By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Feb 03, 2010 at 10:02 AM

"Bar Month" at OnMilwaukee.com is back for another round! The whole month of February, we're serving up intoxicatingly fun articles on bars and clubs -- including guides, the latest trends, rapid bar reviews and more. Grab a designated driver and dive in!

I'm not a vodka connoisseur and the half-empty, inexpensive bottle that's been sitting untouched in my liquor cabinet for a long time will attest to that.

I like vodka just fine, but I rarely crave it and if there are differences in taste among clear vodkas, then, clearly, I'm not paying enough attention. Vodka is one of the world's most popular spirits, so I may be the exception among those who imbibe.

But I'm always intrigued by vodka marketing. I have been since the time -- about a dozen years ago -- when I met the author of a business book about the marketing of vodka. We were at a dinner in some Chicago restaurant high above the city, and he told me that companies have managed to convince Americans that vodkas actually taste different enough to encourage brand loyalty. Since then, there's been an explosion of premium vodkas.

This guy was a business and marketing expert, not a vodka guru, so I wondered if it really true that clear vodkas basically all taste alike? That is, assuming they're distilled from the same product. After all, vodka can be distilled from fermented potatoes or wheat or rye or other grains.

But it contains only ethyl alcohol and water, right? So, how can vodka taste different? Well, certainly there are traces of the potato or the wheat in the final product, so it's easy to see why there would be differences.

In his 2004 article on the subject for Slate.com, Alex Abramovich admitted that the flavor differences are due to source material for the vodka.

"In fact, all vodkas are not alike," he wrote. "Vodka can be distilled in a good many ways, from a great many substances, including wheat, rye, beets, corn, potatoes, and sugar cane. As a result, each brand has a distinct smell, flavor, aftertaste, and burn."

But, you can't really compare a potato-based vodka and a rye-based one. They're two different distillates.

Recently, I asked a veteran bartender in Milwaukee what he thought about it and he just shrugged his shoulders and gave a smile. Ever the diplomat, it seemed clear that he thought the marketers had won.

Another barkeep with a lot of years behind the wood, Dave Mikolajek, says he has a favorite.

"I like Skyy because it's made with less impurities than other leading vodkas. But to be honest, Gordon's, Fleischmann's or Burnett's are just fine if you're mixing with any type of juice.
But still, I pour more Kettle One than any other vodka for one reason or another; maybe because its handcrafted in small batches."

Then I asked Doug MacKenzie, who does the distilling at Great Lakes Distillery in Walker's Point. He said that there are actual differences among clear vodkas -- due to the distillation process -- but that marketers also play a role in how we think about the final product.

"Although vodkas distilled from the same base would share similar characteristics, most of the final flavor will come from how it's distilled," says MacKenzie. "The goal with vodka is to get pure ethanol. During fermentation many other alcohols are produced -- acetone, methanol, fusel oils, etc. Mass produced vodkas -- even premiums -- will leave a lot of these impurities in because of volume. This is what makes these vodkas harsh and unpleasant and 'flavorful.'

"By law, a certain amount of citric acid and / or glycerin may be added to the product to smooth it out. This will affect the flavor, as well. All rail and a large number of premiums contain these additives. Marketers have tried to fool the public into thinking that the more times a vodka is distilled, the more pure it will be. Now they've gone to quantifying filtering, as well."

MacKenzie says that "flavorful" is not a compliment when talking vodka. So, it ought to be neutral?

"Yes," he says. "But by cutting out the bad alcohols, you allow the flavor of the base ingredient to come through a little more. The government says that vodka is supposed to be odorless and tasteless, but all you have to do is taste a rye vs. wheat vs. potato vs. grape and you'll see there's a difference."

What do you think? Do you have a favorite vodka? What do you like about it? Do they all taste the same to you? Let me know using the Talkback feature below.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.