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

"20/20" puts vodka snobs to the test. Can they taste a difference in price?

ByABC News
February 6, 2009, 8:19 PM

May 24, 2007 — -- 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 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.