Vodka: Nothing But the Ethanol
Vodka is simply at it's core ethanol. Filtered, distilled, and cleansed of all impurities, but simply ethanol. If it is organic in origin it can be made into vodka, and it probably has been. Wood pulp, petroleum products, grapes, grains, beets, lettuce, fruits, grass, and animals have all been made into the product. Virtually unknown outside of eastern Europe until the 1950's, vodka has arrived on the scene and made a huge splash. It is now the second most popular liquor in the world (behind the obvious winner whiskey) and continues to gain market share every year. So what is this liquor, how do we use it, and what should we look for in an excellent bottle of vodka?
The Liquor: Vodka production and rules
Vodka is simply put: Ethanol and water. Doesn't matter where you get the ethanol, doesn't matter what water you use, doesn't matter if you want to put other flavorings in it. It doesn't matter how you distill it, how you filter it, how you bottle it, or how you age it. It is: Alcohol and water. So how can there be a huge price difference in the multiple vodka labels? Is there a taste difference? Well, these questions we will answer.
As stated before, vodka is nothing more then a liquor which has been distilled down to ethanol in its purest form, then typically filtered and water added back at the end. While the most common constituents of vodka liquor are still grains and rye as well as barley and corn, some very well known brands of the liquor are noted for distilling grapes, raw sugar and/or molasses. Of note, typically the higher value the liquor, the more it has been distilled and filtered. As a result of the distillation process, almost all impurities are converted. The simple truth is this, the more of the vodka has been distilled and filtered and the more pure the ethanol is, and using a higher purity of water will produce a better quality product. The less distilled it is, the less filtered, and the lower quality of water utilized will all result in an inferior product. I have experimented with multiple types of vodka over a long period of time and it's seems to my palate that a minimum of eight distillation runs or filtration runs and over results in an almost tasteless product. It seems to me that vodka even filtered up to 50 to 100 times doesn't result in any taste difference but certainly results in a large price difference.
There is a move in the Eastern European and Russian federation countries to standardize the production of vodka utilizing grains, starches, and potatoes, as well as sugar. But as the market throughout the world is immense for this particular product, it is unlikely that this push will succeed in branding the liquor itself as a constituent product of these areas. Typically, each country of origin has a standard way of making their vodka whether it be from potatoes, grains, or sugars. It is in practice however that there is very little difference after the requisite levels of filtration and distillation in the overall taste of these separate vodkas.
The Drinks: Vodka Cocktails
There are many different vodka drinks that are available. As vodka has absolutely no flavor of its own especially when mixed in other drinks, it is amenable to the greatest variety of sweeteners and modifiers of any other liquor. The only disadvantage to this is that there is no high note combination that would be present in other liquors such as gin, tequila, or rum. To start with, I will get it out of the way that I have a personal opinion that there is really no such thing as a true vodka martini. If one did exist it would be typically a vodka and a dry vermouth. The closest drink to that description that would be commonly recognized is a vesper martini using Lillet Blanc. As I am fond of saying: martinis have gin. That being said there are a great number of people who prefer the taste of a chilled vodka with some olive brine and perhaps other garnishes as a sipping drink. In fact this is a very common way to imbibe the beverage throughout Eastern Europe and Russia.
That being said, I would suggest that the majority of vodka drinks fall into the dominant categories of fruit based cocktails, highballs, and flavored drinks that really have no corollary with the other liquors. For instance a cranberry and vodka would be a Cape Cod, a grapefruit, cranberry and vodka would be a Sea Breeze, a vodka press basically gets its name from putting vodka in a glass and pressing the Sprite button which obviously makes it a highball, and the innumerable flavored vodkas added in as liquors make for a literal never ending combination of drinks.
The basic rule of thumb when designing a drink with vodka in it is that you won't taste the vodka. Typically you only taste the modifier or modifiers and sweeteners. It is for this reason that most people who initially try cocktails opt for vodka drinks as you really don't taste much in the way of the liquor's character, simply a small alcohol potency on the back end.
On flavored vodkas:
It seems that we have arrived at the soapbox portion of this particular article. In a great number of cases I have a strong predilection against flavored vodkas. There are certain vodkas that are very difficult to flavor utilizing the base ingredients such as crème de cacao, whipped cream and vanilla vodka, and certain crème liqueurs. However, the addition of a flavored vodka in literally every possible combination and colored in neon spectacle, will never produce a drink worthy of a high end mixologist. Why would you use raspberry vodka when you can use fresh raspberry syrup or indeed fresh raspberries alone. Why would you use a strawberry vodka for the same reason? Why would you use a lime or lemon vodka? Simply use the vodka and the fresh ingredient and this will allow you to produce a vastly superior product; absent of preservatives, in a custom ratio that allows you to mix an absolutely perfect drink. As I said, there are situations in which it is very difficult to infuse a crème vodka liquor with chocolate and then I would simply suggest obtaining the highest quality product available. While I will leave this topic for now, I have a feeling that I will beat this drum for quite awhile.
Quality Liquor: What to Look for in Vodka
So we know that vodka is mostly flavorless, colorless, and all around very bland, so what makes an excellent bottle of vodka? It depends on what you are looking for. From an aesthetic standpoint, just having a good looking bottle on the shelf does have it's merits. Crystal Skull Vodka is an excellent example. Sure it's 60 dollars, sure it's a run of the mill vodka that would be virtually indistinguishable from a 20 dollar bottle; but that bottle right? Nice clear glass skull, and excellent packaging distinguish this variety. If you want something that you aren't going to really use, but a good conversation piece: this is the vodka for you. For those of us who routinely send high quality cocktails, but don't enjoy charging 22 a drink, it's not the best value. What to use?
There is a spectrum of vodka. Typically, aesthetics and marketing aside, the more expensive the vodka, the more expensive the ingredients as well as the more filtration and distillation runs. Given that the base ingredients carry very little into the finished product, I usually ignore them. I have noted almost zero difference between potato, grains, grapes, and other base fermenters. This simply leaves distillation and filtration runs and the base water. As I have said previously, 6-8 runs appears to be the sweet spot for a flavorless canvas on which to paint your mix. More than that and there is little difference in the overall taste, less than that and there is a noticeable impurity back flavor. I would suggest that price may not actually correspond to taste. For instance: New Amsterdam is filtered appropriately and the water base is pure. To my palate, it is an excellent base vodka. Stoli, K One, Titos (although overpriced secondary to marketing in my opinion), and Cîroc all carry the same level of purity. New Am just happens to be the best price point. Smirnoff, Pinnacle, and Svedka all have a strange lingering taste to me and their price reflects that. Great for college toga party mixers with mio and soda, but not really for Vespers. Grey Goose is the one exception to this rule that I know of. I don't know the exact composition and I do know that it is filtered up to 12 times or more, but I do detect a difference between this vodka and the other mid ranges mentioned above. I suspect that there is an additional flavor placed back in at the end of the full process to give this difference, but I do not know. The general rule of thumb is to obtain the least expensive vodka that has the appropriate filtering for your taste. I have seen very little correlation between usability of high end vodka and mid range vodka.
I hope we have learned a bit about that second most popular base alcohol in the world. It is versatile, easily accessible, and has the most immediate appeal for people just getting into the mixology game. So get out there, and start mixing!
The relationship between a Russian and a bottle of Vodka is almost mystical.