Vodka: The full story of this neutral, cocktail-ready spirit

Martini, anyone?

Sean Ludford is a regular contributor to TaylorEason.com. He is a veteran spirits educator and publishes at BevX.com. Check out Sean’s bio here.

I’m not exactly sure what it says about our culture when vodka is not only the country’s largest selling spirit but also it’s most fashionable. Undoubtedly, vodka is terrifically versatile as well as the key component of many popular and classic cocktails. Without the Bloody Mary at Sunday brunch we all may just opt for an extended sleep-in. Vodka is an essential component to any bar (big or small). In Poland, Russia, and the Baltic States, vodka is nothing short of a religion. Conversely, when I see vodkas housed in ridiculous bottles with names to match selling for sums greater than those asked for 12-year-old Single Malt Scotch, VSOP Cognac, and great small batch bourbons, I get dizzy. “Boutique” vodka is this generation’s pet rock; a “sipper” is born every minute.

The word vodka is Russian for “little water” following in the fine European tradition of naming white spirits for water (Eau de Vie and Aquavit for example). It is hard to put a finger on the actual origins of vodka, since neutral, grain based, un-aged spirits were made in much of the civilized world. However, much evidence points to Poland as the birthplace of vodka. It is believed that distillation was brought to Poland by monks from Ireland or Italy. Soon distillation spread to Russia, the Baltic States, and Scandinavia. Early examples of vodka were not the clear and odorless spirits we know today. The first vodkas were most often infused with herbs, spices, and nuts (for both the purpose of flavor and to mask harsh alcohols). So much for the notion of flavored vodka being a contemporary twist. Vodka as we know it was not produced until the 1800s when distilling technology advanced to the level that re-distillation was practical and higher proofs were possible.

Vodka was not always America’s darling spirit. In the dark years of Prohibition, vodka was easily made in backrooms and cellars to satisfy thirsty Speakeasy patrons. After repeal, vodka was negatively associated with the shoddy homemade hooch that drinkers endured behind closed shutters. In 1937, Heublein president John Martin was nearly run out of town when he purchased the Smirnoff vodka license. The gamble paid-off as post WWII America embraced vodka and more importantly vodka-based cocktails that could easily be made at home. Smirnoff began distilling in the UK, Canada, Australia, and eventually the brand went back to Moscow to produce an up-market pot still vodka.

Today, vodka is wildly popular, particularly in the US and the UK where casual and resolute tavern goers alike guzzle the clear spirit with an unbridled fervor. In America, vodka encompasses 20% of the total distilled spirit market. Smirnoff is the second largest spirits brand worldwide coming in close on the heals of Bacardi and sells nearly twice as much as Absolute, the second biggest selling vodka. It’s difficult to characterize vodka’s current popularity as a “fad” since it’s such an integral staple in a bar. However, it is fair to say that many of the vodka brands created in past few years are lacking in the longevity department. Ultimately, this is OK, as something new will certainly take their place. Market-driven Darwinism is good.

What Goes in to Vodka?
I’m often struck by the fact that many consumers erroneously believe that vodka is made exclusively from potatoes, In fact, vodka can be created from nearly every grain or even molasses as is the case for the super value brands (that means cheap). Popular materials include wheat, rye, millet, oats, barley, and corn. Potatoes, the high starch varieties like those grown near the Vistula River on the Baltic Coast, produce vodkas with a rich, creamy texture. Beyond the starchy crops used to produce vodka, we must consider the water. Water is an important component of any spirit. Further than the stirring ads containing pictures of mountain streams, ancient springs, or polar icebergs water plays a practical role in the production of vodka. Water rich with minerals can favorably influence the mash (when the grains are cooked in order to extract their natural sugars) and pure water is necessary to dilute the spirit prior to filtration. Speaking of filtration, vodka is more reliant on filtration methods and procedures than any other spirit. Simply put, filtration works as a wood aging alternative softening vodka’s rough edges. The most common method of filtration involves passing the spirit through activated charcoal (birch or alder are the preferred woods).

What to Look for in Vodka
Vodka by design is destined to be neutral (that’s technical for flavorless). However, today it’s often consumed straight, or with little enhancement, as Americans now believe that vodka, rather than gin, is the base of a true Martini. This development begs for vodka that is clean and pure with great texture, and subtle flavors presumably provided by the base ingredient.

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