Monday, 18 June 2007

Guinea Pig

Day three of my new job involved another tour of the plant and a visit to the tasting room. I confirmed that yes indeed there are paid employees who's job is to check the quality of each day's output of spirits - and that involves actually drinking vodka. You may well say that of course there is somebody who's job it is to taste the vodka, but until I met such a person in the flesh, I had feared that perhaps the job was done by a Taste-o-tronic 3000 or something. Hiding my excitement and asking how somebody gets such a post, I was disappointed to discover that the tasters were all highly qualified chemists. Why did nobody take the tame to explain this to me in school?

The taste test is just one check on the quality, and there are a whole series of much less exciting tests done with laboratory equipment that probably take some of the joy out of the job. In Mongolia, as with Russia, there is a considerable problem of counterfeit spirits being sold, particularly in smaller retailers and in the countryside. After putting my stamp of approval on the day's regular and premium product, I was invited to have a taste of some of the bootleg vodkas. I am fairly certain that the regular testers do not bother with passing these through any taste test, particularly when one look at the cloudy contents confirms that it certainly ain't the real thing. More likely they just time how many minutes it takes to dissolve an inch of steel. However, in me they had a daring and needless to say moronic volunteer, quite curious to take a small sip "just to see."

As a small child, I once asked a friend's dad who was siphoning petrol out of his car , what petrol tasted like? He held the end of the tube to me and said "See for yourself." I found out, and I also learned not to ask stupid questions. Well actually, I didn't at all learn not to ask stupid questions, but I did discover the somewhat humbling knowledge that there is such a thing.

The first vodka, which upon being held to the light had quite large, yellowy sediment quite easily visible swirling around in it, tasted and smelled of water. The second vodka, which had a finer sediment, tasted of, well, petrol. I'm not entirely sure how I benefited in learning this, except to acquire a rather chronic 24 hour stomach bug. I did learn that the visual test is one of the most valuable tests for counterfeit spirits, as it is very rare for counterfeiters to employ particularly high standards of filtration: real vodka should be entirely clear, without bits, especially big yellowy bits. For anyone to whom that is new information, I am very happy that my experiment has been of service.