CLEAR FAVOURITES

Our panel blind-tests a range of vodkas and finds the more authentic ones well worth a little more money
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The Independent Culture
The old line about vodka is that it's colourless, odourless and tasteless. The new line is that premium vodkas, which sell at prices of between 20 and 50 per cent higher than the ordinary varieties, are much, much better. But what do they taste like when you can't see the labels? To get an answer to that question, I wrapped nine bottles in newspaper and served them to a panel at London's Wdka restaurant (12 St Alban's Grove, W8; 0171 937 6513).

One of our panel was Ian Wisniew-ski, co-author with Nicholas Faith of the new book Classic Vodka (Prion, pounds 9.99). He claims that all vodkas have flavour, whether good or bad. They are made with different grains - usually rye in Poland and wheat in Scandinavia and Russia, or sometimes from potatoes, and the method of distilling modifies the flavour further. UK distillers make vodka for mixing, so they want the spirit itself to be neutral. In Eastern Europe, where the vodka is drunk on its own and sometimes at room temperature, distillers try to give it a pronounced flavour and character.

THE PANEL

Jan Woroniecki, Polish-born proprietor of Wdka; Ian Wisniewski; Rachel Himbury, television researcher; Nancy Brady, public relations executive; Ruth Metzstein of the Independent on Sunday Review, and cookery writer Jennifer Paterson, who recently began shooting the second series of Two Fat Ladies with Clarissa Dickson Wright. Jennifer is a serious vodka fan, usually buying Sainsbury's own or the premium Rus- sian Moskovskaya, and drinking it with ice and Angostura bitters.

THE TEST

Our panel tasted nine vodkas, six premium and three ordinary. They drank them at room temperature, unmixed and undiluted, to allow for maximum appreciation of the vodka's character.

*SAFEWAY OWN-LABEL

pounds 7.79/70cl

Most premium vodkas have 40 per cent or more alcohol, while ordinary stuff has 37.5 per cent. This is more than just a matter of how quickly you get pie-eyed: alcohol also contributes flavour and body, and that difference was clearly evident in this own-label. "Watery, coarse edges," lamented Ian. Ruth: "no texture, and the follow-through is hideous." Jennifer called it "watery and harsh", Nancy said there was something "not natural" about it. Rachel said, while pouring her glass out: "I've forgotten it already." Strictly for mixing.

*SMIRNOFF BLACK

pounds 13.89/70cl

This is the top of the Smirnoff range, but our panel hated it. When Ian decreed that it had a "smoky, unpleasant taste - cheap and tacky", no one raised a squeak of disagreement. "It doesn't linger," said Rachel adding, "more oil than flavour.'' Ruth thought it "hits the throat and not the mouth," and Jennifer gave its "pear drops" flavour a big "thumbs down". Nancy was harsher: "I want vodka to taste of a drink and not just alcohol. This reminds me of nail varnish remover."

****STOLICHNAYA

Around pounds 12-13/70cl

Jan found "fruity, appley" overtones in this Russian favourite of the AbFab crowd. Ruth was very impressed and preferred Wyborowa only because, "this one doesn't last as long on the finish." Nancy agreed with that judgement, while Jennifer praised its "velvetiness, like old-fashioned treacle toffee". The only dissent came from Rachel, who disliked the smell and found a "big kick" in the flavour. Ian liked it for being "deliciously smooth, light and subtle and well balanced. Less body than Wyborowa but very enjoyable - a good beginner's vodka."

***KROLEWSKA

pounds 11.95/50cl, pounds 18/70cl

This newish entrant in the ranks of premium Polish vodkas received mixed comments. Ian noted its "perfumed, fruity" nose and "smooth, mellow" flavour, but also thought it had a "monotonous, one-note" character. Nancy said that "it is more like real vodka than some of the others," while Jennifer admired its smoothness, comparing it to "toffee or fudge". Ruth liked the rich smell and "much fuller" taste, but Rachel - its least enthusiastic taster - found it "edgy". Echoing Ian, she said she wanted "a chord, not a single note".

****MOSKOVSKAYA

Around pounds 10/70cl

Unusual among premium vodkas in containing only 37.5 per cent alcohol, this Russian contender would almost definitely have taken top honours had Wyborowa not been there. "It's powerful," said Nancy, "and fiery in a pleasant way." Jan was keen on its "excellent length", a comment that brought universal agreement. "It builds on the palate," said Ian, "and the longer it stays there the better it gets." Rachel interjected: "and you really want it to stay there." Said Ruth: "You want to sit back and relax with it." Jennifer, who is sharp of palate, said: "I like this. And I think I recognise it as one of my old friends." And she was right.

*****WYBOROWA

Around pounds 13.95/70cl

This Polish vodka was the first tasted, and it met with a rapturous response. Jennifer called it "very sweet and very good". Jan found hints of "lemon or another citrus fruit, very zesty," a description to which Rachel replied: "I agree completely." Ruth described it as "lovely, with a wonderful oiliness even though it hadn't come from the freezer". Nancy liked its "full, distinctive flavour", and Ian confirmed everyone's praise by talking about its "soft, rye flavour, lovely subtle sweetness, and nicely perky follow-through". It was the favourite of our panel, as it is of many discerning barmen.

*SMIRNOFF RED

Around pounds 10-11/70cl

The brand leader among ordinary vodkas. Jan described its smell and flavour as "thin". For Rachel it "fizzled at the back of the throat" after promising good things from the nose. Nancy thought it "too spirity, like Grappa," while Jennifer damned it as "harsh on the tongue, fiery, and with not much flavour." Ian approved of the nose but not the flavour: "No body, and the follow-through is short - but that's an advantage in this case." For mixing only.

*ABSOLUT

pounds 12.99/70cl

The Swedish Absolut has been a stunning marketing success in recent years, but it won few friends among the panel. "Horrible!" declared Ian. "Big, crude nose and industrial flavour." Nancy found something "smoky or sooty" about it and Rachel compared its "nondescript" flavour with "the stuff inside liqueur chocolates". Jennifer said she couldn't see what market this was for, and thought it would need Angostura to make it palatable. Ruth simply said: "I don't like this at all." It was a shock when the label was revealed.

**SAINSBURY'S OWN-LABEL

pounds 7.49/70cl

This had one strong supporter among a crowd of critics. "I like it," said Rachel. "It has a beginning, a middle, and an end." Her lone voice apart, the mood was bleak. Even Jennifer, who drinks it at home, had harsh words: "Here we go again - oily and tasteless." Nancy said: "it's sharp and tastes of nothing at all", and Ruth agreed. Ian called it "spirity, sharp, oily, coarse on the nose and industrial on the palate." His only praise: "smoother than I expected from the nose." Like the Safeway and Smirnoff Red, strictly for mixing.

STOCKISTS

Wyborowa, Moskovskaya and Stolich-naya can be found at independents including Oddbins. Sainsbury's and Safeway Vodka are sold at their stores only. Smirnoff Red and Black, and Absolut are widely available. Krolewska is sold at Selfridges and at independents such as Vintage House (Old Compton Street, London W1; 0171 437 2592). !

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