Spirit of Ohio

By Ramzy Nasrallah on July 12, 2011 at 1:00 pm
Our rigorous taste test was randomized & blinded.  For science.

Being a Buckeye blogger can be significantly more challenging than being a movie critic.  Movie critics get to sample different films regularly, all crafted by different directors with various actors, themes and storylines. 

Those self-appointed connoisseurs may have their biases, but those predispositions are challenged on a regular basis.  Food critics operate under similarly tame auspices: They get to judge different restaurants with numerous chefs who have constructed multifarious menus. 

Bloggers for a specific team figuratively eat at the same restaurant every day.  We get to watch the same movie every week.  This summer, at least around here, the food has consistently sucked and the movie has been worse.

In that vein, I "worked" on my annual week off (as mandated by the terms of the Eleven Warriors collective bargaining agreement) by walking a mile in the arrogant and comfortable shoes of the food critic by sampling and reviewing the flagship debut product from Buckeye Vodka

Like most of our readers, a product called Buckeye [anything] immediately piques my interest due to the weakness that's hardwired into all of my body circuits.  Naming anything for the state of my youth is unfair marketing.  Buckeye Mulch?  Buckeye Septic Tanks?  I'M ALL EARS - PLEASE TELL ME MORE.

I'm more likely to consume hot chocolate if it's called Buckeye hot chocolate.  Ditto tunafish sandwiches.  Ditto car washes.  Ditto everything.  You could bottle Brady Hoke's back sweat and call it "Wolverine Tears" and there is a significant element of Buckeye fans that buy it on principle.  I'm not part of that radical fringe, though.  Barely. 

At the same time, my excitement in learning of the existence of Buckeye Vodka was tempered by the part of me that operates as a best-in-class snob.  I prefer my cheeses French and stinky, my encased meats German, my chocolate Belgian and my steaks Argentinean.  Vodka from Ohio?  I would need convincing.

Vodka was born in Poland and perfected there and in the neighboring regions.  Buckeye [anything] appeals to me automatically, but hard liquor comes with expectations.  Nonetheless, I had to get my hands on some Buckeye Vodka. 

Living in New Jersey made that difficult, at least at this early stage in the product's distribution channels.  Thankfully, Buckeye Vodka CEO Jim Finke came to my rescue and graciously erased my procurement challenges.

A rigorous testing environment

There are three disclosures for this product review: One was that Mr. Finke was kind enough to send me a bottle of Buckeye Vodka au gratis.  The second is that the company had absolutely no influence on the outcome of this review.  The third is that bourbon is far and away my spirit of choice.  Vodka normally doesn't do it for me. 

Bleu cheese olives: J'ADORE

I know how to judge bourbon.  Vodka was a mystery.  All I knew was that vodka typically tastes like cleaning solvent probably does and that it's best consumed in a juice or chilled in a martini glass with the stinky cheese-filled wingman you see pictured on the left. 

My pre-testing research uncovered that vodka is distilled from any number of ingredients, which is why it's potent, and the more times any liquid is distilled, the purer it becomes.  The better vodkas are distilled more times than the lesser ones in order to reach high purity.  This practice is also believed to lessen the chance of a please-kill-me headache the morning after consumption.

Cheap vodkas are filled with additives that give them that cleaning solvent flavor that is poorly masked with orange juice.  Better vodkas come from single ingredients, not unlike fine wine.  Ultimately, the tongue acts as the judge.

So critiquing Buckeye Vodka was going to be an exercise that involved a single criterion: Does this taste good?  Based on that one-column scorecard, my tongue would be doing all of the work. [/your mom joke]

Measures were going to have to be taken.  Comparators were chosen to give context to Buckeye Vodka's taste: Gordon's, Van Gogh, Grey Goose, Stolichnaya, Tito's and Belvedere were acquired, sadly, without the same 100% discount I received from Buckeye Vodka.

It would be impossible to disable my bias if I knew which bottle I was drinking from during testing, so everything had to be blinded: I had no knowledge of what I was drinking or grading.  My wife was gracious enough to administer the blinding.  (She then left for a girls' night out to steer clear of the carnage)

Three drinks were made from each vodka: A corporate martini with - swoon - bleu-cheese stuffed olives, a screwdriver and a straight/neat pour, chilled. 

The volume of each drink was around one-third of a regular serving, so over the course of this single-site, blinded, randomized vodka study with an n=1, I would be consuming around seven drinks over what turned out to be almost three hours.

You employ all of your senses when you're making judgments in taste.  This is why restaurant decor and ambiance matter; how you feel and what you see affects how you taste.  Controlling the environment would be critical to limiting bias.  To that end, the entire trial was conducted in a single barstool at the same bar (mine).

