What is Vodka? By definition, Vodka is a pure spirit that contains only ethanol (alcohol) and water to produce a colorless, odorless, and to a large degree tasteless spirit. It is this simple mixture which makes Vodka the most versatile spirit, yet there are subtleties of taste which provide a more complex nature beneath the surface.
How is it made
The process of Vodka production has slowly evolved over the centuries. While there’s evidence to suggest that the still used for the distillation of fermented mash was invented in the 8th century, the word Vodka doesn’t appear in historical texts until the late 14th century with both Poland and Russia vying for the title of the birthplace of this classic drink.
Like other spirits, Vodka is produced through the two key stages of fermentation and distillation. However, unlike other spirits, it can be made produced from a wide variety of base materials including grain, potatoes, grapes, sugar beets, or soybeans to name but a few. Typically produced from cereal grains such as wheat, rye, or corn, Vodka is a rectified spirit which means it’s distilled multiple (usually between three to five) times to increase the alcoholic content and remove impurities from the liquid. Vodka filtering can be done in the still as well as after distillation. Activated charcoal is often used to filter distilled vodka of materials that might alter the vodka’s odor or taste. Once filtered, water is then added to the mix to dilute the liquid back to 40% abv and produce the drinkable spirit known as Vodka.
Although the same process is utilized to produce a grain vodka, a potato vodka or any other variant, the number of distillations carried out on the mixture varies according to the demands of the base ingredient. Not only does the distillation process remove impurities, it also extracts congeners which are created in the fermentation stage and contain most of the flavors and aromas of a spirit. Therefore, a careful balance is required to remove enough of the impurities to provide a clean taste, yet not remove all trace of the spirits flavor profile.
While wheat is a softer, more fragile grain in comparison to rye, wheat-based Vodkas can be created with two or three distillations and are generally much lighter drinks, whereas a rye-based vodka will require four distillations but still offer a more complex nature. Potatoes are much denser than any cereal grains and produce many more impurities through fermentation, thus making them much harder to control. While some potato-based Vodkas achieve a pleasing, thick taste, many of them are distilled to an almost pure alcohol state meaning they lose the vast majority of their congeners and therefore taste indistinguishable from other varieties of Vodka.
Like most spirits, Vodka can be categorized into three distinct bands of quality; value, premium, and super-premium, with their respective prices increasing accordingly. In general, it can be said that the more expensive the Vodka, the more refined the taste is due to fewer impurities in the drink but high-end vodkas still offer a range of characteristics which clouds the issue a little.
There are several factors which affect the price-point, although there are no additional costs incurred for storing Vodka as it does not require aging to enhance its characteristics. With so few ingredients used in the production process, the quality of ingredients used plays a vital role in the subtleties and undertones to the taste. Water is the main additive to Vodka, therefore, sourcing a natural, pure form of water rather than using a filtered or treated water adds much more to the overall notes in the resulting flavor. This comes with an added expense which is passed on to the retail price.
Production costs also factor into the overall price and the more times that a Vodka has to be distilled, the higher the cost of producing the liqueur. Once distilled, the Vodka needs to be filtered to further remove impurities whilst adding a further subtlety to the overall flavor of the drink. Activated charcoal is normally used, however, some brands prefer other methods which include a paper filter or a metallic filter which can create a creamier texture to the Vodka. Meanwhile, some high-end brands prefer to use Ural mountain quartz, diamond dust, and Champagne limestone while others take the approach of offering an unfiltered version of their drink which contains more character in the taste profile.
Raw taste and textures
In describing the taste of any particular vodka, there are several basic elements which should be considered. The first and most obvious impression comes from the perceived amount of heat given off by the alcohol. While most Vodka brands contain a similar level of alcoholic content within them, the way that this alcohol presents itself to the palate can greatly differ. This can range from a smooth and rounded taste to a raw and fiery feeling but while the overall impression across your tongue and in your mouth should detect the heat of the alcohol, it shouldn’t be an unpleasant or overpowering sensation attacking your taste buds. Vodka’s that flow smoothly down the back of your throat are definitely preferred over those that leave a raw or fiery sensation.
