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Structural explanation found for vodka taste variation

By Guy Montague-Jones , 08-Jun-2010

Scientists claim to have uncovered a chemical explanation for why vodka drinkers can taste significant differences between brands.

Under US regulations vodka is defined as a spirit that is distilled and treated so as to be “without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color” (Code of Federal Regulations: title 27, volume 1).

Branding question

This definition leaves little room to explain the boom in premium vodka brands in recent years. If vodka really is a just a simple mixtures of ethanol and water, is it only clever marketing that distinguishes different brands?

Writing in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, scientists from Russia and the US claim that different vodkas do vary in a way that may influence their perceived taste.

Researchers from the University of Cincinnati and the Moscow State University worked together to study and measure the structure and hydrogen-bonding (H-bonding) strength of five vodka brands.

Vodka structure

The scientists found that each vodka brand differed in its concentration of ethanol hydrates. When drinkers remark on differences in taste, they may therefore be referring to the internal structure of vodka rather than taste in the traditional sense.

In their conclusion, the researchers said: “We began this discussion with the statement that vodka is a colorless, tasteless water−ethanol solution. So how do vodka drinkers develop brand preference? Our answer is structure.

“Even in the absence of “taste” in the traditional sense, vodka drinkers could express preference for a particular structure.”

In a review of the study, the Royal Society of Chemistry in the UK interviewed Dirk Lachenmeier, head of the alcohol laboratory at the Chemical and Veterinary Investigation Laboratory in Karlsruhe, Germany. Lachenmeier questioned the basis for the conclusions of the study.

He said most people struggle to differentiate 30 and 40 per cent vodka so would be hard pressed to notice the subtle differences observed in the study. The scientist added that although vodka is thought of as a ‘pure’ and simple spirit, additives like citric acid are used to influence taste slightly.

Funding support for the research was provided by OVAL Getrankproduktions und Vertriebs – a manufacturer of premium vodka.

Source: J. Agric. Food Chem
May 21, 2010
Structurability: A Collective Measure of the Structural Differences in Vodkas
Authors: Naiping Hu, Dan Wu, Kelly Cross, Sergey Burikov, Tatiana Dolenko, Svetlana Patsaeva and Dale W. Schaefer