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Vodka is supposed to be odorless and flavorless (with the exception of flavored vodkas). So if I switch to a dirt-cheap vodka, can I save some money?

Is there any difference between cheap and expensive vodka? Are there any reliable studies demonstrating this?

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I've heard high quality vodka does not give off the "burning" sensation that cheaper vodka does when swallowed, which makes it much more enjoyable to drink by itself. But I don't have any sources on that. –  Kareen Jun 14 '12 at 3:21
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I dont know the exact difference but you can definitely taste the difference between good vodka(much smoother) compared to cheap vodka. –  Jay Jun 14 '12 at 3:29
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I can tell the difference the next morning! –  Jolenealaska Nov 19 '13 at 9:18
    
The one difference we can all agree on is... the difference in price! I can tell the difference as soon as I look in my wallet or at my bank statement. ;-) This seems to be a perennial question about vodka. The discussions about aged spirits like whisky or port take on a completely different tone. –  hoc_age Jun 25 at 12:30
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8 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Here's a report on an informally conducted taste test suggesting that there are indeed detectable differences between various vodkas: (the report does not say so, but I suspect that much like wine, whether one vodka comes out as better as another one has little to do with its price, except at the very bottom end of the price range)

And, yes, there are differences—a truth known by anyone in the liquor industry with a little sense. But one that is frequently forgotten— partly because our government insists on characterizing vodka as a "colorless, flavorless, odorless" beverage; [...] That there are subtle, and sometimes dramatic, differences in flavor and odor between one vodka and another was driven home recently by a daylong seminar hosted by Absolut. [...] Central to the event was a blind tasting of 12 different vodkas. [...]

The main lesson of the tasting—or re-learned lesson, since many of us in the room knew it already—is that the biggest difference between the flavors of various vodkas derives from the source material, and that difference is easily detected, if you pay attention. Vodka can be distilled from anything, but the most common raw materials are grain and potatoes, with a few using molasses and grapes and other things. Grape-sourced vodka typically has a fruitier character; grain-sourced has the expected bready, yeasty and, yes, grainy notes, with the rye vodkas having more bit and spark than the barley or wheat ones; and potato-sourced vodka has a rounder, sometimes buttery flavor.

From: http://offthepresses.blogspot.be/2010/03/vodkas-and-their-differences.html

Another taste test conducted by the New York Times suggests the same thing:

Delving into the world of vodka reveals a spirit unlike almost any other, with standards that make judging it substantially different from evaluating wine, beer, whiskey or even root beer. A malt whiskey should be distinctive, singular. The same goes for a Burgundy or a Belgian ale. But vodka? Vodka is measured by its purity, by an almost Platonic neutrality that makes tasting it more akin to tasting bottled waters, or snowflakes. [...]

A lack of distinctiveness is a separate matter from a lack of distinction. The vodkas we tasted had character and their own flavors and aromas, even though the differences among them were often subtle and difficult to articulate. [...]

That being said, at the end of our tasting it was Smirnoff at the top of our list, ahead of many other names that are no doubt of higher status in stylish bars and lounges. [...] The prices of these vodkas ranged from a low of $13 for the Smirnoff to a high of $34 for Potocki, a Polish vodka that did not make our cut. The Belvedere also cost $34, but that was for a liter rather than the usual 750 milliliter bottle. Imported vodkas tend to cost more, partly because of taxes levied by various governments, currency exchange rates and, not least, marketing concerns: as has been proved in many industries, wine not least of all, raising the price of a product increases its status among consumers.

From: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/26/dining/26wine.html

As a counterpoint, here's another report suggesting most people can not tell the difference:

To summarize our findings,

  1. Given a particular brand of vodka, people prefer its taste after it has been filtered, but this is most likely because filtration reduces the alcohol content.
  2. Most people can’t tell the difference between an expensive vodka with high alcohol content and a cheaper vodka with lower alcohol content.

Our second experiment demonstrated approximately equal preferences for Pavlova and Ketel One. Although Pavlova contains 3-5% less alcohol by volume than Ketel One, it is also 70% cheaper, so it would seem a clear winner.

