When we think of vodka in America, we think of two quite different things. The first is that it’s the national drink of Russia.
The second, of course, is our own native tradition of college kids pouring vodka by the bottle into cauldrons of increasingly vile punch like thirsty witch doctors. But it may surprise you to learn that the purpose of drinking vodka isn’t just to get hammered with a guy named Cory, or to overthrow the Czar.
Approached with mindful intent, vodka is a liquor to explore with as much variation and history as whiskey or tequila. While it’s commonly misconstrued as “tasteless,” a good vodka’s flavors are simply more subtle and nuanced than we might expect.
Read on for a few tips on where to get started.
Vodka is one of the oldest distilled beverages in the world, with popular origins around the 14th century. Originally a spirit made from grapes, then grains, early names for it include “little water,” “bread wine,” or, rather dramatically, “the water of life.” It rapidly replaced honey mead as the drink of choice in Poland, Russia and Sweden, all of whom now claim to have invented it first and we’re definitely not going to take a side on that one.
Vodka is a neutral, or “rectified” spirit, meaning in its early stages it’s both colorless and tasteless. In this way it’s much like gin.
Indeed, the only real difference between the two is that gin is distilled with junipers and other botanicals for flavoring, whereas a classic vodka aims for purity and clarity. But both became popular in Europe around the same time, with early tinctures being used by medicine men and women. Some home remedies still use it today.
Of course, people quickly realized its real potential was treating the dreadful illness of... sobriety. Medieval peasants went fairly bananas for the stuff, selling it by the bucket as a kerosene swill. And hey, we’re not judging. We never had to be a medieval peasant. But soon after, the Czars began to control vodka’s production, not for the least because they could tax it. But even today, vodka remains the drink of choice of working-class Russians.
However, vodka took some time to take off in America, due to its associations as a foreign drink, perhaps even a communist one. But in the late 40’s, the Moscow Mule took off, and vodka slowly became associated with prestige cocktails.
This all led to James Bond ordering a vodka martini in the hit film Dr. No. By 1976, vodka surpassed whiskey as America’s best-selling spirit. It still is!
Vodka can be made by distilling almost anything with sugar, from apples to corn to potatoes to carrots to milk to wood. But it’s most often made from grains, which are first cooked with filtered water. The resulting “mash" is high in sugars, and is then fermented with yeast, a process which takes about three days. The resulting alcoholic “wash” is separated from the yeast and heated in a container called a “still.” Because alcohol boils at a different temperature from water it can be separated from the water and collected. That is all “distillation” is.
Vodka is usually distilled at least three times. Generally, the more vodka is distilled, the cleaner and smoother the taste. Once distilling is completed, the liquid is then typically filtered through charcoal and purified water is added.
Given vodka’s subtle taste, the type of water used is quite important. Vodkas which aim for a grain-focused flavor will only add water, though it might be distilled extra times. Others mix it up with sugars and sweeteners.
But in any case, it’s then ready to go! Vodka requires no aging.
Vodka has two main categories, traditional (or neutral) and flavored.
Traditional vodkas have no flavoring past the distillation process. That said, they’re not tasteless, though the variations can be subtle.
The terroir, or, the soil, topography and climate the grain or plants were grown in can create quite different flavors, much like wine.
Variations also depend on the distillation process. Purity, an award-winning brand, distills their vodka almost three dozen times. Belvedere, equally award-winning, does it just once, with its own trademark method.
That being said, the difference in these types of vodkas may be more akin to texture than to taste. One might be buttery and silky, the next clear and crisp.
A few sub-categories include:
Wheat Vodkas are ubiquitous, and familiar brands include Ketel One, Absolut, Stolichnaya, Skyy or Grey Goose. These vodkas usually aim for smoothness and clarity, but they depend on the quality and type of wheat. We like American Harvest, out of Idaho, which uses local red winter wheat for a touch of sweetness and a note of vanilla.
Potato Vodkas tend to have a slightly stronger taste. Take Chopin from Poland, Karlsson’s Gold from Sweden or Cold River from Maine. These vodka makers treat the potato as closely as winemakers treat the grape variety and vintage. Potatoes from different years can lead to different varieties in taste, with some experts seeking out obscure vintages. Interestingly, there are almost no Russian potato vodkas.
Corn Vodkas, like Tito’s or Smirnoff, are usually the most flavorless. The type of corn matters here too, but these are often used in cocktails, as they’re usually cheaper than the others.
Other Vodkas are, as we’ve mentioned, made from almost anything. Ciroc is distilled from Grapes, Harvest Spirits from apples, Comb Spirits from honey, Vermont Gold from maple trees and White Vodka from Whey.
Flavored Vodkas, on the other hand, can taste like anything at all. Because vodka is so easy to flavor, the sky’s the limit with esoteric flavors like bacon, salmon or cupcake. While these can be great fun sipped or in cocktails, just beware: you are entering hangover territory.
Some experts say good vodka can be enjoyed at room temperature. But most agree that you should store vodka in the freezer for three hours before enjoying. Start drinking it cold, then sip it as it warms up to room temperature. This will slowly bring out the flavors. Either way, avoid ice which will melt and change the taste.
Like other spirits, go for smell first. Remember, good vodka should not smell like alcohol. Try to pick out its unique notes.
A good vodka will have a grainy or creamy odor. Vodka is great with breads, potato dishes, salty dishes, fish, crackers and cheese.
Of course, vodka is also the cocktail drink of choice. While we could easily write a dozen articles about great cocktails, you can’t go wrong with a classic martini. Take 2.5 ounces of vodka and 1.5 ounces of dry vermouth. Shake with ice, stir and strain into a chilled martini glass with an olive… and talk like Sean Connery to your cat the rest of the evening.
As we’ve seen, vodka is a drink that’s easy to misunderstand, likely because we’ve all had bad experiences with cheap vodka. But a good vodka is quite satisfying on its own. The best way to learn about these subtle tastes and aromas is to experiment. Cheers!