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Vodka 101

A Basic Introduction to Vodka

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Bottles of vodka lined up.

Vodka is a very popular liquor for cocktails.

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Vodka Tonic Cocktail

Vodka Tonic

Photo Courtesy: © Shannon Graham
Vodka Martini with a Lemon Twist

Vodka Martini with a Twist

Sheridan Stancliff / Stockbyte / Getty Images

Intro:

Vodka is the most popular distilled spirit found in cocktails and mixed drinks and is essential to every bar. Its popularity comes from the general characteristic that it has no discernible or distinct flavor or smell and is often clear, so it allows the other ingredients that it is mixed with to be the focal point. There are thousands of vodka cocktails, and those like the Vodka Tonic, Screwdriver, and Cosmopolitan are some of the most popular ones.

The vodka market today is constantly expanding and there are many brands available, including the big names like Absolut, Grey Goose, and Ketel One. There are also many small distilleries that create interesting small-batch vodkas and many of these use experimental ingredients and methods. It is difficult to categorize all vodkas into the following because each vodka uses different methods and ingredients, below is a generalization of what to expect in vodka.

Distillation:

Vodka is often called a neutral grain spirit because the standard method for making it is by fermenting and distilling grain, which could be corn, rye, wheat, or any other grain. Potato vodka has long been a popular product of vodka and other potato growing regions, such as Idaho in the United States, have begun to produce it as well. Other bases for vodka include beets and grapes.

Vodka is a rectified spirit, meaning that it is often distilled at least three times, though some are distilled five or more times. It has become common practice for a vodka to broadcast that their vodka has been distilled x number of times under the assumption that the more times it is distilled, the cleaner and smoother it is. Generally, this is the case because as the vodka takes each trip through the still and the heads and tails (the more impure parts of the distillate on the top and bottom of a finished batch) are removed, the vodka does become cleaner. That said, there are some multiple distilled vodkas that are not as clean as others with fewer distillations.

After distillation, vodka is then filtered, often through charcoal. Vodka requires no aging and is ready to drink right away, though it is cut from still strength to a bottling proof, which is typically 80 proof or 40% alcohol by volume.

Vodka's neutral taste also relies on one other factor that is very important and that is water. You will see many brands bragging about using clean, mountain spring water or some other ultra-clean source to create a smooth vodka. This factor cannot be discounted and is very important to the distillation and bottling process.

Taste:

Since vodka has no distinct taste, a stylistic difference in the different brands is their texture on the tongue, or mouth feel. Two brands that represent the two prominent styles are Absolut and Stolichnaya. Absolut has an oily, silky sweet texture, while Stolichnaya is clean and watery with an almost medicinal finish. That said, today's vodka market goes far beyond these older characteristics and it is difficult to pinpoint all vodkas into a few simple categories.

It should also be pointed out that vodka is not necessarily tasteless and there are distinct differences between vodkas. The flavor of vodka is subtle, often like a clear grain, and if you taste enough of a variety you will pick up on the differences. I liken it to the difference in taste between tap water and bottled water. If you pay attention to it, you can easily tell when you drink unfiltered water.

Heat:

The heat of a vodka is another term you may hear. This is the burn that is revealed on the tongue when you drink vodka straight and this is often another way of deducing how clean or smooth a vodka is. Heat is often determined by the care a distiller has put into creating a clean vodka using the methods described above, though the number of distillations and filtering is often going to determine a vodka's heat. Less expensive brands tend to burn in the mouth and throat, while premium brands tend to be more smooth and subtle.

Flavored Vodka:

Vodka now comes in almost any flavor you can imagine, from the favorites like citrus and berry to chocolate, ones that simulate the taste of a variety of desserts and candies, and even very obscure flavors like salmon, bacon, hemp, and even tobacco. The flavored vodka scene has exploded and if you think of a flavor, it is probably available somewhere.

Some flavored vodkas are produced using the infusion method of steeping the ingredients, such as real fruits and herbs, in finished vodka. Many vodkas, however, simply add flavoring ingredients like extracts to the vodka.

More About Vodka:

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