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Food Detective: Vodka’s void in color only

Corn-based Tito's Handmade VodkPrairie Organic Vodka. (Courtesy David Hammond)

Corn-based Tito's Handmade Vodka and Prairie Organic Vodka. (Courtesy David Hammond)

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Updated: April 19, 2011 5:17AM

Vodka — the most popular spirit category in the United States — has long been said to be without color or taste.

“Neutral taste actually seems to be the goal with some vodkas,” says Michael Cristiani, bar manager and mixologist at Epic, 112 W. Hubbard.

No one is going to dispute the colorless part. Vodka in its pure state is almost always clear as water. To say this beverage has no taste, however, is simply inaccurate.

Recently, I attended a “sensory analysis” seminar sponsored by Absolut and led by Per Hamersson, a vodka consultant (nice work if you can get it).

Hamersson took us through a very carefully orchestrated blind tasting of a dozen vodkas. I expected the differences to be barely noticeable; I was stunned by the variations.

To keep the palate (and mind) clear, we gingerly sipped and then spat out each sample, simply assessing the flavors and mouthfeel of each. Some were flat, others full, some bready, others fruity or even butterscotch-tasting, still others creamy or caramel-flavored — but each was clearly and sometimes dramatically distinct.

One reason for this can be traced to the raw materials used to make vodka. There’s a perception among many, it seems, that vodka is usually made from potatoes.

That’s true of spud-based Chopin, but many popular vodkas are made of wheat (Absolut, Stolichnaya), others of rye (Belvidere, Wybrowa) and still others from corn (Tito’s, Prairie).

In the tasting, each vodka’s flavor came through clearly. In the grape-based, Diddy-owned Ciroc, for instance, the flavor of the fundamental fruit was unmistakable.

But raw materials are just part of the equation.

How the vodka is made also influences the flavor. Some vodkas have a less sharp, more rounded flavor; this can be the result of adding sugars after distillation, which makes for a smoother sip. Adding sugar is forbidden with Polish but common with Russian vodkas.

So what accounts for preferences in vodka? “I think people like whatever they drank when they were younger, whatever became their brand,” says Cristiani, adding, “For me, it’s Ketel One.”

Though it’s commonly said vodka has a neutral flavor, I tend to believe that when people call out “Crystal Head” or “Grey Goose,” they’re not just trying to impress their dates (though maybe that’s part of it).

Rather, vodka drinkers taste differences. And there are big differences in vodka. Really.

David Hammond is an Oak Park writer, Chicago Public Radio contributor and founder/moderator of culinary chat site Questions, comments, tips? E-mail

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