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Five Lies You’ve Been Told About Vodka

Is shaken better than stirred? What flavor is vodka, anyway? Let’s find out the truth.

The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: Vodka! Does the stuff from a fancy bottle taste the best? Where’s it actually from? And how does it affect the social life of the zebrafish, goddamn it? Let’s explore some vodka myths, facts and trivia.

Lie #1: A Vodka Martini, Shaken Not Stirred, Is a Classy Drink

Everyone thinks they’re James Bond when they wear a tuxedo. Even if the tuxedo doesn’t fit you and you have a three-foot beard and a neck tattoo of a monkey jerking off, as soon as it goes on you’re a suave secret agent, busting out your best Connery, like “Ah, Mish Moneypenny” and “Shaken, not shtirred.”

There is endless debate about whether shaking or stirring is better for the drink, and you’ll frequently hear someone saying, as they push their glasses up their nose, that actually, shaking bruises the alcohol, actually. The West Wing’s Jed Bartlett insists shaking leads to an excessively diluted drink, saying, “James is ordering a weak martini and being snooty about it.”

However, in Bond creator Ian Fleming’s day, vodka was mainly made from potatoes, rather than the grain it’s mostly made from now. This made for a slightly oily vodka, something shaking apparently did a lot to dissipate (a paper published in the British Medical Journal also found that shaken martinis led to a more pronounced antioxidant effect, an extremely minor health benefit). In this day and age, though, a stirred one will likely be a far better drink.

But that’s all irrelevant. The main thing is, a vodka martini is pretty much straight booze. It’s six parts vodka to one part vermouth. It’s basically a big glass of vodka. That’s not classy, it’s just the quickest way to get as fucked up as you possibly can. Drink it from the bottle and save all the fucking about.

(Ernest Hemingway and Winston Churchill, both fans of more traditional gin martinis, were even more booze-sodden. Hemingway went for a ratio of 15 to 1, while Churchill once declared that looking at the vermouth bottle was enough.)

For all his fancy talking and showing off, James Bond might as well be swilling from a paper bag on a street corner, the drunken bastard. That guy shouldn’t be driving a car.

Lie #2: “I Drink Vodka Because I Like the Flavor”

Vodka is designed to not taste of anything. According to the U.S. government’s Beverage Alcohol Manual, vodka is a “neutral spirit distilled or treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials so as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.” 

It tastes of booze. That’s what the flavor of vodka is: alcohol. In cocktails and mixed drinks, vodka absorbs the flavor of the other ingredients — a vodka and orange tastes like orange juice and booze and nothing else. The advertising campaign that popularized vodka in the U.S. used the slogan “no smell, no taste.” 

Depending on your outlook, there’s something pretty great about that: There’s no fucking around discussing peatiness, it’s just a liquid that takes you from being sober to being less sober. That’s awesome. But the thing you like isn’t a flavor, it’s the feeling of getting good and drunk.

Lie #3: Liking One Vodka Brand Over Another Is Silly

Given that we’ve established vodka is flavorless, opting for a particular one over another seems a bit arbitrary. The late Thomas J. Stanley, author of The Millionaire Next Door, The Millionaire Mind and Stop Acting Rich: And Start Living Like A Real Millionaire (bit of a theme to his work, this guy), thought it was particularly dumb. The rise of Grey Goose as an ostentatious symbol of wealth and dick-swinging emblem of excess disposable income in the early 2000s, for instance, was something he had a huge amount of scorn for. Paying five times what you would for another vodka that tastes the same is, says Stanley, the behavior of the wannabe-rich rather than the actual rich. 

He argues that millionaires stay rich by living within their means and knowing the value of their money, as demonstrated by, for instance, more millionaires driving Toyotas and wearing modestly-priced suits than living a flashy lifestyle. Dickholes spending shitloads on Grey Goose, he says, is a way of missing the point by emulating certain wealthy people’s behavior rather than the routes by which they got there. 

Sure, that all makes sense. Making a big deal about one brand of anything over another is a completely arbitrary bit of showing off, all the more so when it’s something you only really drink when you’re already shitfaced. But what about the sequestering of ethanol molecules by a hydrogen-bonded framework of water molecules, eh?

