10 Things I Learned at the Absolut Sensory Experience

Say Aaah by Caroline on Crack

How our sense of taste works.

OK, I admit it. I was one of the many folks out there carrying the flag for the anti-vodka movement. What can I say? I always viewed the clear spirit as something flavorless and sort of a cheater ingredient for bartenders who don’t want to bother creating a cocktail that will actually complement the taste of the spirit. Even Simon Ford, brand ambassador for Pernod Ricard USA (Plymouth Gin, Beefeater Gin, Absolut Vodka)  said that he’s finding that vodka is facing the same uphill battle that gin had to face a few years ago.

Little did I know that Simon would change my mind. All it took was 8 hours, cocktails shaken by Imbibe! author David Wondrich, a 12-vodka tasting and an elaborate dinner by 3-star Michelin-rated chef Grant Achatz. In any case, here are about 10 things I learned at the Absolut Sensory Experience, which in turn gave me a new appreciation of (good) vodka and all the different ways to experience a cocktail.

1. We have one inherent preference when we’re born when it comes to taste: sweet!

2. You’re always sensitive to bitterness because it’s protection against poisoning.

3. One nostril is usually more active than the other where you get more detailed information from one over the other. We did an experiment where we sniffed a vial of scented air with one nostril and then with the other one and I found that my right nostril was able to pick up details of the scent that my other couldn’t. Weird!

4. How to smell a glass of wine or spirit: take the glass, sniff it and take it away from your nose while you think about it because if you sniff it too long you’ll just end up adapting to it.

5. When you reach 70, you don’t perceive aroma, taste, etc. as well as you did when you were 20. Apparently that’s why older people need more “character” in their drinks. Lots of bartenders of the room concurred with this.

6. It’s a common misconception that vodka is tasteless. Actually, there are many ways you can describe it: neutral, grainy, bready, fruity, buttery, solvent, dried fruit, diesel.

7. Russian vodkas are usually sweet because they add sugar after distillation to smoothen it up. They drink vodka so much that sweetening it up is a necessity.

8. After tasting 12 vodkas, the ones I discovered I didn’t like were Karlsson’s Gold which tastes like fish oil and possesses similar viscosity. Uluva tastes a bit corked because it uses a natural cork to seal the bottle. Tsk tsk.

9. How Alinea’s chef Grant Achatz builds a dish around white beans using a flavor bouncing technique. Basically start off with the main ingredient, then figure out which food products go with it.

10. Hay is the hot thing in the culinary world. Fer real. Apparently, hay brulee tastes like hazelnuts.

7 Responses to 10 Things I Learned at the Absolut Sensory Experience
  1. Food GPS
    November 17, 2010 | 6:01 pm

    That was an epic evening, and you’re lucky to have had a front row view for the whole experience. I’m grateful to have been there as well. Hopefully other spirit producers decide to convince you in similar fashion.

  2. Noelle
    November 18, 2010 | 9:39 am

    This is great. Thanks for the brief! Interesting findings too!
    I like Karlsson’s, I think, (it’s the potato shaped one, right?) with pepper in it. Very different tasting. Not sure what one it was (gold, or another one), but it was good when I tasted it alongside some others.
    I had no idea that Russian vodka had sugar in it, but when I was there I sure as heck drank a LOT of it!!

  3. Caroline on Crack
    November 18, 2010 | 9:59 am

    Food GPS,
    I felt so lucky to be there. Such a wonderful, life-changing night. That sounds over-the-top but it definitely changed the way I’ll enjoy food and drink. And I only had to be convinced of vodka. I like everything else…oh wait, except Jager.

    Noelle,
    OMG, Karlsson’s sucked. Made me gag. Definitely has its own flavor, I will give it that.

  4. Michael / South Bay Foodies
    November 18, 2010 | 11:35 am

    Far out! I’ll continue my drinking habits now so that I have a point of comparison when I turn 70.

    • Caroline on Crack
      November 18, 2010 | 11:40 am

      That’s the right attitude! And take lots of notes. 😉

  5. Kevin
    November 18, 2010 | 2:51 pm

    Nice recap! Almost feel like I was there. I had a similar vodka moment recently, when I realized some vodkas actually do have discernible tastes and aromas. That said, I could never drink the stuff straight, added sugar or not. Too much grain alcohol characteristics, not enough character. But it is interesting to see what some craft distillers are doing now to change the game — Dry Fly, Finger Lakes, etc.

    • Caroline on Crack
      November 18, 2010 | 2:56 pm

      Yeah, I could do on the rocks for SOME vodkas like Russian Standard, which is smooth, just because I like to taste the actual spirit. But this is a new development brought on by the seminar.

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