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Vodka

What is vodka?

Vodka is a clear spirit of high purity. It can be made from a wide range of raw materials, mostly grain is used. Vodka is often considered a tasteless, odorless spirit suitable only for mixing or inducing drunkenness. But there is a lot more to vodka than that. True, the U.S. government might define vodka as a clear neutral spirit of no discernable flavour or aroma, and many vodkas aspire to this standard. But even among these, there is a quite noticable variation in quality. Eastern-style vodkas have a lot more flavour, or "character."

Vodka is one of the commonly homemade spirits, although this practice is illegal in most countries.

Making vodka

The basic steps in vodka-making are:

Fermentation

Most vodka is made from cereals. Traditionally, rye was most used, and is still the main ingredient of most Polish vodkas. Wheat is the main cereal used in other countries. Other cereals such as oats and barley are also used.

Many people believe vodka is made only from potatoes; potatoes are used, but are often regarded as inferior raw materials. It is more difficult to make a good vodka from potatoes, but it can be done.

Other materials such as molasses are also used. Sounds like half-rum, half-vodka to me.

A wort is made from the grain or potatoes crushed up and heated to convert their starches into fermentable sugars. This is then fermented to produce what is known as a wash.

Distillation and rectification

The next step is to distill the wash to produce a high-proof spirit. Distillation is the process of obtaining a high-alcohol mixture from the wash, rectification is the process of removing undesirable components such as methanol from this distillate. This can be done with a simple pot still by discarding the first and last parts of the distillate produced; a modern continuous still can do this more efficiently. Higher purity and alcohol content can be obtained by multiple distillations; many vodkas are triple distilled, some even more.

Filtration and purification

The distillate is then filtered, usually through charcoal. Other materials, such as river sand, have been used in the past, but charcoal is superior. Sometimes coagulants are used to bind impurities so that they can be filtered out more readily. Smirnoff proudly proclaims that each drop of their vodka passes through seven tons of charcoal.

Dilution and bottling

The spirit after purification is at a very high proof, often 190 proof or so (95% alcohol). This is diluted, usually to about 80 proof (40% alcohol) for bottling. Obviously, the water that is used for this dilution must also be properly purified. Distilled water can be used, but it is cheaper to deionize and filter the water. This is also considered to produce a better flavoured vodka.

Other flavourings

Most vodka will be sold as plain vodka. Other vodka, however, is flavoured. There are many traditional Polish and Russian flavoured vodkas, and in recent years, many Western producers have released many flavoured vodkas, typically flavoured with citrus, pepper, or fruits.

Most vodka is unaged. A few varieties are aged in wooden barrels.

Drinking vodka - East vs West

Western vodka is traditionally drunk mixed. As far as Western drinking goes, vodka is a recent addition to the stable of beverages, only becoming popular in the '50s. See below for a few suggested mixes. In the traditional vodka-drinking countries, in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, however, it is usually drunk straight.

Often, the vodka is drunk well-chilled. Unless your freezer is exceptionally cold, you can keep a bottle of vodka in it, and it won't freeze. The vodka will become thick and syrupy. Drink it in small glasses. If you become a real fan of icy vodka, use small glasses with a stem so your hands don't warm the vodka up. Chill the glasses, too.

Vodka can also be drunk with meals or as an accompaniment to snacks. I prefer room-temperature vodka for this. Some nice snacks might be pickles, sausages, caviar, salted or pickled fish on rye bread. Vodka will go well with strong or greasy food that would overpower a lot of wines. Actually, I think that vodka goes well with most foods!

Origins of vodka

Vodka has a long history in Eastern Europe, with both Russia and Poland claiming the invention as their own. It was probably first produced in the fourteenth or fifteenth century, and from the sixteenth century onwards, vodka production has been subjected to taxation, official monopolies, licensing and so on. Vodka had become a big business.

The aristocracy was often allowed to distill their own vodka on their estates. Many of the traditional flavoured vodka recipes date back to these families. Cheaper vodka was made by commercial distillers, sometimes government owned, sometimes not. Slowly, vodka-making in Russia and Poland made its way into the modern age, suffering from bans, poor quality production, and power struggles between commercial and government distillers.But traditions of producing high-quality vodka were retained, and now we can enjoy the fruits.

In the rest of Europe, white spirits have a long history of production, with products such as schnapps and akvavit. Many of these are similar in style and intent to Eastern vodka. Vodka sold as vodka is much more recent, essentially an imported style from the East. With the modern popularity of western-style vodka, a lot of new vodka brands appeared in the 1960s and '70s.

Vodka was popularized in the U.S.A. Smirnoff in the '50s through astute marketing. What was once drunk mostly by East European immigrants become one of the mixers of choice. The popularity of vodka grew, and many new brands appeared in the U.S.A..

The new Western vodka-drinking culture was very different to the older North-East European tradition, and a different style of vodka supplied its materials. This is probably your exposure to vodka. You might wish to explore some of the richness and variety present in the world of vodka and seek out and try some of the many Polish brands available, or you might prefer to chase (or enjoy, if you've found it) the perfect cocktail.

Recipes

Black Russian

  • 2 parts vodka
  • 1 part Kahlua or other coffee liqueur
This is good with Stolichnaya or Finlandia. I've seen people put ice in it too, I feel this dilutes it too much. Some people even (gasp!) add Coke. Try it with the basics first.

Bloody Mary

  • vodka
  • tomato juice
  • dash of Worcestershire sauce
  • dash of lemon juice
  • dash of Tabasco sauce
  • celery stick
In goes the vodka, fill the glass with the tomato juice, add the sauces and juice, stir and serve with a celery stick.

Moscow Mule

  • vodka
  • ginger beer
  • lots of ice
  • mint
  • lemon juice
The original popularizer of vodka in the U.S.A.! Put plenty of ice in a tall glass. Add vodka and lemon juice. Top up with ginger beer. Serve with a straw and a sprig of mint.

Vodka Martini

  • 3 parts vodka
  • 1 part dry vermouth
  • green olive
The James Bond classic. Make this with well-chilled vodka and vermouth. For true Bond purity, shaken, not stirred. (Use a chilled shaker.)