Getting Started: The Simplicity and Elegance of Vodka

Getting Started: The Simplicity and Elegance of Vodka

Photo from suprabo2 at photobucket


You've seen the rappers getting jiggy with it... or the super models posing with it... or the smug French guys sneering over it... or recall Sarah Jessica Parker sipping it... and you think, Yeah, I need to become a part of that culture. So you take it into your head to buy a bottle of vodka but you don't know where to start. So you hop on the internet or go to the store and realize the awful truth: there are over a 1,000 vodkas out there!

And not just a thousand different kinds of vodka but vodkas with bottles shaped like diamonds and guns and vodkas with labels promising filtration through every mineral known to man in dizzying numbers and vodkas infused with fruit or herbs or caffeine or teas as well as vodkas from Russia and Poland and Sweden and even the United States... what is going on?

After all, vodkas aren't mutual funds that all have delicate little financial-genius formulae making one distinct from the other. A thousand vodkas isn't like a thousand episodes of The Simpsons each one categorically and fundamentally different from the rest. Each vodka is not a beautiful and unique snowflake nor each bottle a beautiful, shining example of God's miracle... are they?

"No way!" you say. After all, the whole category of vodka is defined as colorless, odorless, and tasteless. One can't possibly justify a 1,000 different labels of that, can they? You inevitably think to yourself, So, this is a total scam! A scam just like all the different bottled waters, right? There's no essential difference, right? What on earth could justify a thousand different vodkas?

And then you get a little upset and you say to yourself, Why would you want to drink this stuff anyway when it tastes like rubbing alcohol, sears your throat like flamethrowers of hate, and smells like gasoline?

If you're going to soldier on into this world, you now have a decision to make. You can:

  • Flail helplessly at the local liquor store reading mysterious vodka labels and start shelling out scores of dollars for different bottles and try to like it... all this while risking sneers and jeers from the rappers and the supermodels and the Frenchmen and (heaven forfend!) Sarah Jessica Parker in case you somehow choose the wrong label or,
  • You can tell all those glitterati to go to hell and return to the warm happy comforts of beer, wine coolers, alca-pops, and that slushy stuff that they sell at wholesale counters in buckets masquerading as margarita or daiquiri (it's not, btw).
  • In the immortal words of Douglas Adams: Don't Panic. We can help.

    First, here's what vodka is not.

  • Vodka is not the world's most exciting liquor. It's not aged, there's not a ton of artistry to it, and the differences that do exist are subtle. For liquor, vodka actually is the best place to get started and the least intimidating thing out there.
  • Vodka is not entirely without its own characters. There are differences both in quality and in flavor. One doesn't need to spend tons of money but it's probably worthwhile spending $20 or a bit more.
  • Vodka is not something that can only be appreciated by experts. Anyone - yes, even you-will be able to taste differences in vodka.
  • Most articles at this point would launch into excruciating detail about where vodka comes from, the mechanics of how it's made, the various distillation and filtration processes, and so forth. But we get it: you don't really care. You just want to know how to drink it without looking like an idiot and spending money like a fool. Very good. Here is just about everything you need to know about vodka:

  • Vodka can be made from anything... and we mean anything. Most vodka is made from grain but some are made from potatoes, wine grapes, apples, and even tree sap, honey, and milk. Anything with a sugar content can be distilled into vodka. These different sources matter to the taste of the vodka.
  • Vodka is filtered to remove various impurities (like color). Most vodka is filtered through activated charcoal. Some use more exotic stuff. Doesn't really matter how many times it's distilled or through what but rather how thoroughly it's filtered. You won't really know until you try it.
  • In vodka, water matters. A lot. You'll notice most distilleries go into outright Homeric Rhapsodies over their water. And those paeans to artesian wells, glaciers, or whatever is something to pay attention to and is desirable. You want a little mineral content in the water - very few use plain old distilled water - because that matters to the flavor. A lot of the big name vodkas have big variations in their quality because they don't source their water consistently. Look for vodkas that claim a single source for their water so that you can count on some consistency.
  • Vodka should warm your throat; it should never, ever burn your throat. If you're in pain, that's a crummy vodka.
  • And the cardinal rule of any spirit: if you have to shoot it, then it isn't any good.
  • Take a look at the vodka label from the lower shelves. It probably says something like made from 100% pure grain spirit. That's a grain mash... could be any grain.

