Vodka Illusions

Bill Deys recently wrote about a Business Week article stating that, in a blind taste test, all vodkas taste pretty much the same.

It was an informal test with a writer and a few friends. Without statistical analysis, it’s impossible to tell if the friends were guessing at an above-chance level or not (there was one correct guess about vodka brand during the trial, but who knows if it was based on taste or just a lucky guess). Still, the theory behind it makes sense; vodka is basically alcohol and water, without any oak barrels or extra ingredients being added, so differences would have to be subtle if they exist. And if people who claim to be able to distinguish one brand from another obviously can’t do so at all even in an informal test, differences can’t be as major as we’ve been lead to believe.

The implication here is that all vodkas are the same. Is that really true, though? I don’t think so. I’d argue that the appeal of a drink is about more than just the electrical signals going from our tongues and noses to our brains. It’s also about atmosphere, expectations about taste, preparation rituals, discussion of the drink with other people, etc. These factors are eliminated from a blind taste test, but present in real life. A blind test may reveal that vodkas are the same in the absence of knowledge about what brand is being drunk (drinken? drunken?), which is interesting information, but doesn’t exactly map onto real-life drinking situations.

In real life, the subjective experience of a drink is different depending on the brand. For some people, buying a $100 bottle of vodka, putting it in the freezer, garnishing it and mixing it with just the right amount of ice (or not) is more enjoyable than doing the same with a $20 bottle. Furthermore, it probably actually tastes better to them. It may be an “illusion” in the sense that the difference in taste is not purely based on receptors in the tongue and nose; but does it really matter if good taste signals are originating in the tongue or in the drinker’s own biased brain? No; a better taste is a better taste.


The problem, though, is if people knew that all vodkas were physically identical, they might have a harder time deceiving themselves into believing that “better” brands actually taste better. I guess that’s the difference between actual physical differences in taste and illusory differences; illusions can disappear as soon as one becomes aware of them. It’d be hard to enjoy a $100 bottle of vodka knowing that the stuff inside is the same as the stuff in the $20 bottle.

Luckily I’m not so into vodka after several pukey experiences with it, and I doubt the same lack of brand differences applies to more complex drinks like rum, scotch, wine, and beer. “Still”, a lot of the differences are probably all in our heads, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Here is a dog made of beer labels:

(from here.)

This is the 2nd post in an unintentional series of posts about the link between alcohol and psychology. See the 1st: Beer and Statistics.

Advertisements

Good People

Let me share a story that raised my spirits today.

The last two weeks or so, when I’m out for a walk with Willow, there’s a certain bush she’s obsessed with. When we’re near it, she’ll sniff at it like crazy and refuse to move on. She’ll ask to go outside, then when we go out, immediately run to this bush instead of doing her business. I never saw anything special about it. But then, yesterday, as she did her usual sniffing at the bush, I saw a baby rabbit poke its head out from the other side. Willow loves baby things…she probably smelled it long before anyone saw it.

I also made a note to myself to make sure to walk on the side of the bush closest to the road from now on. Maybe I’m just paranoid, but if we scared a rabbit out onto the road and something happened, I don’t think I could live with myself. Roads are no place for baby animals.

Today, we saw the baby rabbit again and said hi. Further down the road, on the way to the Thames river, we were off in some brush, and Willow stopped as someone walked by on the sidewalk. It was an old man. Willow started waving at him with her front paws, and he waved back. I brought her over to see him, and they were both delighted to have met each other. Something about this guy caught Willow’s attention and she just had to see him.

I got to talking with him, and he told me that the reason he’d been down at the river was that he’d seen a mother duck and six baby ducks walking down his street. He knew they would have to cross several busy streets before reaching the river, so he followed them and stopped traffic on these streets, allowing them to cross safely, then walked them all the way to the water.

Isn’t that the sweetest, most touching thing ever?

No matter how crappy the world may seem sometimes, at least there are people like that man out there. People that dogs just know are good people, and that we should all aspire to be like.