#826: The Vodka Proof Vodka is the best selling spirit in the United States, and there are zillions of brands. But is there any difference between them?
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#826: The Vodka Proof

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#826: The Vodka Proof

#826: The Vodka Proof

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Quick warning - this episode contains one curse word.

ALEX GOLDMARK, HOST:

So the other day, I go to a bar - O'Keefe's. It's a standard Irish bar in Brooklyn - with someone who I thought was a friend, Dan Pashman.

DAN PASHMAN, HOST:

You thought wrong, Alex.

GOLDMARK: And we got into an argument.

PASHMAN: Yeah, that's true.

GOLDMARK: I am telling you it is a real thing that happens just about every time.

PASHMAN: So wait. You're telling me when you drink cheap vodka, you have an allergic reaction. But when you drink expensive vodka, you're fine.

GOLDMARK: I am allergic to cheap vodka. That is my claim. When I drink cheap vodka, my face turns red. It gets a little hard to breathe - like, just a little. It's not like it's going to kill me.

PASHMAN: I don't buy it.

GOLDMARK: You doubted my own personal claims about my own personal health.

PASHMAN: Look. No offense, Alex, but I am just really skeptical. OK. I cover food for a living. And I can tell you that vodkas are pretty much all the same. In fact, they have to be. And anyone who thinks otherwise is falling for one of the great sales jobs in modern history.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PASHMAN: Hello. Welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Dan Pashman, host of The Sporkful food podcast.

GOLDMARK: And I'm Alex Goldmark. Today on the show, we're going to find out who is right. We will put fancy vodka to the test.

PASHMAN: We're going to go and find out how vodka is actually made. We'll hear the story of the marketing genius who created the whole concept of super-premium vodka.

GOLDMARK: We will make our own vodka.

PASHMAN: And we'll send it to a lab to see how it measures up.

GOLDMARK: We're talking Bunsen burners, lab coats, liquor scientists...

PASHMAN: ...And Alex's face.

GOLDMARK: Excuse me. Yeah. Can I get one more of your cheapest vodka? Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: OK. Sure. But you didn't like it last time.

GOLDMARK: No, no. It's going great.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: OK. I'm going to bring you one more cheapest vodka.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PASHMAN: Here it is, Alex. That's an authentic paper sound effect, which means I'm about to read a law to you.

GOLDMARK: Bring it on.

PASHMAN: (Laughter) This is Title 27, Section 5.22 of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Code. This is the code, Alex, that aspiring vodka magnates read to their children at bedtime.

GOLDMARK: Sounds very intimidating.

PASHMAN: It says that vodka must be distilled or treated until it is, quote, "without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color."

GOLDMARK: OK. But vodka has a taste.

PASHMAN: But it has no distinctive taste.

GOLDMARK: All right. Go on.

PASHMAN: OK. Like, if you're making bourbon, you're going crazy trying to create a unique flavor so your product will stand out, right? You're going to age it in certain barrels for a certain amount of time or whatever.

GOLDMARK: Smoky, peaty, all those things.

PASHMAN: Exactly. But if you're making vodka, there's very little you're allowed to do to make it taste different. By law, you basically have to make an industrial-grade, pure alcohol first, like the stuff you would put in adhesives or fragrances or detergents. And then you take that, and all you do is you add water. And you got vodka.

GOLDMARK: That doesn't sound right.

PASHMAN: (Laughter) All right. Look. To figure out if there's a difference between fancy and cheap vodka, let's just start off by finding someone to show us how vodka is made, Alex.

GOLDMARK: Makes sense.

PASHMAN: All right? Someone who can show us how it all works, standing right in front of their vodka-making machines.

RONAK PARIKH: Hey there.

PASHMAN: Hey. How are you?

PARIKH: Good.

GOLDMARK: How's it going?

PARIKH: Good.

PASHMAN: This is Ronak Parikh. He's one of the guys who runs Industry City Distillery in Brooklyn.

GOLDMARK: He takes us down a long, cluttered hallway past a bar and then unlocks this big, metal door.

PARIKH: You're entering our still room now.

