Water, ethanol, and trace amounts of flavour doesn’t sound like the recipe for one of the world’s most beloved spirits, and yet those are the simple ingredients of Vodka. Although the spirit was an oddity outside Europe until the mid 1900′s, once vodka hit US shores, its popularity rose steadily and sharply until, in 1975, sales of vodka in the States overtook the sales of bourbon, America’s “native” liquor.
Vodka originated in either southwestern Russia or Poland between the 14th and 16th centuries. Distilled from common grain or potatoes, Vodka’s production equipment has been modernized over the years, but the basic process has remained rather consistent. One can argue that the principal advancement during the past 700 years of vodka making has been to add a broader range and heavier twist of flavours to the otherwise neutral spirit.
Distilling the Secrets of Great Vodka
Most contemporary vodka is distilled from wheat, sorghum or rye, even though virtually any plant could be pressed into service. Soy, grapes, potatoes, molasses, rice, corn and beets have and, sometimes, still do fuel the distillation of vodka- especially sugar beets.
No matter the source, for vodka to be permitted to use the label it must be at least 37.5% alcohol by volume; most tip the scales at about 40%, but some rise a few percent higher. Almost all of the remainder of the bottle is water. Beyond ethanol and water, there isn’t much to a clear spirit.
Vodka distillers keep the still running until the spirit is nearly pure alcohol, and then add water. The taste of the water added can provide subtle, yet singular flavor to the spirit.
During distillation as well as after, vodka produced in many parts of Europe and the US is heavily filtered to remove impurities that can affect its taste prior to an infusion of flavor additives. Traditional vodka producers, however, are more comfortable with the natural results of distillation; they prefer to skip filtration and preserve the byproducts of the distillation, and tailor their flavoring, if any, around what the process creates.
Clear Vodka versus Flavored Vodka
Given so few ingredients, it is no surprise that Vodka can complement virtually any other mixed drink ingredient. Vodka, strictly speaking, is all but completely neutral. During recent decades, we have seen countless flavored vodkas come to the US market, perhaps most notably the extensive line of flavored vodkas from Absolut. The stunning range of flavor additives, however, is a reminder that the clear spirit itself lacks flavor.
Around the world, wherever vodka is popular, local recipes infuse neutral vodka with a wide range of flavors. Some flavors are reserved for special occasions rooted in local traditions. Often the goal is to add a touch of sweetness to the spirit, so we see citrus, honey, apple, watermelon, cherry and blackcurrant. Chocolate and vanilla are also popular flavors for vodka, along with cinnamon. Flowers or herbs fill out the buffet of common additives but, for the adventurous, and those who don’t keep kosher, bacon vodka hit the shelves a few years back.
Most consider bacon vodka too odd for straight sipping, but devotees claim it makes a heck of a Bloody Mary.