Do Vodka Preferences Have a Chemical Basis?

FRIDAY June 11, 2010 -- Marketing and snobbery aside, what drives some drinkers to reach for top-shelf vodka brands over more lowly (and lower-priced) "well" varieties?

According to a team of Russian-American chemists, certain molecule clusters in vodka taste better than others.

Vodka's longstanding reputation as a colorless and tasteless concoction is coupled with the fact that all vodka brands use the same combination of 40 percent pure ethyl alcohol (ethanol) and 60 percent pure water, the study authors noted.

That means all brands should have the same faint taste, if any taste at all. However, mixing vodka's two basic ingredients gives rise to the development of peculiar molecule clusters, or hydrates -- and researchers found that some hydrates appear to be "tastier" than others.

Recently reporting online in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, Dale Schaefer of the University of Cincinnati joined with colleagues from Moscow State University in Russia to run a high-tech analysis of the molecular composition of five popular vodka brands.

They found that each brand had a different concentration of ethanol hydrates, which translates into each brand having a different internal molecular structure.

It turns out that some brands have so-called "low structurability," because of a higher fraction of water clusters. Other brands, however, are notable for their "high structurability" and contain a higher concentration of ethanol clusters.

The team found that low-structured vodkas are likely to come across as more watery to the palate than high-structured vodkas, although the contrast manifests as a difference in perception (of molecular content) rather than taste in its more conventional sense.

"These ethanol clusters undoubtedly stimulate the palate differently. Even in the absence of taste in the traditional sense, vodka drinkers could express preference for a particular structure," the study authors stated in a news release from the American Chemical Society.

More information

For more on the traditional sense of taste, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Posted: June 2010


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