You”ve probably seen the ads for the Pepsi challenge: Two out of three people prefer the taste of Pepsi in a blind taste test. (This makes sense to me, because Pepsi has way more sugar than Coke.) I thought it might be fun to have my own Pepsi challenge, with vodka.

Paul Wong
Katie Mulcrone

My friend Bert had a chemistry professor who challenged anyone in the class to buy a bottle of Stolichanaya vodka and a bottle of the cheap stuff and then do a detailed chemical analysis of each. The professor insisted there was no chemical difference between the two. One guy in the class took him up on it and lost the bet. There was no difference.

“Many people will argue that expensive vodka tastes better or smoother. However, vodka shouldn”t have a flavor to begin with ” The facts according to the martini book I got for my birthday. Well, there was nothing to do but try it out myself. The Popov challenge, if you will.

My lovely assistant and I headed down to the party store and bought a bottle of Stoli and a bottle of Popov. As the guy behind the counter checked our IDs he joked that he would have let it go if we were just buying the Stoli. Hmm. I guess Popov is the fuel of choice for underagers.

We wanted to be very scientific about our vodka challenge. My assistant mixed up two martinis and put a red cocktail skewer in the first and a blue one in the second. I tried the red. Hmm. I tried the blue. Not really sure. I drank some more and still couldn”t tell. One drink seemed sweeter but that could just mean more vermouth.

“Are you sure you mixed these exactly the same?”

He was sure. It came to the point where I had to make a decision. “I don”t know. The blue one I guess. It isn”t so harsh on my throat.”

I picked the Popov. Damn. I always suspected myself of bad taste. My assistant suggested that I try just the vodka rather than a martini and I suggested (somewhat indelicately) that he try just the vodka because I”d had quite enough to drink. I pulled the two bottles out of the freezer and poured him a shot of Stoli and a shot of Popov. “They definitely taste different. This one”s sweeter. I kind of like this one better.” At least he has bad taste too.

We needed to find someone with better taste. Luckily my housemate came home at that point. She didn”t want to drink but her boyfriend was up to the Popov challenge. He took a little sip of each. “This one”s Stoli and this one”s Popov.” He was right. “The Popov is a lot smoother but it”ll make you sick.”

So I guess it”s a good thing if it burns your throat more. Who knew? But what”s the difference, really? Expensive vodkas are filtered more. So if you drank, say, six shots of Popov one night and six shots of Stoli the next night you would theoretically be less hung over the second morning. I wasn”t willing to try this out. The other difference between the vodkas? Well, the Stoli comes in a nicer bottle. Popov comes in a state-of-the-art unbreakable plastic bottle.

Even though my assistant and I had failed the Popov challenge miserably, we decided we weren”t ready to give up yet.

Luckily, Jim came home just then and agreed to give it a shot. (Yes, that was on purpose.) My assistant slid two icy slugs of vodka across the coffee table. “This one tastes kind of oily.” Hmm. Jim liked the second one better: “It”s straight to the point.”

Before my assistant had a chance to reveal each vodka”s true identity I loudly insisted that I be given another chance. I tried some vodka from the first glass, then drank some Coke, then sampled the vodka from the second glass.

“I like the Coke the best. Coke wins the Popov challenge.” In the end, I picked the same glass Jim did. And we both picked the Popov. So, it looks like three out of four people in my house prefer Popov to Stoli. Ah, but I was the only one dumb enough to pick the Popov twice.

Katie Mulcrone”s column runs every other Monday. She can be reached via e-mail at kmulcron@umich.edu.

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