Shaken, not stirred: does tasty Vodka actually exist?

Science and Technology
Is tasty Vodka purely a mythical concept? Credit: Darwin Bell

“Work hard, play hard” is perhaps the national motto of students surging through the gates of universities topping the league tables this year. Oxonians are no exceptions, with freshers stumbling into their (or a new friend’s) college room after a night out pumping their best moves. But, your student budget might crumble under the pressure of needing to outlive the drunken joys of fresher’s week to offer you a much-need drink as you work endlessly throughout term to meet all those deadlines. In fact, you will probably find yourself gingerly sipping Tesco value wine instead of a classy glass of Moet – but you might be pleasantly surprised to find that Tesco value alcohol may not be as far off the mark as you would initially imagine. Genevieve Allcroft discusses whether top notch Vodka is better than the bottle on the bottom shelf.

Vodka is a student party favourite and it is easy to see why. Spend £8.72 on a 70cl bottle in Tesco, create delicious ‘cocktails’ with a 2 litre bottle of 60p lemonade and head out feeling good and ready for action.

But, have you ever wondered what it might be like to spend the night sipping a £35.00 bottle of Grey Goose? Would it be possible to drink it without half shuddering at every gulp, or is vodka all the same whatever its price-tag?

Produced by fermentation of grains, potatoes, sugars and fruits, vodka is by definition a solution of 40% pure ethanol and 60% pure water. Theoretically, all brands should be without distinctive character, aroma or taste. So why bother spending extra on an expensive brand – is it really just the marketing and packaging that you are paying for?

Well, no it isn’t. Variations in taste among brands arise from small molecules present in the material selected for the fermentation process. These include aldehydes, esters and methanol, the levels of which can be diminished by extensive distillation, producing a purer spirit. The presence of these impurities has a significant effect on arrangement of the water and ethanol molecules in solution.

Preferences of vodka drinkers for certain brands, despite the drink’s lack of taste, are caused by the structure of molecules in the liquor. Different distributions of clusters of ethanol molecules surrounded by a hydrogen-bonded framework of water molecules are what differentiate brands of vodka from each other. These ethanol hydrates can be controlled by the manufacturer by the choice of starting materials and in the distillation process.

However, molecular arrangement is affected by not only the method of producing the drink; the way vodka is served can also affect its flavour by altering the structure of the liquor. So Bond wasn’t just being sexy when he ordered his martini ‘Shaken, not stirred’ after all.

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