Monday, May 26, 2008

Vodka Illusions

Bill Deys recently wrote about a Business Week article stating that, in a blind taste test, all vodkas taste pretty much the same.

It was an informal test with a writer and a few friends. Without statistical analysis, it's impossible to tell if the friends were guessing at an above-chance level or not (there was one correct guess about vodka brand during the trial, but who knows if it was based on taste or just a lucky guess). Still, the theory behind it makes sense; vodka is basically alcohol and water, without any oak barrels or extra ingredients being added, so differences would have to be subtle if they exist. And if people who claim to be able to distinguish one brand from another obviously can't do so at all even in an informal test, differences can't be as major as we've been lead to believe.

The implication here is that all vodkas are the same. Is that really true, though? I don't think so. I'd argue that the appeal of a drink is about more than just the electrical signals going from our tongues and noses to our brains. It's also about atmosphere, expectations about taste, preparation rituals, discussion of the drink with other people, etc. These factors are eliminated from a blind taste test, but present in real life. A blind test may reveal that vodkas are the same in the absence of knowledge about what brand is being drunk (drinken? drunken?), which is interesting information, but doesn't exactly map onto real-life drinking situations.

In real life, the subjective experience of a drink is different depending on the brand. For some people, buying a $100 bottle of vodka, putting it in the freezer, garnishing it and mixing it with just the right amount of ice (or not) is more enjoyable than doing the same with a $20 bottle. Furthermore, it probably actually tastes better to them. It may be an "illusion" in the sense that the difference in taste is not purely based on receptors in the tongue and nose; but does it really matter if good taste signals are originating in the tongue or in the drinker's own biased brain? No; a better taste is a better taste.

The problem, though, is if people knew that all vodkas were physically identical, they might have a harder time deceiving themselves into believing that "better" brands actually taste better. I guess that's the difference between actual physical differences in taste and illusory differences; illusions can disappear as soon as one becomes aware of them. It'd be hard to enjoy a $100 bottle of vodka knowing that the stuff inside is the same as the stuff in the $20 bottle.

Luckily I'm not so into vodka after several pukey experiences with it, and I doubt the same lack of brand differences applies to more complex drinks like rum, scotch, wine, and beer. "Still", a lot of the differences are probably all in our heads, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Here is a dog made of beer labels:

(from here.)

This is the 2nd post in an unintentional series of posts about the link between alcohol and psychology. See the 1st: Beer and Statistics.


Jen said...

Too bad I didn't know you during my undergrad thesis... you could have participated in my alcohol & vision experiment. Good times, for science!

I doubt that I would ever buy a bottle of $100 vodka, but I can't drink smirnoff. It tastes pretty harsh unless mixed with something very sweet. When in Poland I did a vodka sampler, and admittedly a few of the vodkas had some extra ingredients (like grass?!) but you could taste a bit of variety. I'd never be able to tell them apart, much like I could probably not identify wine varietals, but i bet there are people who can!

Phronk said...

Too bad! I've participated in a few alcohol studies...good times indeed. Though I make a bad subject because on some days I have a freakishly high tolerance.

Without extra ingredients involved, I'm still skeptical if there are people who can tell differences blind...and especially skeptical if the average person would notice any difference. I hope someone does a real study on it....all I can find are informal tests (and almost all find no's one that included Smirnoff, which nobody rated as very bad...Grey Goose ended up being labeled terrible, but I think it's because they talked themselves into hating it).