Joie – that appreciation is exactly what I’m talking about. If I didn’t know our loyal readers appreciated the way we put our bodies on the line to bring you this earth-shattering content, it might not be worth it…!

    Natasha/Tina – well, now that I’m back “on” vodka there seems to be a great deal more research to be undertaken at our liquor store, which certainly gladdens my heart. If I learned anything as a younger man though, it’s that this research needs to be carried out away from pranksters armed by Bic.

    Dean – thank you very much for your kind words, and thank you for visiting us! It’s wonderful to somehow be in contact with the people that make Prairie. We’re big fans of handmade artisanal products and yours compared very favorably with much more expensive imported brands. In fact, as I noted (perhaps not very clearly), we felt that Prairie was probably the best “vodka” because it was far truer in taste to how vodka should be than the more aromatic imports. Congratulations on a great product!

  9. Heather – pulpy it is, but gloopy it aint. Really, really enjoyed it. Thank you so much! Ironic indeed, and it’s even more ironic that the soviets would name the principal press outlet pravda…

    Rose – i want every one of our readers to know that you are my mother-in-law. yes, that’s right. she’s the one wanting a screwdriver at breakfast time.

  10. Nice roundup, but you guys missed my 2 favourite vodkas, Zyr and Ciroc… Maybe in round 2? Grey Goose and Pravda are my fall backs though and I totally agree with you about Ketel). I’ll have to look for the home grown Prairie vodka next time I’m at Astor.

  11. Did I miss the memo on the vodka tasting, you selfish animals!

    I would have probably chosen Grey Goose or Pravda…Belvedere works for me too!

    I see us quaffing vodka in the near future. 😉

  12. I’ve attended four Russian banquet affairs, ALL served room temperature shots of vodka– that in itself kept me on the sober side of plastered.

    I must purchase a bottle of Prairie Organic — the gorgeous label is reason enough. SUCKER for pretty packaging.

  13. I must confess I only drank vodka when I was young (this would go between my 18s and 30s) and never cared about the brand… does this make me less sophisticated? ;D

    I’m more of a gin “follower” this days. But, thanks for the spread and advise… you two are too funny 😀

    If you want to avoid a day after hangover… just take an aspirin before you go to bed (the night you drank). So simple, so perfect!!!

  14. I had the great pleasure of attending the Absolut Akademi in Sweden and being immersed in the glory of that particular vodka. One of the beauties of “good” vodka is what you note: that is acts as a platform for flavor rather than having a distinct flavor of its own. Given the vodka-making process, I have to guess that any vodka that tastes like gin (including Grey Goose or Level) has flavorants in it. Does anyone out there definitively know?

    No matter, my husband was convinced by our neighbor (I call him Martini Ron) that Grey Goose was best for martinis. I must admit that it is delicious, whereas given the extra price, it seems a waste to use it in mixed drinks.

    ps If you ever do a tasting of flavored vodkas, do let me know as I’d love to join 🙂

  15. I definitely agree with Stacey’s assessment of Tito’s vodka. It’s dangerously good.
    This is exactly why Vodka alla Penne is one of my favorite dishes to whip up – nothing like nipping at the ol’ bottle while cooking!

  16. yo, voodoo – we loved your heirloom mix. we used the rest of it over pasta. kidding. but we really did enjoy it. i’m a huge fan of the BM.

  17. Must be something up this month — I just did a vodka martini post, including an organic vodka as well. Cool post, but it’s interesting (in a good way) how something supposedly so tasteless can have serious opinions about the taste.

    I love the picture of your notes!

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