In the absence of a strong over-riding flavor in the drink, the texture plays an increased role in differentiating the taste between brands. The two ends of the spectrum in texture are a thin, watery viscosity through to a more oily or silky texture. The latter of which is often accompanied by a sweeter taste as it is caused by the presence of higher glycerin levels. Glycerin is a neutrally flavored, sweet-tasting compound that is created as a by-product of the distillation process and as such, small quantities of it can be found in all spirits. With fewer flavorings present in Vodka to mask the basic elements, it becomes more apparent in Vodka tasting in comparison to other alcoholic spirits. Read some of our vodka reviews for more information on vodka taste and textures.
The use of flavorings in Vodka may seem like a modern trend, however, it is a practice which can be traced back to the early days of Vodka production. Whereas aroma chemicals and synthetic flavorings are now commonly added to drinks, these Vodkas rarely possess a depth or natural tasting flavor. It’s also worth noting that the addition of sugar, glycerin and citric acids in cheaper brands of vodka today are used to mask the roughness caused by impurities in a similar way to how fruit and spices were once used in the past. As such, these are a cheap trick to cover the inadequacies of a poorly crafted drink.
A good flavored Vodka should always begin life as a good Vodka, before being infused with its chosen flavor. There are several vintage styles which include Pertsovka (Pepper),
Limonnaya (lemon), and Kubanskaya (lemon and orange), however, it can be argued that Gin is little more than a vodka infused with juniper berries. The difference between a Vodka using synthetic additives and a genuine infusion can, therefore, be vast and they can also be made simply using fresh ingredients and a little imagination. More flavored vodkas are introduced to the marketplace every year. One of our most recently reviewed flavored vodkas is 44 North Huckleberry Flavored Vodka.
What’s in a brand
With Vodka enjoying a resurgence in popularity during recent years, more options are becoming available both through new emerging into the market and smaller brands becoming more accessible through improved distribution and importing. With so many options now available, it’s difficult to know which is the best on the market. However, it’s a good practice to try some of the smaller and less well-known producers when you get the chance, as these artisan Vodkas are often painstakingly crafted to produce smooth drinks which contain a definite enhancement in one area of their taste.
While some brands will claim their product is superior due to extra stages of distillation or filtration, this isn’t always a trusted hallmark of quality as it may mean that they started with a poorer quality product which required extra work to remove the impurities. Alternatively, this may be made inconsequential by the use of an inferior water supply which serves to taint the overall quality of the Vodka. Once you find brands which you personally enjoy, it’s also wise to keep stock of several types of Vodka at any given time to both provide you with options to use for different drinks and to use as comparisons against each other when choosing new Vodkas or designing a new drink.
Vodka as a cocktail ingredient
Vodka is the most common base ingredient amongst the world of cocktails due to the perceived lack of taste which allows it to be easily mixed with other flavors. In the same way that you would prefer a premium or super-premium brand of Vodka to drink neat, this is also the preferred option for making a Vodka tonic, a Martini, or any other delicate vodka-based cocktail.
Despite only possessing a subtle amount of flavor which can be almost indistinguishable to anyone other than to a connoisseur, different Vodka brands have different characteristics and so match and pair differently with various ingredients at a high-level of this craft. For example, wheat Vodkas generally carry a slight citrus tone which makes them ideal candidates to infuse with lemon and create a Cosmopolitan or an Iceberg.
While cheaper, more robust Vodkas can be comfortably used for heavier drinks such as the Tomato-laden Bloody Mary or a creamy White Russian, carefully balanced drinks require a level of nuance in the selection of Vodka that you use. Chopin Vodka, for example, is great to drink straight up or in a delicately balanced drink. Likewise, individual preferences can dictate a leaning towards a certain brand and so it’s important to try many options both neat and in the build of your favorite cocktails to learn exactly how they differ from each other.
Conclusion: What is Vodka?
Hopefully you have a better understanding as to what vodka is after reading this page. If you are curious enough to learn more about what vodka is we recommend you check out the wikipedia page on What is Vodka.