GOLDMARK: There's, like, clear jugs all around. There's this one machine that looks kind of like where you'd go to flip a circuit breaker to turn the power back on with some tubes coming out of it. Another one looks like an angry washing machine.

PASHMAN: (Laughter).

GOLDMARK: And the whole room is kind of cramped - smaller than a dorm room.

PASHMAN: Yeah. I mean, there's like enough room for maybe two or three people to be working, basically. That's it.

PARIKH: Yeah, which is about our team.

PASHMAN: So Ronak explained how to make vodka in a nutshell. First off, don't make it in a nutshell because that's very small. It's really straightforward science. You combine sugar and yeast. The yeast eats the sugar and poops out alcohol. But now that alcohol is sitting in a vat with the sugar and the yeast and junk, you've got to separate it. So you heat the mixture just to the point that the alcohol turns to steam and rises up. You do that a few times, and you end up with basically pure alcohol. And every vodka, Alex, no matter how cheap, has to be distilled to that point.

GOLDMARK: So these machines here - the main purpose of them is to remove flavor and scent and any other characteristic except for alcohol.

PARIKH: Exactly. Now, chemical constituents of alcohol - esters - they will create flavors. But in the case of vodka, they will not be related to its raw material. By definition, that is the case. So if you ever see packaging that states, ah, this vodka's made with Northwest Pacific grains kissed by the Colorado rapids, that's all marketing bullshit. When it comes to vodka, your raw material cannot influence final flavor.

PASHMAN: So again, Alex, the raw material doesn't matter to the final flavor. There is no flavor.

GOLDMARK: But he did say how you treat that raw material does affect what's in the vodka. That's because there are three stages of distilling.

PARIKH: Three categories - heads, hearts and tails.

GOLDMARK: Heads, hearts and tails - OK. Ronak explained that when you start to heat the alcohol to distill it, the first part of the steam that comes up before anything else - that part is called the heads. That part is not supposed to be for drinking.

PARIKH: It's the stuff that can contain methanol, the stuff that moonshiners are getting in trouble with - going blind, even being fatally, fatally hurt by it. You don't want to drink your heads. You want to remove that.

GOLDMARK: And then the next part - that's the good stuff - the hearts. So the stuff Ronak wants to keep - that is the vapor in the middle. And then...

PARIKH: The last part is your tails. OK? That's the stuff that's potable but stuff that's been - in our industry, we - known to give you hangovers, can some create nasty smells, some aromas.

GOLDMARK: And so Ronak says that if you want to make a super-cheap vodka, you would probably just leave in extra tails - right? - because you get more vodka per run of the still or whatever. And so it costs less. And the best vodkas - if you're a stickler for quality - they would take just the hearts. So there is a difference.

PASHMAN: Yeah, maybe. I like Ronak - seems like a good guy. But remember, he's also selling vodka for 40 bucks a bottle. So I don't think he's going to say that his is the same as the $10 stuff in the plastic bottle on the bottom shelf.

GOLDMARK: But he also told us this one other interesting thing. He was one of the only distillers who we called up who said, sure. Come on down. Take a look around.

PASHMAN: That's true. Yeah.

GOLDMARK: And he says that's because a lot of labels - they don't distill their own alcohol. They buy it in bulk from someone else.

PASHMAN: And that seems so weird to me because every one of these vodkas - we hear this fairytale about how the craft copper still - blah, blah, blah, you know...

GOLDMARK: ...Kissed by the Colorado rapids.

PASHMAN: Exactly, yeah. But I set out to find out how bulk buying works. And it's true. There's this one company that's huge. Like, everyone in the liquor industry knows them - Ultra Pure. They say they have the largest selection of bulk alcohol in the world. They sell, basically, pure alcohol like vodka concentrate. It's a base. Lots of companies buy it and use it to make their own vodka brands.

Some of the companies take the base and distill it further. They tweak it. They put their own spin on it. But Ultra Pure told me that the more price-driven companies - they just take the base, add water, and they're in business. They're selling vodka. So I called them up. And I said, hey. Can I get some of that vodka concentrate? And they said, yeah - no problem. Samples are in the mail.

