Vodka Brands

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					 FI R S T H a N d

     Brand & Flavor: An Experimental Investigation
     by Dan Maynes-Aminzade

     C     ompanies spend a fortune making
           their logos ubiquitous, branding
     them into our consciousness. Is this
                                              each pass through the filter. In true
                                              scientific spirit, I decided to replicate
                                              the vodka filtration study under
                                                                                          during the filtration process.
                                                                                             My experiment’s second conclusion
                                                                                          was more surprising: most of the
     money well spent? How much do a          more controlled conditions. I started       tasters couldn’t tell the difference
     product’s brand and packaging affect     with two vodka varieties: Pavlova,          between cheap and expensive vodka.
     our perceptions of what lies within?     a foul-smelling but extraordinarily         Twelve subjects preferred Ketel One,
         Consider wine and distilled          inexpensive vodka ($8 per liter), and       eleven preferred Pavlova, and one
     spirits, a product arena in which        Ketel One, a Dutch vodka that is            had no opinion. I myself preferred the
     luxury brands cost several orders of     generally very highly regarded ($27 per     Ketel One; I wasn’t sure whether to be
     magnitude more than their generic        liter). Subjects completed two double-      pleased with my refined taste in vodka
     counterparts. My curiosity about the     blind taste tests: one comparing            or disappointed that I couldn’t reduce
     effect of brand on perception was        filtered and unfiltered versions of         my monthly martini budget.
     piqued when I read of a technique        Pavlova, and one comparing unfiltered          Since taste preferences were split
     whereby drinkers on a budget could       Pavlova to Ketel One.                       between the cheap and expensive
     reproduce the taste of expensive             I came to two conclusions. The          brands, shall we conclude that buying
     vodka. Some enterprising “scientists”    first was rather disappointing:             “top shelf” vodka is a waste of
     reported that pouring cheap vodka        charcoal filtration does not result in      money? Not necessarily. Blind taste
     through a Brita filtration pitcher       a significant improvement in taste.         tests conducted in a lab fail to take
     achieved the smooth taste of a “top      Twelve tasters preferred the filtered       into account the preconditioning
     shelf” brand. I was intrigued—if this
     worked, the potential gains would
     be staggering. Instead of wasting my
                                              Our perception of a product’s quality is often influenced by
     money on Chopin or Grey Goose, I         external factors like its packaging and brand, which transfer
     could purchase a $9 plastic handle       into what we perceive as our direct perception alone.
     of Vladimir vodka, run it though a
     filter, and mix up deliciously smooth
     martinis at a fraction of the cost.      vodka, eleven preferred it unfiltered,      that normally goes into our gustatory
         My enthusiasm for the method         and one had no opinion. Using a             judgments. When sampling vodka,
     waned when I saw the suspicious          hydrometer, I measured the alcohol          we make a series of unconscious
     methods used to evaluate it. The         concentration of the vodka and found        assessments based not only on the
     experimenters began by tasting the       that while the unfiltered vodka was         sensations from our taste buds and
     cheap vodka, which they agreed was       82 proof, the filtered vodka was only       nostrils, but also on other sensory
     horrible. They filtered it once and      78 proof. Hence the slight preference       experiences. All of these combine into
     drank some more. Naturally, the          for filtered vodka is probably due to       one general impression, which may
     vodka continued to taste better with     the fact that some alcohol evaporates       not be strictly accurate. Marketing

16   Ambidextrous Sizzling Summer 2007
with Vodka

                      pioneer Louis Cheskin described this         Subjects failed to detect this: seven   explained another taster, “but Absolut
                      concept as sensation transference:        of the twelve tasters preferred vodka      has a smoother finish.”
                      our perception of a product’s quality     from the Absolut bottle, four preferred       I am forced to conclude that
                      is often influenced by external factors   vodka from the Popov bottle, and           the optimal strategy is to buy an
                      like its packaging and brand, which       one had no preference. Furthermore,        expensive, top-shelf brand of vodka…
                      transfer into what we perceive as our     they had strong opinions about their       once. Drink it yourself, save the empty
                      direct perception alone.                  preferences, and some participants         bottle, and refill it with a cheaper
                          Since I was about to throw a party,   even had elaborate justifications:         and less-respected brand. If you get
                      I needed to know whether buying           “Absolut’s flavor is more subtle           caught, tell your friends that you
                      an expensive brand of vodka was           and refined,” said one taster, “while      were simply trying to use sensation
                      worthwhile. I decided to conduct a        Popov’s bluntness resembles rubbing        transference to improve their cocktail
                      second experiment examining how           alcohol.” “They start out the same,”       party experience.
                      much our preconception of a brand’s
                      quality affects its perceived taste. I
                      began with two varieties of vodka: the
                      mid-priced Swedish vodka Absolut,
                      and Popov, a vodka manufactured
                      in Ohio that can be acquired for less
                      than one third of Absolut’s price.
                      Absolut comes in an elegant, frosted
                      glass bottle with a metal seal; the
                      shape of this bottle has become
                      legendary thanks to an ingenious
                      advertising campaign spanning
                      several decades. Popov comes in an
                      oversize, ridged plastic bottle with a
                      simple red-and-black sticker.
                          My second test was not blind; the
                      bottles were displayed prominently.
                      I told tasters which vodkas they
                      were sampling and asked for their
                      preference. Unbeknownst to them, I
                      had secretly filled both bottles with
                      Popov, so they were always drinking
                      the same vodka.
Photo by Malte Jung

                                                                                                                       Sizzling Summer 2007 Ambidextrous   17