    Now take a look at some other labels. You'll find different kinds of grains and maybe even potatoes or wine grapes cited as the base for the vodka. Now we're talking! This is something you can work with. Wheat vodkas tend to have a softer, smoother feel... maybe a little boring but great for an introductory vodka. Absolut and Grey Goose are both famous wheat vodkas but there are many others.

    Rye vodkas are a traditional Polish recipe that have a warm, bread-like aroma to them and - in our opinion - mix beautifully with fruit juice. Belvedere is a well-known rye vodka (these are a little harder to find).

    Most people think immediately of potato when they think of vodka and indeed vodkas made from potatoes have a silky, aromatic, and almost thick characteristic that tend to make martini lovers salivate at the mere thought. Chopin is a popular and easy-to-find potato vodka.

    There are a lot wineries kicking out grape vodkas these days (to the great consternation of traditionalists). These vodkas have an entirely different characteristic that a lot of people find lovely and inviting. P Diddy's Ciroc is a popular grape vodka but there are lots of local wineries doing the same thing (and some of them better).

    So here's how you get started. Get yourself and a few friends together and decide on a shopping list of vodkas. Decide before you go to the liquor store... not after. You don't need a ton of this stuff - you can purchase little 50ml (airplane bottles) just as easily as giant 750ml bottles. Just depends upon how enthusiastic you and your friends want to get. The only catch is that if you're going to get minis you're necessarily going to be getting one of the bigger brand names. In any event, plan on getting 4 different vodkas each with a different base. Try as hard as you can to find a local microdistillery. It's usually well worth it, they'll probably use local ingredients, and it's cool and fun to support your local farmer and distiller.

    Now, the tasting... don't panic! This is going to be fun, we promise. The pros will tell you to freeze the vodka. And yeah, that's kind of fun and you can do it. The iciness of the vodka will help cool the burn that scares away most people and it will make the vodka into a kind of viscous syrup in the glass. But we say, unless you're in Russia and sharing caviar with your vodka, don't do it.

    Instead, understand one of the cardinal principles of cocktails and spirits: most liquor is intended to be blended with a bit of water. That's good news for you because taking vodka straight is something also better left to the pros. Better for you if you plan on some cocktails. Prepare a couple of simple vodka recipes. A classic vodka-martini is merely 3 parts vodka to one part dry vermouth and shaken on ice (that last bit is important - shaking it in ice helps dilute the vodka and that's a good thing; shake vigorously). Try a classic Screwdriver, which is just vodka and orange juice. Try a classic Cape Cod (vodka and cranberry juice) or Sea Breeze (vodka, cranberry juice, and grapefruit juice). You'll be shocked at how much better everything tastes with fresh squeezed fruit juice. Best of all, try a vodka tonic. Now muddle some berries - any berries you like - and put those in the tonic perhaps with a tiny bit of sugar or simple syrup. Yum! Now the try the same thing without tonic water. Yummier! Notice how the different vodkas will shine in some cocktails and not in others. Notice how you and your friends will vary in how much you like one cocktail over another.

    (Don't know what "muddling" is? Don't worry. Put the berries in the glass, mash them with a blunt instrument: battery, wooden spoon, fingers, just doesn't matter. You just muddled berries, congratulations. Now pour in ice and vodka and a little simple syrup if you like things a bit sweeter over the berries; shake-shake-shake or stir-stir-stir and strain it into a cocktail glass. Or don't... doesn't really matter. Pour in your tonic or drink on the rocks and voila, you've muddled your first cocktail.)

    You can even go nuts and channel your own Sarah Jessica Parker with a Cosmopolitan (though you'll need some triple-sec or other orange liqueur for that one - which can be an adventure in itself).

    Before you know it, you'll be laughing and writing reviews yourself (hopefully on this site). It really isn't that hard; in fact, it's quite a bit of fun. It's not terrible expensive when you split 4 or 6 ways or so and you'll all likely have vodka left over.

    Best of all, you're now drinking with dignity. These aren't Lemon Drops or other candy drinks or vodka mixed in fruit concentrate so that you can't even taste the alcohol (like that's a good idea) made for bimbos and college wastrels. These aren't drinks that will make you gag with their potency. These are true, sophisticated, grown-up drinks.

    And now... NOW!... with a little experience behind you, just think with what a wicked little gleam in your eye you'll approach your next bar, eyes ranging across the brands of vodka, and knowing exactly what to order and precisely what you like.

    Sally forth, O nascent explorer of the Vodka Realm! Be not afraid! Leave behind the jello shots and lemon drops. Do not let commercials tell you what to drink nor be intimidated by the commercialized culture. Discover and take control of your drinking destiny.

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