So the visuals were consistent: Same bar, identical glasses and indistinguishable palate cleansers - Cheddar Goldfish.  Because they're classier and more sophisticated than Saltines, and they're what we had in the pantry.

From an auditory standpoint, Avett Brothers, Foo Fighters and Jay Electronica were played sequentially for each round, so that each test article was consumed while hearing the same music.  All of the bottles had been stored in the freezer and the drinks were all served chilled at the exact same temperature.

I was really hoping Buckeye Vodka was going to win, but with all of the measures that had been implemented to minimize bias,  had no idea how to make that happen.  DAMN YOU, QUASI-SCIENTIFIC METHOD.

verdict: Brave & Bold

Superior Taste + Price = 11W CHAMPION

SPOILER ALERT: Inebriation happened.  Apparently there is a significant amount of alcohol in vodka.  I'm certain that I knew this, but in my deliberate focus to conduct sound, scientific testing this knowledge somehow escaped me.

The judging aspect was far easier and more distinct than I had anticipated, as there were two vodkas that positively distinguished themselves above all others in all three rounds: Vodkas number two and number five. This couple took on and enhanced the flavor of the drinks they were in and had virtually no antiseptic taste to them. 

Their martinis were martini-er and their screwdrivers were delicious and citrusy.  Their chilled/neat pours were the most tolerable, meaning I ate the fewest Cheddar Goldfish after each one. 

I did not squint once while consuming vodkas two and five as mixed drinks (whereas I'm sure I was making rectal exam-faces during the entire third, straight-vodka round).

Numbers three and six were solidly in the second tier, number one was in the third tier alone and numbers four and seven had all the subtlety of gasoline. 

Upon consuming the 21st sample - which was a ghastly, neat pour from number seven - I was anxious to unmask the drinks.  But I ate half a tray of s'more brownies that my awesome neighbors unexpectedly brought over during the testing and went straight to bed instead.  Science is exhausting.

The next morning, with only a dull headache, I returned to the bar and unmasked the identities of the samples:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Stolichnaya Grey Goose Tito's Gordon's Buckeye Belvedere Van Gogh

Then I referred to my notes and matched the numbers to the grades, which produced these results: 

Best in Show Second Tier Third Tier Lighter Fluid
Grey Goose, Buckeye Vodka Tito's, Belvedere Stolichnaya Gordon's, Van Gogh

Some thoughts:

1. I was as thrilled that Buckeye Vodka did so well as I was surprised that Van Gogh was so awful.  Van Gogh is a premium brand best known for its multitude of unique infused flavors like Dutch Chocolate and Double Espresso.  I now better understand the reason for Van Gogh's focus on flavors: Its unflavored vodka is truly horrendous.

2. There was no doubt that Gordon's would suck.  I went to college and have plenty of experience with this "student-priced" brand; the strongest lemonade in the world can't help Gordon's vodka.   In hindsight I included it to pad the rankings for Buckeye Vodka, sort of like scheduling MAC teams in September. 

3. Buckeye vodka is not burdened with the same tariffs, transportation costs across oceans or international marketing campaigns that the leading brands carry.  The point here is that while the flavor of Buckeye Vodka was virtually indistinguishable from Grey Goose, its price point is closer to that of Gordon's.

4. I needed to understand why Buckeye Vodka performed so well, despite my being blinded to my natural Buckeye bias.  Mr. Finke provided the answer:

We start with the highest quality grains grown on the farms of Ohio and in the Midwest (Buckeye Vodka is gluten-free).  We distill the grain-neutral spirit in a state-of-the-art 20-foot column still which was custom made for Crystal Spirits. It is distilled 10 times to eliminate the impurities commonly found in lesser vodkas.

I hadn't realized Buckeye Vodka was gluten-free (my digestive system personally doesn't really care, but I know plenty of people's that do).  Therefore, if you're one of those gluten-free brothers or sisters who drink Chopin Vodka, which is potato-based and also gluten-free, Buckeye Vodka costs over $10 less and won't exacerbate your symptoms either.

Conclusion: Buckeye Vodka is a terrific, clean-tasting entrant into the premium vodka market that has a price point anywhere from 30-70% lower than traditional premium brands.  I was fully prepared to write a critical review had the results been unfavorable; I'm just really glad I didn't have to.

Eleven DubSumer Reports gives Buckeye Vodka an A rating based on product quality, and a Buy recommendation based on value.  If you're in Ohio or passing through, your bar requires a bottle.

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