GOLDMARK: While we were waiting for our samples to arrive, we went to find out how this whole trend of fancy vodka got started because when you go to the liquor store, you see Ketel One and Belvedere and Ciroc - all these smoky bottles and fancy designs and high prices. Clearly, vodka drinkers think that there's a difference.

PASHMAN: Well, there is one difference - the fonts on the bottles - very different, Alex. And this whole idea of super-premium vodka - it was all invented by one guy.

MATTHEW LATKIEWICZ: Sidney Frank - he is a classic American businessman in almost a cliche - both in good ways and in bad ways. Like, he came from nothing - poor. He went to Brown. But he only went to Brown for one year because he couldn't afford it.

PASHMAN: This is Matthew Latkiewicz.

LATKIEWICZ: I'm a drink writer and the author of "You Suck At Drinking."

PASHMAN: So how many drinks do you have a day on average?

LATKIEWICZ: Well, I'm trying to cut back (laughter). When I was at the height of my drink-writing powers - oh, gosh - five to eight.

PASHMAN: We are such amateurs.

GOLDMARK: (Laughter).

PASHMAN: Anyway, Sidney Frank drops out of college, ends up marrying a woman from a wealthy family. And her family business is liquor. So he kind of slides into the liquor business sideways.

LATKIEWICZ: He didn't love liquor necessarily. He's just looking for niche products. And he stumbles on this bar where he sees these old German folks drinking Jagermeister, which, at the time - this is in the '80s - was selling, like, 500 cases a year - like, nothing - nothing at all.

PASHMAN: So Sidney Frank buys the rights to import Jagermeister, which - if you don't know it - it's a liquor that's sort of herbal, tastes kind of like black licorice cough syrup...

GOLDMARK: Which probably explains the low sales.

PASHMAN: And he buys it precisely because it isn't well-known. And it doesn't really do much beyond the old German man market for a while. But then he hears about students at Louisiana State University actually liking Jagermeister. There's an article in the local paper that says all the kids know this is what you drink when you want to get drunk.

LATKIEWICZ: One of them described it as liquid Valium. And that was what kicked off - he was like, college kids. And with Jagermeister, he essentially invents all of the garbage that we may know about liquor companies and their marketing practices now. He basically invents them.

PASHMAN: He sponsored parties. He butters up bartenders. He even sets up a team of scantily clad women to give away free shots.

LATKIEWICZ: Yep. Yeah, they were called the Jagerettes. That was a Sidney Frank special right there. So he had this kind of guerrilla marketing savvy. You know, he kind of didn't play by any of the normal rules.

PASHMAN: So just to put a button on it, Alex, in case it wasn't clear, Sidney Frank took a drink popular with old German men and turned it into the hottest drink for the party set on college campuses. And after he did that, he set his sights higher - on vodka.

GOLDMARK: And at the time, the fanciest vodka around was Absolut vodka. It had a great marketing campaign. But by today's standards, it wasn't really an expensive bottle of vodka. And that's what Sidney Frank knows is his competition. But the thing he focuses on is not the taste of Absolut, of course. It is the price.

LATKIEWICZ: He essentially, out of thin air, goes, I want to make a vodka. So Absolut's charging 15. I'll charge 30. He didn't even have a product at this point.

PASHMAN: But he already knows he's going to charge double. And in order to do that, he needs a product that screams luxury.

LATKIEWICZ: It's got to be the best. Everything that is the best comes from France. So he goes to France, and he looks around for distillers. He says, can you make vodka? He finds somebody who says, yes, of course, I can make vodka.

GOLDMARK: And so he goes around to bars with his French vodka making it seem special. He made a big deal that it was made of French wheat - all kinds of things designed to make Grey Goose seem different from other vodkas.

LATKIEWICZ: He would give them the bottle in this wooden box with straw inside and nicely packaged to be this large clear bottle with the frosted glass that when you put it up on the back bar would catch whatever light was there. And it would kind of glow.

PASHMAN: It's not that he didn't care about taste at all. It's just that he didn't start there.

LATKIEWICZ: He did submit it to the BTI, which is the Beverage Tasting Institute. And it was awarded the best-tasting vodka in the world in whatever - early '90s thing.

PASHMAN: And he used that in his marketing a lot.

