Does Premium Vodka's Taste Live Up to Its Price Tag?

Are you a vodka snob? Do you routinely buy a pricey brand over a less expensive one? If so, you're part of a growing trend. "20/20" wanted to see what all the fuss was about … so we conducted a little test.

It's 6:30 p.m. in New York City's Times Square, typically happy hour, but not for our six subjects, who were all part of a little experiment conducted in the summer of 2005. The participants ranged in age from 21 to 40 years old, the prime cocktail-drinking demographic.

The laboratory was a popular restaurant and bar called Blue Fin. But instead of beakers and petri dishes, the chemicals we tested were found inside bottles -- six vodka bottles.

Why Vodka Is King

Why was vodka the drink of choice for our subjects? One participant, Trevor Freeland, responded, "It's simple, it pleases a lot of people." Michael Gurock added: "I never feel like I have a bad hangover the next day whenever I have vodka." And Melanie Weber said she chose it because "it can be mixed with a lot of different juices."

If you've been to a bar recently, you know that once lowly vodka — invented on the cheap in Russia — is now the most popular hard liquor in America, comprising 27 percent of total volume in 2006, easily outselling rum, gin, whiskey and tequila.

What's most striking about vodka's rise is the huge sales of so-called super-premium brands, up 38 percent in the past year. You'll know them by their remarkable bottles (one -- Wyborowa -- is designed by architect Frank Gehry) and by their even more remarkable prices: $30 to $60 and upward a bottle, up to four times the price of cheaper brands like Smirnoff, which sells for $13 a bottle.

Taste test participant Karen Kay told us she can perceive differences among brands. "With the lower-end vodkas I think I really taste a difference in the drink, like an aftertaste, almost," she said.

What are their favorite brands? Weber preferred Ketel One. Freeland liked Belvedere best. And the remaining four favored Grey Goose.

From 007 to Carrie Bradshaw

Vodka arrived in the United States during World War II, but didn't start really gaining popularity until the 1960s, thanks in part to James Bond. It was 007 in the 1962 movie "Dr. No" who started a trend: "One medium dried vodka martini, shaken, not stirred." Bond insisted his martinis be made with vodka, not gin.

The HBO television show "Sex and the City" propelled vodka to new heights with ubiquitous cosmopolitan cocktails. America's foremost mixologist Dale DeGroff (who tended bar at New York City's famous Rainbow Room) has made mixing cosmos into something of an art form.

"The cocktail is an icon," said DeGroff, "and the vodka cocktail is the top of the pyramid of that icon."

And no vodka brand has made a bigger splash than the $30 a bottle super-premium brand Grey Goose. A Grey Goose commercial says it is "rated the best-tasting vodka in the world."

A little strange, given that the U.S. government's definition of vodka, said DeGroff, is: "Tasteless, odorless, colorless … You are buying the bottle. You're buying the sexiness. You're buying the whole package."

The Taste Test

Which brings us back to our little experiment. Can people really tell the difference in taste between the expensive and cheaper vodkas? Our blind vodka taste tests were conducted by Eben Klemm, the director of cocktail development for B.R. Guest, a chain of upscale restaurants.

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