The Vodka Guide

The Vodka Guide

Vodka is king. It has become one of the most versatile (and profitable) styles of liquor to date. It can be found in every bar across the planet and comes in more flavors than ice cream. However, on its best day Vodka is not what most people expect and because of its clarity most assume it is a tame spirit, therefore, easily conquered. However, they would be wrong and have the hangover to prove it. As with any spirit, wild misconceptions and silly tales have filtered into the general conscience to become fact. Hopefully by the end of this piece you’ll have a better understanding of the following:
  • What exactly is Vodka
  • Short History of Vodka
  • How Vodka is made
  • Alternatives to the brands you know
  • Classic Vodka cocktails

What Exactly is Vodka?

Vodka is basically a neutral spirit that is without a distinctive, scent, taste, or color – simple definition, isn’t it? Of course, certain additives are allowed and we discuss them in the How Vodka is Made section.
The Vodka Belt

The Vodka Belt

Vodka History

Where it all begins… and gets a little confusing.
Most people think that Vodka was born in the harsh Russian landscape and can only be made with potatoes. History (and the science of distillation) has provided some interesting answers that can help everyone get to the truth of the matter.  The word Vodka translates to ‘Little Water’ in both Russian and Polish (водка/ wódka). Not surprising since its origin is claimed by both countries. Documents dating back more than a thousand years in the Eastern European region known as the ‘Vodka Belt’ reference its creation, distillation and usage. Russia, Poland and some Scandinavian countries have their own versions of vodka but the common thread in all of this is its original usage. Healers and medicine men created  medicinal tinctures out of Vodka to treat the symptoms of various diseases. Gifted men (and women) of science (at the time) figured out antibacterial properties of Vodka. Some Russian historians claim that Vodka was first produced in a Moscow monastery during the start of the 15th century. Meanwhile, Sweden claims to have been making Vodka for a little over 800 years. The proof of ‘who made it first’ is a debate left to historians. The lesson we can take from this is – Necessity is the Mother of Invention but Mother Russia was not the sole birth place of Vodka.
Core Vodka

Core Vodka

How Vodka is Made

You arrive at Vodka by harvesting/milling fermentable substances such as grains (rye or wheat), potatoes or fruit. The milled product is then cooked along with fresh, filtered water. Subsequently, the mixture is then heated turning the starch product into sugar. The result becomes ‘mash’, which is fermented by yeast (in a fermentation tank) and transformed into alcohol by yeast. Just like with any spirit, yeast is required to ferment your product to produce alcohol (ethanol). This process will take about two to four days.
The fermented product is called the ‘wash’ – that has to be separated from the yeast and clarified or distilled in column stills. At this point in the process distilling can be repeated several times to refine your product. Vodka is distilled at least three times (as required by law in most countries), granted, the more you distill the higher the alcohol content will be. Keep in mind your product is becoming purer as you proceed. Once the distilling is completed, purified water is added to the distillate to attain the desired consistent alcohol percentage. Water is the only ‘additive’ introduced to achieve this effect, just like with Bourbon or Scotch. This fresh, unaged product has a lack of taste and color due to the multiple distillations and a clean improver (water).
Lastly, Vodka must be filtered through a natural substance like charcoal to remove any impurities. What you have at the end is a very basic Vodka. Depending of the brand and their standards various parts of this process are repeated to ensure the best product for the brand. Most European brands work towards preserving the base grain’s qualities while Western Vodka producers filter and distil with a flavor first focus. In the end, some Vodka manufacturers have been known to smooth out the rough (flavor) edges with infinitesimal amounts of sugar or glycerin.
The addition of anything (sugar, glycerin or citric acid) to the final product is not something to be glossed over or taken lightly. Ratios and respect to the Vodka making process have to be considered, maintained and tested. After the distilling and filtering processes adjustments have to be made to counter the some of the unacceptable qualities that arise from the charcoal filtering and bottling. Thankfully, The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) stepped in to regulate and review its use in the Vodka making process. ATF Ruling 97-1 sets the record straight in regards to how much citric acid can be added to Vodka to eliminate the aforementioned unfavorable elements. For more on this ruling and the exact amounts (parts per million PPM) of citric acid that can be used go here.

With all that you might ask ‘What does it taste like?’

Vodka Overviews

Vodka Overviews

Tasting Vodka is not hard, as long as you do it right. To truly taste it you have to forget what you know about tasting and start with your nose.

