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The Serious Eats Guide to Vodka

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Vodka. Associated with Appletinis and overly sweet versions of the Cosmo, vodka has a bad rep with booze snobs like me. "It has no flavor," we say. "It has no character," we say. All that may arguably be true, but it overlooks the sales behemoth that vodka has become. In 2010, Absolut alone sold nearly five million cases in the United States. In contrast, Irish whiskey as an entire product category sold just over one million cases.

Additionally, the last few years have seen a growing number of small distilleries making and selling vodka, usually with some sort of unique twist to help them carve out a product niche. Square One, for example, is all organic. Tuthilltown's Spirit of the Hudson Vodka is made entirely from apples grown in the Hudson Valley and has a subtle crisp-apple flavor. Karlsson's Gold, from Sweden, is made from new potatoes.

Vodka doesn't excite my palate much, it's true, but it's still the largest selling liquor in the world, and it provides opportunities for creative and innovative distilling.

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Vodka bottling machine, Shatskaya Vodka distillery, Shatsk, Ryazan Oblast, Russia. [Photograph: Wikimedia Commons]

Vodka: A Definition

Vodka, simply enough, is a distillate made primarily of water and ethanol. Distillers start with fermented grains, potatoes, or fruit; run that two, three, or more times through a large column (or continuous) still; filter the results; water it down to bottling proof; and bottle it.

Or, well, sometimes that's all true. A little-known secret about the vodka industry is that many of the brands on the market today are not produced by the owner or marketer of the brand name. Many, possibly most, vodkas today are made by large ethanol producers and then sold to brand owners, who package it in fancy bottles and surround it in glitzy marketing.

While we're on the subject of secrets, here's one about flavored vodka: many such products are not actually flavored with the ingredient that the label implies. For example, an orange-flavored vodka might not contain any actual orange flavor at all; the oranginess of the vodka comes from chemicals designed to mimic orange flavors. Even the phrase "natural flavor" on a label means nothing; it's legal to use that phrase even if the flavoring agents are simply made of molecules you might find in nature. If this is an issue that concerns you, do some research. It's easy to find vodkas such as Charbay that use only truly natural sources for their flavorings.

In the European Union (EU), vodka must be bottled at a minimum of 37.5% alcohol by volume. In the U.S., that number is 40%.

Vodka History

The word vodka is a diminutive of the Russian voda, or water. The letter k is what makes the word diminutive, changing its meaning to "little water."

Vodka's history is lost to time; few historical materials of its origins survive to today. Some scholars trace it to 9th century Russia; some to 8th century Poland. The first documentation we have of a vodka distillery dates to 1174 in the Russian city of Khylnovsk.

Earliest vodkas were only fermented, not distilled, tasted unlike the modern version and were used as medicine. Vodka became a distilled product at some point in the late 1300s, but the processes were primitive by today's standards, producing a rough, low-alcohol distillate, which needed to be redistilled again and again to reach a high proof. Vodka finally became an industrial product in the early 1800s.

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The "vodka belt" countries of Northern, Central and Eastern Europe are the historic home of vodka, and also have the highest vodka consumption in the world. [Photograph: Wikimedia Commons]

Raw Ingredients: Customs and Controversies

Contrary to what you may hear, most vodka is not, today, made from potatoes; grain vodka—more specifically, corn-based vodka—makes up the bulk of the industry. Other grains commonly used include sorghum, rye, and wheat. Other ingredients are sometimes used to make vodka, however, including potatoes, grapes, apples, sugar beets, and even molasses.

Within Europe, EU member nations are currently skirmishing over the definition of vodka. Members of the so-called vodka belt—Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, the Nordic States, and the Baltic States—argue that vodka by law should contain only grains, potatoes, or sugar-beet molasses. Other nations want a broader definition that includes grapes and other fruit.

This dispute could affect U.S. vodka producers, some of which—such as New York's Tuthilltown and California's Hangar One—make fruit-based vodkas. If the Vodka Belt nations get their way, these U.S. products would be illegal for sale as vodka in the EU.

Distillation

By U.S. law, vodka is a neutral spirit, distilled at or above 190 proof (95% alcohol by volume). Vodka is an unaged spirit, so after it's distilled, it's usually filtered, before being diluted with water to its bottling proof and bottled.

Distilling vodka to such a high proof strips out most of the character of the grains or other raw ingredients used in the vodka. Some manufacturers use careful distillation methods to preserve a bit of the flavors and aromas of the source material—for example, some rye-based vodkas carry a hint of rye flavor. Many manufacturers, though, strive to make their products as neutral as possible.

Filtration

Most vodka produced for consumption in the United States is filtered before bottling, through activated charcoal. Filtering can be used to improve a cheaply made vodka by removing some of the impurities that produce off flavors. But it also can strip out some of the chemicals that add flavor and richness to vodka, thereby making an already neutral spirit even more neutral.

Some of the more traditional Vodka Belt producers choose not to filter their vodkas, leaving in some of the natural flavors that contribute character to the liquor.

Cocktails and Quaffing

The cocktail world is full of recipes that call for vodka, from sticky Appletinis to such classics as the Cosmo and the Vesper.

For my purposes, though, the best way to drink vodka is the way the Russians and Poles do: chill it down very cold, probably in the freezer, and sip it alongside yummy small bites of food. A well-crafted vodka will show its character this way, whether it's lush and creamy like Karlsson's Gold, or crisp and tasting of rye like Sobieski.

So, what's your favorite way to drink vodka?

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