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.


2 thoughts on “Vodka Illusions

  1. I agree with you about drinking being a subjective experience that includes the knowledge of the brand, the bottle itself, the branding and marketing that goes with it… but also, I really do think that somehow there is a difference. In my own incredibly unscientific experience, I’ve definitely felt a difference the day after drinking – the hangover seems to be much less severe with better quality vodka. Not to mention that I could swear more expensive vodkas blend into drinks and taste less like grain alcohol than do lower quality, cheaper brands. However, I think it would be quite fascinating to really conduct extensive taste tests with random assignment and Solomon Four-Square design and statistical analysis!

    However, the real reason I wanted to comment was that I absolutely LOVE the picture of Gob from “Arrested Development” and the quote about magic… awesomeness. :o)

  2. I totally think there are differences too…but I don’t know how much of it is based on actual differences and how much is my brain tricking me. šŸ™‚

    Hangovers introduce a new element. I wonder how much is based on expectation…pain is a funny thing, and I imagine that a lot of that is psychological too. Even folk wisdom like that mixing drinks will lead to a worse hangover…I wonder if that’s true, or if mixing is really just often confounded with drinking MORE. I’d love to see (and participate in šŸ™‚ some double-blind studies on both taste and hangoverness.

    Yay for Arrested Development!

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