1. Start with your nose

Aroma is responsible for 80 percent of how we process flavor. The aroma of the Vodka is going to play a key factor in how you drink it – neat, on the rocks or in a cocktail.  So, tasting Vodka with your nose is the best way to get the full effect of the spirit. You’ll need a clean rocks glass and a bottle of your favorite (or most accessible) unflavored brand. Experts and liquor enthusiasts will tell you to store your Vodka in the freezer – Three hours prior to serving is the best rule of thumb.
Start by pouring two ounces of Vodka into a glass. Bring the glass to your nose, open your mouth and slowly inhale through your nose. If you get hit with a pungent aroma of alcohol then you’ve encountered a poorly crafted Vodka that wasn’t distilled properly. Despite what people say, a well made Vodka will have light, medium and heavy nasal notes.  At this point you will pick up the glass and gently swirl the Vodka around. Following the previous steps (bringing your nose to the glass, open your mouth and slowly inhale through your nose) will put you on track to pick out the medium notes.

2. Taste the Vodka

At this point you can actually taste the Vodka, take a sip and let it wash over your tongue. You might encounter a cloying texture followed by a sweet or salty finish depending on the brand.  Adding a drop of water to it will bring out any hidden notes. This will help you to dispelling the notion that Vodka doesn’t have a taste or smell.
Absolut Vodka

Absolut Vodka

Vodka Brands

Absolut

This “premium” brand of  Vodka is distilled exclusively from hard winter wheat grown in the rich soil of Southern Sweden. To date it has produced more flavored Vodkas than most brands, with no plans on stopping. As premium brands go, it is recognized worldwide. Absolut wrote the book on marketing and advertising Vodka to the masses. The Absolut ad campaign from the late 1980’s was a cross generational juggernaut that won awards in art, marketing and brand management.  Marketing plans aside, the other thing Absolut had was a well made product in a market full of short cut takers and bottom shelf vodkas.

Absolut defined itself by being ‘crisp’ while lesser brands were too harsh to sip and nearly impossible to enjoy straight. Absolut’s taste profile presents a buttery mouth feel with unmistakable grain notes and a non aggressive after taste. The ‘non aggressor’ is a subtle sweetness not found in other Vodkas. It’s a by-product of a process that has a singular goal- Making Absolut the standard by all others are judged. You can find Absolut basically anywhere across the globe.
American Harvest Vodka

American Harvest Vodka

Absolut Alternative: American Harvest

With that said an excellent substitute to Absolut is a Vodka made in the United States called American Harvest. It is the latest invention of Sidney Frank, who create the well known Grey Goose vodka, which was sold to the Baccardi group a few years ago. Once the non-compete clause expired, he embarked on the American Harvest ventures, so don’t be surprised if the aesthetics look vaguely familiar.  Like Absolut, American Harvest is distilled from hard red winter wheat (The same grain used is Maker’s Mark and Woodford Reserve Bourbon) . The difference is geography and the scale of production – every aspect of production happens on U.S. soil (hence the name) and uses water from deep beneath the Snake River Plain. American Harvest is made at the American Harvest Distillery in Idaho (a USDA Certified Organic site) to ensure that all the steps involved in making it are above standard. Its main ingredient is grown and not chemically created. All of the wheat used is pesticide and herbicide free. They spend their time and money on making a first-rate product while holding on to the best ideas in Vodka making. The profile on American Harvest is clean, sweet pleasantly mouth filling with a touch of grain on the finish. Is it better than Absolut? That’s for you to decide. A 750ml bottle of American Harvest is priced at around $23-24 (about the same as a bottle of Absolut.)

5 Premium Wheat Vodkas to should try

Absolut from Sweden at 80 proof.
American Harvest from America at 80 proof.
Death’s Door from America at 80 proof.
Ketel One from Holland at 80 proof.
Grey Goose from France at 80 proof.
The Wheat Vodka Cocktail:
No matter your choice (Absolut or American Harvest) this cocktail will bring you to a better understanding of the Vodka martini. This cocktail requires a minimal amount of bartending skill and with some practice you can start making them for the Vodka lover in your life.

The Basic Vodka Martini

2 1/2 ounces Wheat based Vodka (Absolut or American Harvest)
1/2 ounce dry Vermouth
Combine ingredients in a cocktail glass, add ice and stir for 45 seconds. Strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with an olive.

