"National Vodka Day" is officially celebrated on October 4th. Even though it is considered to be just 'alcoholic water', there is much to learn about it.
Vodka is the most widely used spirit in today's mixed drinks and cocktails accounting for 60% of all drinks. It is essential to every home bar and public bar because it's mixable quality. Because of the diversity among vodka drinkers, it is paramount to carry multiple brands from cheap/well vodka, call vodka, premium vodka, and ultra-premium vodka (boutique vodka). It's popularity comes from the general characteristic that it has no discernible or distinct flavor or smell and is mostly clear, so it allows the other ingredients of a drink to be the focal point. There are thousands and thousands of vodka cocktails and those like the Cosmopolitan (flavored vodka), Kamikaze, Vodka Tonic, Cape Cod, Screwdriver, Baybreeze, and Vodka Martini are some of the most popular.
The vodka market today is constantly expanding and there are hundreds of brands available, including the big names like Absolut, Smirnoff, Grey Goose, and Ketel One, and more recently, Tito's (gluten-free) and Russian Standard (the most popular vodka brand right now). There are also many small distilleries that create interesting small-batch, boutique vodkas and organic vodkas, like Prairie Organic, Square One, and Woody Creek (potato) and many of these use experimental ingredients and methods. It is difficult to categorize all vodkas because every vodka is produced differently and, unlike other liquors, there are no set regulationsor aging to govern this category. Below is a generalization of what to expect in vodka.
How Vodka is Made?
Vodka is often called a neutral grain spirit because the standard method for making it is by fermenting and distilling grain, which could be corn, rye, wheat, multi-grain or any other grain. Potato vodka has long been a popular product of Poland and other potato growing regions, such as Idaho and Colorado (Woody Creek) in the United States. Other rare bases for vodka include beets and grapes (Ciroc).
Vodka is a rectified spirit, meaning that it is often distilled at least three times, though some are distilled five or more times. It has become common practice for a vodka brand to broadcast that their vodka has been distilled "x" number of times under the assumption that the more times it is distilled, the cleaner and smoother it is. Generally, but not all cases, this is because as the vodka takes each trip through the still and the heads and tails (the more impure parts of the distillate on the top and bottom of a finished batch) are removed, the vodka does become cleaner with fewer congeners. In many cases this is just a marketing ploy by vodka companies to promote their brand.
After distillation, vodka is then filtered, often through charcoal. Vodka requires no aging and is ready to drink right away, though it is cut from still strength to a bottling proof, which is typically 80 proof/40% alcohol by volume.
Vodka's neutral taste also relies on one other factor that is very important and that is water. You will see many brands bragging about using clean, mountain spring water or some other ultra-clean source to create a smooth vodka. This factor cannot be discounted and is very important to the distillation and bottling process.
How Does Vodka Taste?
Since vodka has no distinct taste, a stylistic difference in the different brands is their texture on the tongue, or mouth feel. Two brands that represent the two prominent styles are Absolut and Stolichnaya. Absolut has an oily, silky sweet texture, while Stolichnaya is clean and watery with an almost medicinal finish. Today's vodka market goes beyond these older characteristics and it is difficult to label vodkas into a few simple categories.
It should also be pointed out that vodka is not necessarily all tasteless or odorless and there are distinct differences between vodkas. The flavor of vodka is subtle, often like a clear grain, and if you taste enough of a variety you will begin to pick up on the differences. I liken it to the difference in taste between tap water and bottled water. If you pay attention to it, you can easily tell when you drink unfiltered water.
The heat of a vodka is another term you may hear. This is the burn that is revealed on the tongue or back of the throat when you drink vodka straight and this is often another way of deducing how clean or smooth a vodka is.
Heat is often determined by the care a distiller has put into creating a clean vodka using the methods described above, and the number of distillations and filtering method is often going to determine a vodka's heat. Less expensive brands tend to burn in the mouth and throat, while premium brands tend to be more smooth and subtle.
Vodka now comes in almost any flavor that you can imagine, from the favorites like citrus and berry to chocolate or caramel, and ones that simulate the taste of a variety of desserts and candies. There are even more obscure flavors like salmon, bacon, hemp, and even tobacco. The flavored vodka scene has exploded in recent years and if you can think of a flavor, it is probably available somewhere.
Some flavored vodkas are produced using the traditional infusion method of steeping the ingredients (e.g. fresh fruits and herbs) in a vodka. Many vodkas, however, simply add flavoring ingredients like extracts to the vodka.
Another option for flavored vodkas is to do your own infusion. Beginning with a clear vodka and using fresh fruits, herbs, and spices, you can easily create your own flavor combinations that are fun to use in a variety of cocktails. Check out some of my vodka infusions on the cocktail menu page.
There are many vodka brands available and, while the list is seemingly endless and ever changing there are a few generalizations that can be made when choosing a vodka.
- Cheap vodka will taste cheap. Vodka is one of the liquors where price usually reflects quality and the cheaper the vodka, the more harsh it will be. If you're mixing drinks with a lot of fruit and other heavy flavors, most of the impurities of a cheap vodka will probably be masked. However, if you go up one price increment, you are likely to find the quality improves significantly.
- Top-shelf means higher quality. Next time you are at the liquor store, pay attention to the placement of vodkas to determine their quality. It is standard practice that the cheaper vodkas are on the bottom shelves (often those $5 liters of gut-wrenching liquor) and the more expensive vodkas (top-shelf) are higher up. If you're looking for a good, mid-range vodka that is great in a variety of cocktails and may be good straight and chilled, scan the shelves at eye level.
- 5x Distilled. If a vodka has made multiple trips through the still, the brand will likely tell you very clearly on the label because, as stated above, it can be used as a measure of quality and purity. It is true that the more times vodka is distilled, the smoother it can be, but that is not always the case. All of the other factors - grain, water, filtering, etc. - will also play a factor in quality and sometimes the 5x Distilled is simply a marketing ploy.
- Origin. Russia has long been known for its great vodkas, as has Poland and both countries continue to produce some great vodkas. That said, though they did once dominate the market, there are now great vodkas being produced all over the world and, while it's nice to know where your vodka came from, it is no longer as big of a factor in quality as it once was.
- Look for the unknown brands. There will always be the big brand names in vodka, but you will find hidden gems if you explore some of the lesser known labels. Some of the smoothest vodkas are distilled by some of the smallest distillers who take great pride in their craft and these boutique vodkas can really change your view of this liquor as a whole. That said, it is a rough business and unfortunately many of these brands do not stay around for long. If you find a great boutique vodka you enjoy, support them and tell them (almost everyone can be found online and via social media).
- Have a variety in stock. If you enjoy vodka, you may want to have a few of your favorite bottles in stock at all times. Find your favorite budget-friendly brands to mix into a Bloody Mary, Sex on the Beach, and other heavily flavored cocktails. Then, choose your favorite top-shelf vodka to keep on hand for Vodka Martinis, other light drinks, and for sipping straight (chilled or on the rocks is best for vodka).
- Vodka is subjective. As with all liquor, everyone is not going to like the same brands and this is very true for vodka. You can read all of the reviews available, ask everyone you know, and you will end up with too many different opinions to distinguish which is the best. Use these opinions as a guide, but I encourage everyone to experiment on their own because everyone's tastes are different and what I may find pleasing, you may not, and, after all, you're the one drinking it, right?
Check out Tony Abou-Ganim's outstanding book " Vodka Distilled": The Modern Mixologist on Vodka and Vodka Cocktail - Buy it here Vodka Distilled
Up next...Best Brands/Value Vodka, including my personal favorites, & Great Vodka Cocktails