How to assess
Developing a good tasting technique and over a period of time building a memory bank of flavours and vodka styles is essential to making an informed judgment as to a vodka's quality.
When assessing a vodka it is important that the tasting takes place in as neutral environment as possible. Ideally assess its appearance in natural daylight against a white background. Be aware of and try to avoid smells from the surroundings. Choose a quiet location to help you concentrate. The vodka should be tasted at room temperature.
The shape of glass used will also have a dramatic effect on the vodka's aromas and to an extent, its flavour. A tulip shaped glass with sides that close inwards towards the top helps concentrate aromas. Ideally use a glass made to the ISO (International Standards Organisation) tasting glass specifications such as the Arcoroc Viticole 21.5cl/7.25oz, 65ml diameter x 155mm high stemmed glass. This is an ideal shape and size to hold a 25 to 50ml tasting sample. Be sure the glass is clean and smell the empty glass to check for the smell of detergent or glass cloths.
Always beware of the alcoholic strength of the sample you are assessing. You may be given a production sample at 70% or above, which could be harmful, and will certainly be unpleasant if digested neat. If comparing different vodkas with different strengths then consider diluting to equal strengths.
If you dilute vodka samples of around 40% alcohol by volume, then be consistent and use a 1:1, 1:2 or 1:3 dilution. Adding 25% water (1:4) will open up the bouquet and release aromas as the alcohol reacts with the water but will not overly dilute the vodka, leaving some of the spirit sensation.
Assess the clarity, is it crystal clear and bright or does the sample have a slight cloudiness? Are there any deposits as the result of precipitation?
Swirl the glass and observe the 'legs' or 'tears' that fall and create a pattern on the inside of the glass. Are the legs thin or fat? Are they close together or are large curves formed? Thick heavy legs that fall quickly are a sign of added sugar.
The aroma of a spirit may actually tell you more about a sample than the taste - professional spirits blenders tend to assess samples by their aroma more than their taste.
Bring the glass slowly towards your nose, concentrating on detecting and remembering the initial aroma as you do so. Don't start by putting your nose directly into the glass and taking a big sniff - gradually smell more. That first whiff of a spirit is often the best indicator. You'll never have another first smell of that vodka so be sure to make the most of it. Some people prefer to nose with their mouth slightly open, others closed. Decide what is best for you and then be consistent in future.
Swirling the glass as in wine tasting can be detrimental when tasting spirits as this tends to release ethanol notes rather than the finer nuances of the spirit.
If the vodka has a cork closure, beware of possible cork taint, a distinctive musty smell usually caused by the presence of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA) transferred from the cork to the vodka. Corked vodka will have a smell resembling a mouldy newspaper or a damp basement. TCA is harmless to human health but fatal to the olfactory appreciation and assessment of vodka. Discard and source a fresh bottle.
The human tongue can only detect five basic tastes: sweet, salt, sour, bitter and umami, the latter is best described as savoury and indeed it comes from the Japanese word (うま味?) meaning 'pleasant savoury taste'. As the mouth and nose are connected a lot of what we consider to be taste is actually smell. This is why it is common to see professional spirits (and wine) tasters pursing their lips and drawing air in over the sample in their mouth.
Hold the sample in your mouth while you assess it. Look for flavour profiles and then expand on them. If there are citrus notes are they lemon, lime or orange. If floral, what kind of flower? If spicy, is it black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon or other specific spices? Is the sample clean and fresh or does it have a mouldy, vegetal character? Consider the mouthfeel, or body of the vodka. Is it heavy and syrupy in the mouth or light and thin? How does the taste profile change while in your mouth?
Don't just taste, think about what you taste and note your thoughts down.
Now consider the aftertaste of the vodka. Does the flavour linger in your mouth? If so what flavours remain? Is the aftertaste bitter or sweet. Again, it's worth noting down your findings.
It is advisable to revisit a sample after 15-20 minutes to access how it has developed with air contact and continued reaction with the added water.
Finally, having tasted and accessed the vodka sample decide if you liked it, and if so how much. This aspect tends to be expressed with a score out of five, ten or one hundred. Whichever scale you opt for be consistent. Here at Difford's Guide we use a scale of five with the occasional great sample with that extra something being awarded a coveted a Difford's Guide rating of 5+/5.