Vodka is a (mostly) clear beverage rectified from any alcohol of agricultural origin, with the most common raw materials being relatively high in starch or sugar; for example grain, potatoes or molasses. The spirit is distilled up to around 96% ABV before being diluted with water to bottling strength, generally between 35% and 50% ABV. It is often flavoured, and is one of the world’s most popular spirits.
The origin of vodka is famously disputed between Russia and Poland. Both countries can cite written references to the spirit as early as the 15th century, and both have the same etymological claim; ‘vodka’ and ‘wódka’ are the diminutive forms of ‘voda’ and ‘woda’ respectively, the latter two both meaning ‘water’, thus the former two ‘little water’. It is thought that vodka was initially for medicinal use, for rubbing on the body rather than consumption (the Polish distinguished between ‘wódka’, originally designating a spirit for this purpose, and ‘gorzalka’, which was for drinking). By the mid 16th century production of vodka intended for drinking in both countries was reaching significant levels; the Russians had imposed a monopoly and were producing enough to export; and in Poland King Jan Olbrecht had passed a law allowing the people to distil spirits, which were being taxed by the end of the century.
Despite a long heritage in Russia and Eastern Europe, vodka was a relative latecomer to America and the West, whereas gin, rum, brandy and whisky where all well established by the time Smirnoff vodka made its quiet entrance during the 30s. It passed virtually unnoticed for another two decades, but the efforts of John Martin of Heublein, who bought the rights to Smirnoff in 1939, would set vodka on the path to the popularity it enjoys today. By promoting vodka’s mixability, with cocktails such as the Moscow Mule and Bloody Mary; by giving it the image of ‘white whisky’; and by recommending it as an alternative to gin in classic cocktails; Martin created a market which ultimately turned vodka into a truly international spirit.
Vodka may legally be produced from any ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin. The raw ingredients used are most frequently wheat, rye, potato, corn, barley and molasses. Which of these is chosen depends largely on yield, heritage and availability; historically, people would ferment and distil what was grown locally. Flavour also plays an important role: although vodka is generally rectified to a very high degree, removing most of the characteristics of the base material, there are still differences between vodkas made from the various ingredients, in both taste and mouthfeel.
Rye is the most common raw material in Poland, and also finds its way into some Russian vodkas. It tends to produce vodka with a nose reminiscent of rye bread, and has a pleasing sweet spiciness on the palate.
Wheat is the most popular grain for vodka in general, and is the grain of choice in Russia. Wheat vodkas are frequently associated with a clean flavour and an aniseed finish, sometimes with an oily mouthfeel.
It is easy to imagine a spirit made from potatoes being an inferior product, whereas in truth potato vodkas tend to be more expensive than their grain counterparts. The potatoes used for vodka production have a much higher level of starch than ordinary potatoes, yet the yield is still much lower than any of the other common raw materials, which drives the production costs up. Potato vodkas tend to have a creamy flavour and texture, with a weighty mouthfeel. They are generally a speciality of Poland, though they can be found in other countries.
Corn has the largest yield of the grains and is generally only used in western vodkas. It is associated with buttery, sweetcorn flavours.
Barley is the least common of the grains used in vodka, and is usually associated with Finland. It tends to have a smooth, slightly sweet flavour.
Molasses tends to be used in cheaper vodkas, though this depends on the cost of grain. A vodka made from molasses must now state this on the label (in fact, any vodka not made from grain or potatoes must state its raw material on the label).
Some modern vodkas are made from a mixture of materials. These are generally known as ‘multigrain’. Others are made using more distinctive ingredients, such as grapes, sorghum or quinoa.
The initial stage of vodka production is very similar to whisky, or beer. The raw material is processed to extract the sugars; it is then fermented to give an alcoholic wash which is then ready to be distilled. All vodka is distilled in a column still (although there are some distillers who will then dilute the resultant spirit and redistill it through a pot still to give character) to a level of around 96% ABV, almost pure ethyl alcohol. This spirit is usually then filtered in one of a number of methods. The most common of these is to use activated charcoal, which strips out any remaining congeners and impurities, creating a very pure, neutral spirit. Most ‘Western’ style vodkas are looking to produce just such a spirit, though the ‘Eastern’ style is to retain some character and flavour – this is done by either rectifying to a lower percentage, or occasionally by blending some unrectified spirit back in. The vodka will then be diluted to bottling strength. As around 60% of a vodka is water, brands frequently make much of the purity of the water they use. In truth, all but a handful of producers use demineralised water.
Flavoured vodka is hardly new: vodka’s earliest incarnation was as a rough spirit whose taste was then masked with various local additives, such as the berries and herbs of Poland’s Tatra mountains. Russia and especially Poland have hundreds of old recipes for flavoured styles, for example Jarzebiak (rowan berry), Krupnik (wild honey and spices), Wisniowka (wild cherry) and Okhotnichaya (where ginger, tormentil, black and red pepper and various other spices are redistilled with vodka and then blended with a fortified white wine).
One of the better known vodkas, Zubrowka, gets its flavour from a specific type of grass, hierochloe odorata, from the Bialowieza forest. Better known as ‘Bison Grass’, it is high in an ester called coumarin, which gives it notes of dried lavender, flowers, hay and herbs.
Production of flavoured vodka can take many forms. The simplest method is straightforward maceration, in which the ingredients are steeped in the vodka at room temperature until their flavours have been fully extracted. Equally, an extract of natural flavourings can be blended into vodka: this extract can either be produced by maceration or more commonly through steaming the ingredients and condensing to get pure, natural, essence, similar to the techniques used in perfume production. A few specialty vodkas use redistillation.
At the geographical heart of vodka production and consumption are a number of cold climate Eastern European and Scandanavian countries. Producing over 70% of Europe’s vodka, these include Finland, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Greenland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. These traditional vodka producing countries insist that only spirits produced from grains and potato should be entitled to the name vodka.
Due to the relaxed definition of vodka, many countries produce their own style of vodka from a variety of agricultural products. United Kingdom, The Netherlands, and Germany predominantly use grain. Some producers in the winemaking regions of France and Italy use grapes. The USA and Canada produce vodkas from various grains, such as corn, and molasses; by law, their vodka should be neutral, i.e. without taste or odour. The Caribbean and Australia produce molasses based vodka. Asia, too, has a selection of local vodkas.
Vodka can be split into two general categories: clear vodka and flavoured vodka.
Clear vodka is usually thought of as falling into one of two sub-categories: ‘Eastern’ vodkas, which have flavour, and ‘Western’ vodkas, which are neutral. Although clearly originally to do with the provenance of a vodka the terms ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ are now generally understood to describe the styles; many modern Eastern-style vodkas are now being produced in England, America and other Western countries.
Flavoured vodka is blended or infused with various essences, some traditional, others less so. Some old styles of vodka may be aged for a time.
In Eastern Europe and Scandinavia it is traditional to drink vodka neat in a short measure, usually chilled. In these countries it is often served as an accompaniment to foods such as caviar and smoked fish. In the west, vodka is used mainly as an incredibly versatile mixer, lending itself to an extensive range of cocktails and mixed drinks with a variety of juices and mixers.