From: http://www.monzy.com/vodka-research/

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Yes, there is a difference. Maybe there is no noticeable difference between a Moskovskaya and a Smirnoff, but there is a taste difference between a Moskovskaya and a supermakret house brand. There is an even stronger difference between a brand-name vodka and cheap unlicensed knock-offs with fraudulent tax seals.

Unlike other spirits, which are expected to get lots of additional flavor from substances produced during fermentation or aging, vodka is best when it is the purest, just straight ethanol with water - potatoes don't carry the flavorful substances fruit or malted grain does, so you don't want reminders of the vodka's original dissolved in it. But as any distilled alcohol, some tastes of the plant matter do get dissolved in the alcohol during destillation, and there is the risk of getting destillation products other than ethanol, in the worst case even methanol (which shouldn't be present in any legally distributed beverage, but if your sources are dubious, you should consider the risk). Not getting them into the vodka in the first place and then removing/filtering whatever got into it regardless of precautions requires a precise process with tightly controlled conditions. Brand name manufacturers have the know-how to do it, and the selling price allows them to implement it. Cheap house brands probably don't.

So, while the conditions needed to produce a good vodka are the opposite of those needed for a good whiskey or other spirit, they still require a process which only the expensive brands are likely to follow. This also produces a more or less noticeable difference in taste. Sure, there are people who won't notice the difference, maybe because they are genetically less disposed to sensing the off-tastes, or because they are so unaccustomed to vodka that all they feel is an uniform burning sensation from the ethanol masking everything else, or because they drink the vodka with strongly-flavored mixers which cover the taste. But the chemical difference exists, and it can have results not only on the perceived taste, but also on the hangover severity. So, don't buy absolute bottom shelf, it isn't worth it. On the other hand, you are not very likely to notice the difference between two good vodkas (unlike the difference between, say, two good whiskeys), so once a certain quality bar is reached, the exact brand isn't important any more.

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Generally a great answer; I have upvoted. But: most vodka nowadays is made from grain, not potatoes. Supermarket own brand vodka can be very good. I personally find Asda Export Strength Vodka to be smoother than Smirnoff Red (Asda being a British supermarket). –  slim Jun 4 '13 at 9:05
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It is a myth that premium vodkas are somehow purer than cheap vodkas. In fact, quite the opposite is true.

Pure grain alcohol, or ethanol, is neither odorless nor flavorless. It actually tastes and smells just like medicinal rubbing alcohol, and it burns like hell going down. Now that is exactly what you get when you buy bargain supermarket vodka. Just pure grain alcohol plus water. Nearly all vodkas are bottled at 80 proof, which means, by volume, 40 percent alcohol and 60 percent water. Premium vodkas, on the other hand, contain a variety of aromatic compounds. These "impurities" help to greatly muffle both the unpleasant taste and burn of pure grain alcohol, which results in a much smoother and more neutral tasting vodka. They also give each vodka its distinct character.

I am not exactly advocating premium vodkas. I, myself, am much more of a whiskey man. If you like to drink vodka straight, then by all means go with the spendier premium vodkas, but if you plan on using it in mixed drinks, the strong sweet and sour flavor of citrus, or cranberry juice, or Red Bull (if you must), does a very good job in masking the harshness of alcohol. In which case, the cheap stuff will do just fine.

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All vodkas are made from neutral spirits which in turn are made from any fermentable material. Neutral spirits is ethanol that is distilled above 192 proof or 96% alcohol. It is extremely difficult to distill above that with normal stills. The reason that Smirnoff wins is that it is filtered through deactivated charcoal and not carbon. Their charcoal is made from wood which has calcium. The calcium is picked up by the neutral spirit as it passes through the filter medium, in Smirnoff's case, 11 charcoal packed columns. This calcium produces a soapy type of mouth feel, therefore raising the pH to make is more basic and less acid- less he burn. Some vodkas inject nitrogen after filtering which also changes the mouth feel. Popov, made by the same people that make Smirnoff is identical except that Popov filters through carbon.coal based charcoal. At the end of the day, there are slight differences. filtering is the main quality ingredient in what produces a good tasking vodka.

