Vodka, the crystal clear spirit, is still a mystery to many people. Technically, it’s simply a distilled spirit that’s made from water and ethanol. Vodka is fermented, distilled and filtered, and can be made from pretty much anything that is able to go through that process and end up making alcohol.
This includes grains, grapes, sugar, fruits, corn, potatoes and even roots. The liquid is distilled to 90% or more alcohol by volume in order to remove all the potential smell and taste of whatever ingredients were used to produce it, before diluting the spirit to the much more palatable 40% alcohol.
Although it’s quite popular in the United States, vodka has been a staple in European countries like Russian, Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Poland and the Czech Republic for centuries now. Similar to gin, vodka is un-aged.
So what else is there to know about this ubiquitous spirit? Well, plenty:
Vodka’s name comes from “voda,” the Russian word for water. As above, vodka is distilled from a variety of grains and sometimes from potatoes, grapes or sugar.
Vodka also has varying textures. “The spirit is mostly tasteless and odorless, but has different textures in terms of mouth feel,” explains Gregory Westcott, Bar Manager at Hinoki & The Bird in Los Angeles.
Vodka is also an extremely versatile spirit, with many different uses. “From a functional standpoint, vodka is one of the most versatile and adaptable spirits that can be applied to the preferences of the wide range of customer’s palettes,” says Joseph Quintela, bartender at Salinas in New York City.
Since vodka can be made from seemingly anything, this is what separates it from Calvados (French apple brandy) and Cachaça (made from sugarcane).
“Vodka is supposed to strive for a sense of neutrality,” says Clark Jackowe, the cocktail and beverage consultant for Merchants Hospitality. “Of course, not all vodkas are created equal, and that’s a good thing.”
There is actually quite a bit of nuance out there, especially in the vodkas made by small, craft distillers who have a real sense of artistry and an ethos of quality.
Gin is also a clear spirit, but it is very different from vodka in terms of production and taste. Gin is a distilled spirit usually made from grains with botanicals (including juniper) added through filtration and by other means.
Vodka is made by fermenting any food that contains sugar or starch, then distilling it to increase its alcohol content.
“The fermentation feeds the sugar to yeast so that the yeast can produce alcohol,” says Adrian Grossman, Head Bartender at Social Drink & Food in New York City.
The first step in the process is to consider the ingredient to distill, be it pineapples or potatoes, radishes or rye. “The next step is to access the sugars from the starches in the base ingredient, the objective being to convert those sugars into alcohol by eventually allowing them to ferment,” says Jackowe.
Distillation follows fermentation, and depending how “pure” or “clean” a vodka you’re striving for, this can be done any number of times. Finally, water is added to the final distillate and filtered for balance and drinkability.
Vodka has been around since the Middle Ages. “It’s forged itself in the identities of cultures like Russia and Poland,” says Westcott.
Considering how well known vodka is, there is very little official historical material to explain its genesis.
“For many centuries, beverages differed significantly compared to the vodka of today, as the spirit at that time had a different flavor, color and smell, and was originally used as medicine,” says Carlos Ruiz, Director of Spirits and Mixology at Crystal Springs in New Jersey.
“It contained little alcohol – an estimated maximum of about 14% – as only this amount can be attained by natural fermentation,” he adds.
Going way back to the Middle Ages and beyond, there’s evidence that vodka came in several iterations for various uses, from a medicinal restorative to a topical curative and everything in between.
“Russia is where the popularity of vodka took off and it became a serious potable force, often distilled there using different aromatics and locally available ingredients,” says Jackowe.
However, the standardization of Russian vodka as we know it today only came about in the late 19th century, when the state took control of all major distilleries.
Poland is the country which claims the first distilled vodka. “But it was a distillation of wine, which made it more of a brandy,” explains Grossman.
The history of vodka, of course, begins in Eastern Europe. However, the first initial import to the U.S. occurred in the 1930s.
“The rise in popularity coincided with the release of the 1960s James Bond movie starring Sean Connery, who famously asked for his martini to be shaken, not stirred— a request that still baffles bartenders, as it results in a bruised beverage rather than a cold one,” says Quintela.
The ’80s further popularized vodka with bar standard drinks like Cosmopolitans, and in the last 20 years the spirit has transitioned from the terrain of major brands to boutique and celebrity-driven bottling.
Of late, the American drinking palate has undoubtedly shown a renewed interest in progressive flavors, including for various types of vodka.
“Ironically, the mass-produced and artificially flavored vodkas which became popular in the ’90s probably played a role in the rebirth of flavor in the craft spirit industry,” says Jackowe.
Of course, vodka is still wildly popular today in all of its manifestations. “Thankfully, though, there are artisans producing vodkas that are truly distinctive and worthy of note without resorting to chemical additives,” he adds.
For obvious reasons, people drink differently in the summer than they do in the winter. “I’m certainly less inclined to order a Belgian Brune or London Porter in July than I am in February,” says Jackowe. “The same is true for cocktails and spirits.”
By and large, vodka is prized for its levity, versatility and refreshment. In this sense, it lends itself to the summer season ideally.
Vodka is light and crisp, which is refreshing during the long days of summer. “There are some amazing summer fruits that can shine in your summer cocktail without losing the nuances of a more spirit-forward flavor,” says Westcott.
“Vodka is the perfect base spirit when trying to highlight complex flavors of a cocktail without diluting the flavors with a more robust liquor,” says Westcott.
Aging (whiskey) and additives (like juniper berries in gin) impart their own personality and flavor into a cocktail, so you can maintain neutrality with vodka.
As previously mentioned, not all vodkas are created equal, though. “Because vodkas have so many derivations and qualities, it’s good to consider their individual characters before haphazardly mixing away,” says Jackowe. “Is the vodka creamier and fuller? Perhaps this will be well suited for a Vesper. Is it lighter and fruitier? This might be a superior choice for tonic and lime.”
“I’ve even blended different vodkas in the same cocktail, using one for its herbaceous qualities, and the other to add fortitude to balance sweetness,” he adds. “It all depends what you’re striving to achieve. Vodka is like a sponge: it molds with anything you put in it because is usually tasteless and odorless so it is very versatile for bartenders.”
Vodka is typically used in taking advantage of its neutrality, but a strong bartender can leverage the nuances of vodka into more single-spirit driven cocktail formulations.
Since it’s so adaptable, bartenders are also able to experiment with different flavor combinations when using vodka as a base.
“Many vodkas lend themselves to infusion, as well as to marriage with other more assertive flavors,” says Jakowe. “In this sense, it’s easy to create cocktails with vodka that have interesting personalities.”
The Moscow Mule (ginger beer, vodka and lime juice) is by far one of the most requested cocktails by bartenders.
Other popular vodka cocktails include the Harvey Wallbanger (vodka, Galliano and orange juice), vodka martini, Screwdriver, vodka tonic, Cosmopolitan, White Russian and the classic brunch staple, the Bloody Mary.
There’s pretty much no end to the uses for this versatile and neutral spirit, so get involved.