I attended the “Rediscovering the Traditions of vodka” led by Steve Olsen and learned a great lesson on how to engage an audience. Throughout the whole TOTC event, Vodka was criticized, belittled, vilified, marginalized and ultimately disrespected. It’s like the old Yogi Berra line…”nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”

But with 28% share of the total US spirits market, Steve eloquently made his points that it warrants respect and consideration and can’t and shouldn’t be ignored. He went on to walk us through a product tasting that was more about sensing the vodka as opposed to tasting it. Darcy O’Neil made the point in the sensory perception session that if you analyze vodka chemically, there aren’t any flavor compounds in there… no citrus, no wheat, no potato and certainly no tobacco, peanuts or any other contrived descriptors. What there are however are components that might trigger a flavor memory or association. And that’s what we’re really sensing, e.g. not citrus per se, but a compound similar to citric acid that sparks an association in your mind.

Steve demonstrated a tasting protocol where you can separate the liquid flavor components from the aromatics. By coating the oral cavity with the vodka, then closing your mouth and breathing out your nose, you can segment the feel of the alcohol from the smell of the volatile compounds. Then breathe in only through your mouth to gauge the quality of the alcohol…it should feel cool like menthol or eucalyptus, not harsh or burning. He went on to demonstrate the difference between a number of brands and show how they not only differed, but had specific characteristics that would make a given vodka the preferable spirit for a given cocktail.

At the end of the session, he had turned a roomful of skeptics into advocates.