GOLDMARK: We reached out to Grey Goose for a comment on this story, and they didn't get back to us in time to include in this episode.

PASHMAN: Sidney Frank's whole plan worked. Vodka is now the most popular liquor in America, and he died a very rich man.

GOLDMARK: He sold Grey Goose to Bacardi less than 10 years after he started it for more than $2 billion. And before you even start on this, Dan...

PASHMAN: I'm tempted to start, Alex.

GOLDMARK: ...I see how this whole story argues that that it's just marketing - that all vodkas are the same, that my allergy to cheap vodkas that I genuinely feel is all just in my head. But I think we should still test this as scientifically as we can.

PASHMAN: That's right. And I got good news, Alex, because guess what just arrived in the mail.

GOLDMARK: Our vodka?

PASHMAN: The vodka concentrate that I ordered from Ultra Pure - and I picked out one in particular I think you're going to be excited about.

GOLDMARK: OK.

PASHMAN: Ultra Pure sells a vodka concentrate made in France with French wheat four times distilled.

GOLDMARK: That sounds pretty good. I'd even say it sounds like it could be the best that comes from France.

PASHMAN: Exactly, Alex. That's right. Now, look. Ultra Pure told us they don't sell to Grey Goose, but they're clearly going for something similar here. I mean, there aren't that many vodka distilleries in France. We're not talking about wineries here, OK.

GOLDMARK: And four-time distilled sounds good to me - maybe even premium.

PASHMAN: I would go so far as to call it super premium, Alex. And that's what we're going to do right now. We're going to make our own super premium vodka.

GOLDMARK: I know this looks like a travel-shampoo-bottle-sized bottle with very clear liquid in it. And they're wrapped in bubble wrap and tape. That's what we're taking off now. The labels look kind of homemade though, Dan.

PASHMAN: Yes, they look like they were printed on somebody's Inkjet printer.

GOLDMARK: Yeah, but not even with the like the right alignment.

PASHMAN: They're cut off, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDMARK: We've got this very handy, fancy, highly scientific graduated cylinder that PLANET MONEY owns, going back to our story on class action lawsuits.

PASHMAN: Now here comes the part of this entire story that I have most been dreading.

GOLDMARK: What?

PASHMAN: Math. Grey Goose and most vodkas are 80 proof, which means 40 percent alcohol. But these bottles are not some even, easy-to-work-with number. They are 192 proof, so we got to bring those down to 80 proof by adding water.

GOLDMARK: OK. It's 192 proof. So if we have to make...

PASHMAN: This is hard because...

GOLDMARK: We have our intern here, Aviva.

AVIVA DEKORNFELD, BYLINE: Happy to be here.

GOLDMARK: And she's got a calculator.

PASHMAN: This is not 100 percent.

GOLDMARK: Kenny's the math major lessons. So listen.

PASHMAN: So Kenny, we heard you're a math major. We have a math question for you.

DEKORNFELD: It's 83.3 milliliters.

KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: OK, and what are you cutting it with again?

GOLDMARK: Water.

MALONE: Water.

GOLDMARK: That purified water we got from the drugstore.

MALONE: This isn't how you make vodka, is it?

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER POURING)

PASHMAN: So we bottled our homemade French wheat vodka in a sterilized bottle and sent it to a lab because we wanted to see how it measures up. Thing is we got to test it against something, right, Alex?

GOLDMARK: Sure, naturally.

PASHMAN: So we also sent some Grey Goose in an unmarked bottle. And we decided to send them some of the cheap stuff - the Alex special, bottom shelf, plastic bottle.

GOLDMARK: We sent the whole thing to San Diego to a place called White Labs. This is a whole lab where they test different types of alcohol.

PASHMAN: Which I think, Alex, is something you and I have been doing for quite some time ourselves.

GOLDMARK: Especially this week for this episode.

PASHMAN: After the break, the results.

To get our results, we called up Neva Parker. She's a vice president of White Labs.

GOLDMARK: Did our samples - I'm just curious. Did they look professional? Like, did we look like a good vodka startup to you when you took them out.

NEVA PARKER: They absolutely did.

GOLDMARK: That's gratifying.

PARKER: Yeah.

