Vodka 101

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What is Vodka?

Vodka is now the number one selling spirit in the world. This is a relatively recent phenomenon particularly in the United States when vodka first surpassed bourbon in sales in 1975. It's popular for a couple of very good reasons:
  • It's relatively cheap to make. Since you can make it out of just about anything and just bottle it after blending it down with water - no aging or flavoring required - it's about the easiest thing to produce.
  • It's neutral tasting. That means it's ideal for making cocktails because it allows other ingredients - fruit juices, syrups, herbs, whatever - to shine.

Where does vodka come from?

There's a little bit of controversy around the origins of vodka. Anthony Dias Blue's The Complete Book of Spirits, offers a good history of Polish origins where wine was distilled by freezing it in the 1400s. Since water freezes at a higher temperature than alcohol, the purer alcohol was allowed to drip out the bottom of the frozen block of wine. This produced gorzalka, which the Poles proudly proclaim as the first vodka. This is, of course, the opposite of distillation. Meanwhile, the Russians were happily making zizennia voda or "water of life" which became the diminutive "vodka". This is the Russian equivalent of adding an "ie" on the end of "John" to make "Johnnie" or as Blue has it: "dear little vodka". They began truly distilling (heating the wine or grain mash so that the alcohol evaporates out) around 1430. They also standardized vodka through the efforts of Dmirtry Mendeleev and began charcoal filtration from Piotr Smirnov (later Smirnoff).

How is vodka made?

The funny thing about vodka, is the lack of rules around it. Most liquors are from a specific "base" - say sugar or agave or grain. Vodka can be made from absolutely anything under the sun that produces alcohol. The only catch is: you've gotta distill it up to 190 proof (95% pure alcohol) before it can be called vodka. Why does this matter? Take rum. Rum is made from sugar or molasses. If you distill it up to 150 proof, it's rum; 160 proof, it's rum; 189 proof, it's still rum; but get it up to 190 proof and it magically turns into vodka. Ditto grain (which goes from whiskey to vodka) and fruit (eau-de-vie to vodka). US vodkas can contain no additives outside of citric acid whereas European vodkas can add a certain percentage of "stuff" - this is good or bad depending upon your definitions of purity. But in general, the final product is "neutral" because it's been distilled to such a high proof: most of the characteristics from the base have been stripped out (and that's not the case with other spirits).

Who should drink vodka?

This is a "clear" or "white" spirit. For people just getting into cocktails, this is a great place to start because it's very, very approachable. It takes flavors, it's not intensely flavored by itself, and it's easy to find and enjoy at a high quality. Popular bases today are wheat (makes for the smoothest vodka); grape (big citrus notes); and potato (a creamy, somewhat bitter vodka).

Biggest vodka myth to bust...

Vodkas do not all taste the same. Line up some different bases and you'll be able to smell and taste the difference. Additionally, just like all water does not taste the same, so the water matters that blends down the vodka. Try lining up tap water against different brands of spring or bottled water. Taste the difference? Sure you do… and there are differences because of mineral content (and potentially chemicals). Vodka's the same way: it's blended down from 95% alcohol to 40% alcohol and that's a lot of water. Higher-end vodkas will use higher-end water and better filtration; you'll be able to taste the difference. That is, of course, until you immerse the vodka in orange juice, syrup, mint leaves, and lemon zest. The more you put into the vodka, the less the quality matters (just like water).

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