Monday 15 October 2012

Oval Vodka

Many people will claim that all vodka tastes the same to them, which explains why so many brands essentially look to marketing and packaging to differentiate themselves. The process of making vodka doesn’t give you too much to play with either, although brands will take what opportunities they can to brag about the number of distillations, the filtration method (with an assumption that platinum filtration must surely be better than gold or silver filtration, right?) and the purity of the water they use to dilute. (I gather that modern alcohols are actually so pure that carbon filtration, which may use things like platinum as a catalyst, is actually mainly there to impart flavour, because our conception of what vodka should taste like developed during the era when filtration was necessary to fish out unpleasant or dangerous impurities.*)

Now along comes Oval vodka, a wheat-based product made in Austria that claims to use a whole new process, known as “structuring”. All booze is a mixture of water and alcohol and this technique—which they assure us is entirely “natural”—is said to “bond” water and alcohol molecules together, to produce a smoother taste and reduce the diuretic effect: in short you’ll have less of a hangover. From the website: “The idea of structuring alcohol-water solutions is based on a simple but important fact: the tongue reacts more positively to substances naturally present in the human body—in this case, water—than to foreign substances—in this case, alcohol.” The process of structuring, invented by Russian scientist Valery Sorokin, somehow arranges the vodka so that each alcohol molecule is completely surrounded by water molecules, so that your tongue detects it “as a natural saliva-like substance”. This research took Professor Sorokin some ten years. The, perhaps surprising, decision to locate the distillery making this revolutionary stuff in Austria, rather than Russia, is apparently to do with the purity of the local water** and the logistical benefits of being in the middle of Europe in a place with a decent infrastructure. (Oval aren’t giving too much away about the structuring process itself; I’ve tried searching for Professor Sorokin online but he keeps a pretty low profile, as all references to him are in the context Oval vodka, nor are Oval revealing of exactly which institution he is a “professor”, but they do say he made his discoveries in 2000 in Moscow.)

Given the desire to make the product as smooth as possible it’s interesting that the basic expression is bottled at a higher-than-average 42% (and looking online there seems to be a 56% version too, though that may only be available on the Continent). Even more intriguing is Oval Lite, bottled at just 24%. You might think it would be easier just to add a bit of water yourself—but of course you wouldn’t be able to do it in a “structured” way. The preferred way to drink Oval is neat at room temperature, which shows how confident they are in its essential character.

This stuff retails for a hefty £40+, so unsurprisingly it is packaged in a fancy bottle, essentially tetrahedral in shape, with each facet being an oval. (The tetrahedron is apparently a reference to the molecular shape of the structuring, I was told at the Boutique Bar Show by Danny Hoskins of Smart Drinks UK.) The metal cap is edgily asymmetrical and is weighty in the hand. On the website you will see a version of the bottle covered in rhinestones or Swarovski crystals, resembling Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull. There’s no explanation as to what this is, but it gives you an idea of the sort of self-consciously high-end, conspicuously-consuming consumer that are hoping to attract.

So what does structured vodka taste like? In order to get a handle on its particular character, I lined up some other products to compare it with, my benchmark everyday vodkas Russian Standard and Green Mark, plus Absolut, Bootlegger (a bit pointless, perhaps, as it is not available in this country, but I happened to have it on the shelf) and Adnams Longshore.

Oval has a soft toffee/caramel nose (though not nearly as pronounced as in the Longshore) with a little fruit and a clean medicinal note; quite balanced. It has an unctuous mouthfeel, though is not as dramatically smooth as I was expecting: there is also a spike of pencil-lead and coffee and an aftertaste of blueberries. And you’re definitely aware that you are drinking alcohol—there is plenty of fire from that 42% ABV. And there is a sweetness, as vodkas go, and a little of what I can only describe as a sort of “cellulose” character, like the taste of paper, that I found to be characteristic of Bootlegger too, and which I might have assumed was something to do with corn (of which Bootlegger is made), but clearly isn’t.

By comparison Russian Standard is big and bouncy with an expansive vegetable nose with notes of sour apples and a peppery, tongue-tingling palate; Green Mark actually seems smoother to me than Oval, with a dry, poised flavour that balances fruit and mineral notes. Longshore goes further down the route of characterfulness, with that arresting caramel nose carried on to the palate with hints of spice such as caraway. Absolut comes out of it badly, tasting flat, sour and very rough.

At the bar show Danny mentioned a perceived sweetness to Oval, and he’s right. After the Longshore, Oval’s toffee aroma seemed comparatively subdued, but it was strikingly sweeter on the tongue. Compared to the reserved character of Green Mark, Oval has a more forward berry fruit flavour.

I try swirling the vodkas with ice, more for a little dilution than cooling. Russian Standard’s veggy notes bloom, Green Mark becomes spicy and shows its dry stiffness. Oval, on the other hand, suddenly releases some citrus aromas and interesting fruit flavours. I then make vodka Gimlets with these three (2½ parts vodka, ¾ part Rose’s Lime Cordial): Russian Standard doesn’t come out of this too well, with its vegetable notes clashing with the sweet citrus. Oval shows more blueberry on the nose and I’m struck again by the sweetness and the papery element too. It’s all a bit too sweet for me; for my palate Green Mark makes the best Gimlet here, a perfect balance of fruit, dry minerality and the sweetness of the cordial.

In a Cosmopolitan (Dale De Groff proportions: 1½ vodka, 1 cranberry juice, ½ triple sec, ¼ lime juice) Oval again seems too sweet to me, unbalancing the drink in a confectionary direction—though some may like that. The same thing happens when you serve it with tonic.

Finally I try a vodka Martini, mixing four parts vodka with one part dry white vermouth. Here I would say that Oval comes into its own, because even at these (relatively wet, to some people) proportions this is a dry cocktail, and the sweetness of the vodka actually makes it quite an approachable drink, especially for those who tend to find the Dry Martini a bit too dry. By comparison Green Mark and Russian Standard make leaner, sterner Martinis.

I’m not really too keen to try and establish whether Oval is less likely to give you a hangover: to do this I would have to quaff a great deal of it in one sitting, and then quaff an identical quantity of another vodka the next night, and compare how I felt the next day in each case. But I’m afraid my remaining liver and brain cells are too precious for this sort of hardcore experimentation.

I haven’t yet been able to try Oval 56 or Oval 24 (Oval Lite in this country), but I would say that Oval 42 is nice enough, with a pleasant nose but a palate that is a bit too sweet for me. It will probably prove popular in nightclubs, where the bottle will look cool and hip denizens can comfortably sip it neat while convincing themselves that, because it’s Oval, they won’t have a hangover when they go to work the next morning…

* This information comes from Technofilter, who actually develop and manufacture vodka filtration systems.
** Mind you, when brands brag out their uniquely “pure” water source, it’s worth bearing in mind that Technofilter also point out that these days it is pretty easy to purify water to any degree you wish.


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