Against the Grain

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For 30 years, vodka has been this country’s best-selling spirit, beloved because of its easygoing miscibility and its billions of dollars in advertising. With more than 1,000 vodkas on the market, though, the struggle to establish a niche drives marketers to ever wilder ways of distinguishing new brands, each more evocative of purity than the last.

Thus, the discerning consumer can — indeed, must — choose among vodkas in frosted or tapered bottles, brewed from glacier water or deep-sea water, batch distilled or artisan distilled, filtered six times or 10, through charcoal or Italian marble or one-carat diamonds. And that’s not even mentioning flavored vodkas. As one press release puts it, somewhat euphemistically, “The vodka lover continues to demonstrate a willingness to pay for quality.”

Almost all vodkas today are distilled from grain, which is cheap and gives a reliable clean taste and the neutral tone that federal legislation, defining vodka as being “without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color,” requires. For that reason, those of us who appreciate distinctive character often find vodka a little uninteresting. A few distillers, though, are turning other, often regional, produce into vodka, a practice that affects the flavor much more noticeably than any gems in the filter. Some recent vodkas are so tasty, in fact, that one worries they might run afoul of those neutrality laws. I recently gathered some dedicated tasters to blindtaste a number of the more interesting American non-grain-based vodkas.

Like any entertaining experiment, this one included a ringer. Shakers, a premium American vodka made from wheat, crept in among the more unusual offerings, to help determine how much difference the base ingredient actually makes. Here are the results.

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