Why tasteless vodkas actually do taste different

There finally is some scientific evidence that one's preference in vodkas is based on something more than a pretty bottle and a clever marketing campaign.

An article published in the American Chemical Society's bi-weekly Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry says vodka differs from simple water-ethanol solutions in ways that could alter the imbiber's perception of its taste.

By definition, vodka should be colorless, odorless and tasteless. However, it is not always so. The veritable flood of new vodkas hitting the global market in recent years has seen the use of just about any sort of organic matter as its base component, from grains to potatoes to grasses to honey to milk to nuts ... and its filtration through precious stones, charcoal, woven grass mats, stainless steel ... and on and on. And, that is not even touching on the subject of flavor infusions. And with it all, the price points of what are deemed premium vodkas keeps going up.

The article said researchers used high-tech instruments to analyze the composition of five popular vodka brands. They found that each brand differed in its concentration of ethanol hydrates which may help the drinker perceive this internal structure or structurability of vodka, rather than taste in a traditional sense.

Dale Schaefer’s group at the University of Cincinnati worked with colleagues from Moscow State University in Russia on the topic. According to the ACS, they knew that Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, noted for work on the Periodic Table of the Elements, made a key observation on alcohol solutions in his 1865 doctoral dissertation.

Mendeleev believed that a solution of 40% ethanol and 60% water would develop peculiar clusters of molecules, called hydrates. That solution became the global standard for vodka, which usually is sold as an 80-proof (40% alcohol), beverage.

A century later, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling speculated that the hydrate clusters might consist of an ethanol molecule sequestered by a hydrogen-bonded framework of water molecules.

“We began this discussion with the statement that vodka is a colorless, tasteless water-ethanol solution," Schaefer said. "So, how do vodka drinkers develop brand preference? Our answer is structure.

"Beverages with low structurability are likely to be perceived as watery, because the fraction of water clusters is higher than in brands with high structurability. Beverages with high structurability, on the other hand, harbor transient cage-like entities where the ethanol molecule is sequestered by surrounding water molecules. At high alcohol content, clusters of alcohol molecules appear. ...

"These ethanol clusters undoubtedly stimulate the palate differently from either water or the E•5.3H2O cage structure. Even in the absence of 'taste' in the traditional sense, vodka drinkers could express preference for a particular structure."

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1 comment:

Greg Baumbach said...

I've always been amazed when people tell me different vodkas taste exactly the same.

I've even had a few servers try to slip in Smirnoff when I've asked for a Stoli, and they seem shocked I can tell the difference. I'm always shocked they can't.

Awesome find, Bill!