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Filtration is performed using plain or activated charcoal... the activated designation is used to indicate that it has been processed to have more surface area than unprocessed charcoal. Deactivated charcoal is what you would call the waste product after it has been used as a filtration medium. What do you mean "carbon.coal based charcoal"? Fossil-derived coal and charcoal are two different things, both are primarily made of carbon. –  Didgeridrew Aug 19 '12 at 5:26
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There is a difference in vodkas, but they are not always connected to price. EX: Grey Goose is marketed as a "premium vodka" but you can get Tito's for 40% less and Tito's will taste better. Also, if the vodka is made in Europe it typically has additives which are not allowed in the US. They add things like glycerin in their vodka to make it taste sweeter to cover up the vodka burn.

So anyways, what makes a vodka good or bad? Many things go into it, it's not just the water as others have stated. First it's about about what you use. The most common indigents are Potatoes, wheat, and corn. Really anything that can be broken down into simple sugar can be used. Each one has their own taste. The best vodka's typically use wheat... but again there are other factors. The next major factor is fermentation. If this process in not very controlled or sped up, you will create impurities which taste bad and create hangovers. The next is distilling and filtering. When you distill it means you vaporize it, then condensing it by cooling the vapor. Not all distills are equal. Basically... the higher and more levels the better. Then next is filtering, these varies a lot. If you ever hear that a vodka is filtered through diamonds or crystals (EX: crystal head vodka) it is a marketing scheme, these does nothing ti filter the vodka or make it taste better.

Lastly, people forget that water maters. Water makes up 60% of the vodka. Many people like water that has been over limestone because it has a low ph and lessens the vodka burn.

I would suggest that you go to a vodka tasting or buy a few vodkas. My favorite vodka may not be yours. I am a purest, so I think vodka with the least taste is the best.

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Distilled vodka starts out as grain neutral spirits at a very high proof (>150 proof). It is then watered down (with plain water) to cut the alcohol content to about 80 - 100 proof. Then it is filtered and bottled for immediate distribution. When you buy expensive vodka you are paying for perceived quality, a fancy bottle and label and expensive advertising. The actual vodka product is all pretty much the same. The difference between an $8.00 bottle of vodka and a $28.00 bottle or a $48.00 bottle is slight. Certainly not worth the cost differential. Well done, vodka marketeers!,

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Price does not equal quality. I have been drinking Vodka straight for over 25 years. While yes you go low spectrum like say Russian Prince or Smirnoff you will get a very low quality drink, but even going medium range like Russian Standard or Finlandia can give you a quality drink. The test I use (as I explained in my FindTheBest Vodka review) is the instafrost test. Take Smirnoff for example its so laden down with chemicals and the rest after 2 hours in a freezer when the bottle is cracked it sweats (IE moisture forms on the bottle) where as a pur distalate vodka such as Russian Standard when cracked after even 45 minutes in a freezer will instantly frost across the entire bottle. Why you ask, the answer is simple, a true and pure vodka is 99.9% ethanol diluted with water and no adultarants, cheap vodka has "cut". When a pure vodka is placed in a freezer it seperates and when it hits room temperature it condenses the same as in the distallate process, but the low temp of the bottle causes frost. The only test a man should make with vodka is purity, not price, or flashiness, just purity.

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Just out of curiosity, do you have any references that provide more details on the test you've outlined? Also, welcome to Seasoned Adivce! –  Preston Fitzgerald Jun 11 at 6:46
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THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CHEAP AND EXPENSIVE VODKA! VODKA IS JUST RUSSIAN MOONSHINE! Thats all it is but marketing and popularity of Vodka has made it into something greater than it really is. Vodka snobs will of course disagree with this but whatever to each is own and its your money!

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Every distilled alcohol in the world started out as moonshine. And you talk like somebody who hasn't had the really cheap vodkas. Drink 100 gram from a 1.50 Eur/liter vodka and tell me how your head feels the next day. –  rumtscho Nov 9 '13 at 11:09
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