Scientists from the American Chemical Society found that, at a molecular level, the structure of different brands of vodka were in fact different. Clusters of water and ethanol molecules, known as hydrates, were found to be structured differently in one brand to the next, which might perceptibly affect how much someone enjoyed the vodka — one might feel more watery than another, for instance. It’s not taste, or flavor, but it’s enough for drinkers to like one over another without necessarily being able to pinpoint why. 

Of course, if a particular molecular structure really does it for you, it’s just as likely to be the cheap and cheerful store-brand bottle as it is the expensive but oh-so-hashtaggable brand, so the late Thomas J. Stanley is still right, and it’s all fairly silly, but still, MOLECULES.

Lie #4: It’s Russian

Vodka, as a drink, was probably invented in Poland around the 14th century. And if you’re drinking vodka, it’s probably the world’s most popular one, Smirnoff, which is British-owned and American-made. 

Smirnoff has had a pretty weird history. Pyotr Smirnov started out making vodka in Russia in 1864, and sold a hell of a lot of it, becoming one of Russia’s richest men and exclusive vodka supplier to the Tsar, while also a proponent of responsible drinking. However, after the October Revolution of 1917, Vladimir Smirnov (Pyotr’s son) had to flee Russia, as booze-selling capitalists were suddenly frowned upon. He was at one point sentenced to death by firing squad, but managed to make it to Constantinople (now Istanbul). He built a factory there, then moved to what is now Lviv, Ukraine but was then Lwow, Poland, and then Paris, Francicizing his name in the process and selling vodka under the name Smirnoff. 

In 1933, he sold the rights to make Smirnoff in the USA to Russian-American businessman Randolph Kunett, who in turn sold them in 1938 to John Martin, who was British. Martin’s company was later bought by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, which is American, in 1982, and that in turn was acquired in 1987 by Grand Metropolitan (now Diageo), which is British. 

All this time, Smirnoff was of course nowhere to be found in Russia, but after the Berlin Wall fell in 1990, it began its journey back there. Berlin was full of Russian soldiers with lots of cash, not much to do and an interest in buying American products. Levi’s, Marlboros and Smirnoff flew off shelves, and the next year, a deal was struck to import Smirnoff into Russia. When Boris Smirnov — great-great-grandson of Pyotr — started producing vodka under the original Smirnov name, Smirnoff sued him (it all eventually ended happily with a lot of money changing hands).

Lie #5: Mixing Vodka With Red Bull Will Fuck You up, Because of the Vodka and the Red Bull

You know what else will fuck you up? Knowing you’re drinking vodka and Red Bull, a drink famous for fucking people up. According to a 2017 paper in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, there’s a self-perpetuating element to it all. Two groups of people were given the same cocktail containing vodka, Red Bull and fruit juice, but one had the presence of Red Bull explicitly mentioned while the other didn’t. The group drinking the drink specified as containing Red Bull reported feeling “more intoxicated, daring and sexually self-confident” than the other. If you’re drinking something you know is gonna fuck you up, you’re gonna get fucked up.

And you really will. According to the Research Society on Alcoholism, mixing caffeine with booze increases the desire to drink more alcohol. A 2017 paper in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found a link between combining booze with energy drinks and an increased risk of injury, with the paper’s lead author suggesting, “Usually when you’re drinking alcohol, you get tired and you go home. Energy drinks mask that, so people may underestimate how intoxicated they are, end up staying out later, consume more alcohol and engage in risky behavior and more hazardous drinking practices.” A 2016 Purdue University study published in PLOS One found giving mice caffeine and alcohol mixed together led to the same kind of reaction you’d get giving them teeny-tiny mousy lines of cocaine. 

Mice? Vodka? Red Bull? Cocaine? Mice? Mice aren’t the only animals to have got trashed on vodka in the name of science. In a 2012 paper published in the journal Circulation, pigs were given either red wine, vodka or no booze at all every day for seven weeks to look at the effects of alcohol on the cardiovascular system. At the end of the study, the least healthy pigs were the teetotal ones. And in 2018, a Journal of Psychiatric Research paper concluded “taurine and ethanol display a temporal effect on zebrafish shoal cohesion” — i.e., if you put fish in your drink they behave weirdly and sometimes lose their friends. 

Science: it’s fun!

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