PASHMAN: Neva ran our Vodka samples through what they call a comprehensive spirits test. It measures different chemicals in the alcohol that people might be able to taste. Also, it tests for chemicals that just shouldn't be there.

GOLDMARK: We sent them three bottles with no labels - just a number on them. Number one was Grey Goose. Number two was our homemade French wheat vodka. And number three was the bottom-shelf, plastic-bottle vodka.

PASHMAN: And Neva said one of the vodkas stood out because it had more of this one specific compound. It's called one propanol. And that's not a good thing. You want less of it in your vodka.

PARKER: Typically when you taste one propanol, that's more of that harsher alcohol - kind of grainy alcohol compound.

GOLDMARK: Yeah, like nail polish remover.

PASHMAN: Right. So the vodka that has more of that stuff is not as good, according to this test.

PARKER: So it's possible that that shows that maybe this product wasn't distilled as many times or distilled to, you know, the same amount of purity as the other two, which have lower levels.

PASHMAN: Based on that information, Neva, which of these three vodkas would you suspect should be the cheapest, least desirable vodka?

GOLDMARK: OK, remember. Grey Goose is number one. Our homemade vodka is number two. And the cheap stuff in a plastic bottle is number three.

PARKER: If I had to choose, based on this analysis alone, I would say number one.

PASHMAN: And which would be the ultra luxury choice?

PARKER: Number three.

GOLDMARK: Number three, wow.

PASHMAN: So based on this, number three is the best vodka that money can buy of these three.

GOLDMARK: She said the plastic-bottle vodka seemed like the best - wow - and Grey Goose seemed like the cheapest. But our homemade vodka was pretty good. It was right up there with both of these pro vodkas.

PARKER: I mean, looking at these, they all look very similar as well.

GOLDMARK: So would you say that ours is basically Grey Goose?

PARKER: Yes, I would.

GOLDMARK: So we basically made Grey Goose.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDMARK: To be clear, Neva said that all three of these vodkas, they had less of this bad stuff than anyone was really going to be able to taste. But she did say - and I like this part - that trace amounts of any compound in a vodka could be enough to set off an allergy - like maybe making your face turn red when you're drinking cheap vodka.

PASHMAN: I don't know anyone who has that problem, Alex. So I can't speak to that. But the bottom line for me - science shows if you don't have an allergy, all vodkas are pretty much the same.

GOLDMARK: And if you do, there is one more test.

PASHMAN: All right, Alex, you've moved onto drink number two. How are you feeling?

GOLDMARK: I actually do feel the redness coming on. You're telling me I don't have it?

PASHMAN: I mean, look, Alex. You've convinced me. I think what we have learned here today is that the differences between cheap and expensive vodkas may not be taste-able for most people - maybe not even for you - but that your delicate constitution may be sensitive to them on the inside.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDMARK: That was a polite way of saying a lot of mean things. But I appreciate that. And I will take it.

I never did turn red that night - don't know why, couldn't say.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE THE LEAD")

GARY NEUMANN: (Singing) Oh, yeah.

PASHMAN: We'd love you to hear what you thought about this episode. Drop us a line - planetmoney@npr.org. And follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at PLANET MONEY.

GOLDMARK: Today's show was produced by Sally Helm and Sindhu Gnanasambandan. Bryant Urstadt edits Planet Money. We want to give a thank you to our former intern Alice Wilder who helped a bunch on this episode before she went off to a new job with the podcast Trump, Inc. Congratulations. Also, thank you to our current intern, Aviva DeKornfeld. If you are looking for a new podcast to try, can I recommend The Sporkful, Dan's podcast.

PASHMAN: You sure can, Alex. I'll accept that recommendation. Yeah, we just did an episode all about MSG, monosodium glutamate. And we looked into the faulty science and, yes, racism that led to so many misconceptions about MSG. So Sporkful's available wherever you get PLANET MONEY.

PASHMAN: That's The Sporkful. You can find it on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts. I'm Alex Goldmark.

GOLDMARK: I'm Dan Pashman. Thanks for listening.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In a previous version of this podcast, we said Grey Goose vodka is four times distilled. In fact, it is distilled only once.]

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