1 Potato. 2 Potato.

If a winter whipped wheat Vodka is not for you then drinking a potato based Vodka might be a logical alternative. Potato Vodkas have the highest degree of drinker recognition.  Among the numerous potato based Vodka brands there are two that that truly stand out – Chopin Vodka from Poland and Karlsson’s Gold Vodka from Sweden.  Each brand uses potatoes as their base to create a superior product.
Chopin Vodkas - Wheat, Potato, Rye

Chopin Vodkas – Wheat, Potato, Rye

While Chopin uses 50 metric tons of one singular variety of potato Karlsson’s uses seven different varieties of Virgin New Potatoes. Karlsson’s Gold realized that each potato species contributes subtle nuances that can enhance the product’s final flavor – it is a multi tiered tuber symphony of vodka excellence conducted by a team of maestros from the field of Vodka. The names Peter Ekelund, Borje Karlsson and Hans Brindfors may not ring a bell with Vodka drinkers but they are all alumni from the brand everyone knows… Absolut. Mr. Ekelund created a Don Draper worthy, blitzkrieg of color, ad puns and style that caused an advertising shift change on a tectonic level. Mr. Karlsson a Master Blender is nicknamed the  ‘Father’ of Absolut.  Mr. Brindfors is one half of the team that designed THE most iconic Vodka bottle ever. Three men plus seven different types of potatoes equals a product that truly represents the potato.
Karlsson's Gold Vodka, Vintage 2008, 2009

Karlsson’s Gold Vodka, Vintage 2008, 2009

While Chopin produces two other types of award winning Vodkas (Rye & Wheat), Karlsson’s focus is directed at making a remarkable vodka by exploiting the particular flavor notes from each species of potato as the years go by. As good as Chopin is, their process doesn’t respect the diversity of the tuber. Karlsson’s process treats potatoes the same way wine makers treat grapes, noting the aspects of each variety and the vintage. Karlsson’s Gold distributes vintage Vodka based on the potatoes grown and harvested for a certain year. Master Blender Karlsson identified something most larger Vodka makers missed; the same variety of potato from different years can produce distinguishing tasting Vodkas. If you are so inclined to discover the tasting notes of vintage vodka you can purchase bottles from 2008 and 2009 in very select liquor stores across the U.S. or online here and there. In Europe you can find the Karlsson’s Gold here. On the other hand Chopin is more widely available at fine liquor stores.

4 Premium Potato Vodkas to try

Chopin from Poland at 80 proof.
Karlsson’s Gold from Sweden at 80 proof.
Cold River Vodka from America at 80 proof.
Skyy from America at 80 proof.

The Potato Vodka Cocktail

True cocktail enthusiasts would not call this a cocktail but it is the best way to experience the spirit.
2 ounces of potato Vodka (Chopin or Karlsson’s)
1 large cube of ice (from filtered water)
2 dashes of fresh Black pepper
In a chilled rocks glass.
Belvedere Vodka

Belvedere Vodka

Super Premium vs. Ultra Premium

In the race to be the best of the best there are a few stand outs and you will often find the terms Super Premium or Ultra Premium but just like the term bespoke there is no standard definition for the terns.In my opinion, there are only two such vodkas: Belvedere Vodka and Purity Vodka – These two industry powerhouses do three things right – Win awards, innovate and give the other Vodka makers night terrors. By the numbers, comparing the two is a kin to racing a Bugatti Veyron Super Sport against a Hennessey Venom GT (both with top speeds above 250 mph).

Purity Vodka

Purity Vodka

Purity Vodka is a force of nature when it comes to winner awards for the best tasting Vodka, bringing home the Grand Master Vodka award for 2013. Belvedere is no stranger to accolades, winning multiple gold medals from the 2013 Vodka Masters Championship. Each one raises the bar of excellence by distilling outside the box. Belvedere’s line of Vodkas cover the spectrum from flavored to experimental with an award winning Black Raspberry flavored Vodka and two unparallelled expressions – one unfiltered the other less diluted (highly concentrated).
While purity distills their product thirty-four times – A number unheard (and unmatched) in the industry, Belvedere uses a long forgotten Polish distilling process and Dankowskie Rye while only distilling their Vodka four times. Each one puts a special spin on harvesting, distilling and marketing to stay ahead of the other. Each of these premium brands applies Tesla like thinking to every aspect of Vodka creation, it allows them to stay ahead of the pack and deliver the best product to its clients. Both are available for under $40 in the U.S. such as here and here.

The Premium Vodka cocktail

The Moscow Mule – Created after the World War II by John Martin to promote Smirnoff Vodka, it was served in copper mugs engraved with two mules kicking up their heels.
1 1/2 ounces of premium Vodka
1/2/ ounce fresh lime juice
4 1/2 ounces of fresh ginger beer
Combine Vodka, ginger beer and lime juice in a glass, add ice and stir.
Unusual Vodkas

Unusual Vodkas

Outside the Box Vodkas

Not all Vodkas are created equal. While most producers use the nearest starch (Rye, Wheat, Potato or even corn like Prairie Vodka) there are some who employ ‘outside the still’ thinking when it comes to crafting Vodka. Ciroc is distilled from grapes while Harvest Spirits (based in Valatie, New York) uses apples to make Core Vodka. Taking things one step further is Comb Spirits (Port Chester, New York) with a Honey based (NOT flavored) Vodka named Comb Vodka. The team at Anchor Distilling produces a Vodka distilled from two types of hops (normally reserved for beer making) called HopHead. Last and by no means least, is Vermont Spirits. They’ve developed two distinctive Vodkas – Vermont Gold, made from the sap of Maple trees and Vermont White Vodka distilled from Whey. What’s Whey? Whey is the natural sugar found in cow’s milk. Each one of these Vodkas has a unique flavor and scent profile that should be experienced by not only the first time Vodka drink but long time fans as well.

Vodka – A Drink for Gentlemen?

Vodka has been the drink of choice for gentlemen since the invention of the cocktail shaker. Its curt taste, hidden intensity and cocktail mix-ability has made it the spirit of choice for anyone who wants to add class to their glass. There is a reason why the movie version of James Bond drinks a Vodka Martini (shaken, not stirred) and not a Manhattan. The images of Whisky, Bourbon or Rye are usually accompanied by that of a jug with three ‘X’s on it and not something a world traveler like Bond would imbibe. Vodka is an spirit with Old World origins and Old World class. Fleming’s Bond represented all the characteristics of a clear spirit (Gin or Vodka) – concealed intensity, an unparalleled ability to blend in and a true talent for being underestimated by everyone. Ian Fleming’s Bond in Casino Royale (the book) orders and creates a Gin based cocktail unlike the Hollywood Bond who just orders a Vodka martini. It wasn’t until the most recent Bond reboot did we see the original Bond cocktail recipe played out on the screen.
The Vesper Martini

The Vesper Martini

The Bond Martini Circa 1953

3 measures of  Gordon’s  Gin
1 measure Vodka
1/2 Lillet
Add ingredients to a cocktail shaker full of ice. Shake vigorously. Pour contents into a martini glass, garnished with a thinly sliced lemon peel.
If you notice the ratios, you’ll discover that Bond’s cocktail is NOT a Vodka martini but a twist on the classic Gin martini. In the Vesper Martini Vodka is used as a ‘lengthener’ – an ingredient used to extend the potency of the cocktail while enhancing the flavor profile. With the addition of Vodka the Gin‘s sting is softened and Lillet’s citrus under tones are allowed to shine through. No matter what you think Vodka is and can do, it still has the ability to surprise and enlighten.
Just like Bond’s drink, most of the Vodka cocktails consumed today have elite origins. Franklin D. Roosevelt helped to make The Dirty Vodka (and Gin) Martinis a household cocktail. In the 1970’s, Smirnoff’s original CEO John Martin put the Moscow Mule on the map with the help of his friend Jack Morgan. Morgan’s Cock -‘n- Bull restaurant was the place to be for Hollywood’s best and brightest and the only place to get a Copper mug filled with Martin’s original cocktail. The Cosmopolitan  (created by Miami bartender Cheryl Cooke) didn’t gain popularity until New York cocktail icons Dale DeGroff (The Rainbow Room) and Toby Cecchini (Odeon) started serving them to the movers and shakers in NYC during the 1980’s. Each one of these cocktails shows Vodka as a historical spirit with signature style all its own.

Conclusion

To put it in a nutshell, Vodka is the hand tailored bespoke suit of the spirits industry. It will never fall out of fashion and can be worn (mixed) with just about anything. Martinis and Cosmopolitans are cocktails that a gentleman can order with confidence, allowing him to rise above the chatter and conformity of the common drinker.
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The Vodka Guide
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Learn all about Vodka, from its Russian - Polish History, the wheat & potato ingredients & small batch brands that produce top quality vodkas.
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