What Is Vodka?
It’s not particularly likely that vodka needs any kind of introduction as we’ve all probably had experiences with the infamous drink. Typically, a clear distilled spirit from a number of different Slavic countries, vodka is essentially ethanol diluted in ethanol.
However, there are some nuances in flavour depending on the manufacturing process. Nevertheless, better quality vodka is said to contain the fewest impurities as possible.
Although it varies between countries, vodka is tends to be legally defined as a “neutral” alcoholic beverage of at least 37% or 40% ABV. Additionally, it is commonly produced by distilling grain or potatoes. However, artisanal brands have emerged than use other ingredients such as grapes or molasses.
The History Of Vodka
As you’ll learn in this guide, the origins of vodka have been heavily and fervently debated for centuries. Although the beverage was likely produced since the Middle Ages, official records first began in the the early 14th Century.
Like gin, jenever, and akvavit, vodka began as medicine that was applied both orally and topically. Similarly, it was often used as make-up remover!
By the 15th Century, vodka had become accepted as a typical alcoholic beverage. However, the cottage industry’s production process was still quite primitive in most cases.
In Poland, the vodka production had established itself as a veritable industry during the end of the 18th Century. Meanwhile, Tsars regulated distillery ownership in Russia since 1751 under a decree signed by Empress Elizabeth.
Grey Goose Vodka
However, this was repealed in 1863, which caused prices to plummet. Nevertheless, vodka taxes was one of the strongest foundations of Tsarist Russia’s government finances. By 1911, 89% of vodka consumed in Russia was vodka.
Similarly, the Polish government monopolised vodka production in 1925. Compared to Russia, the industry was particularly advanced thanks to the introduction of new technology during the late 19th Century.
Yet, this changed after World War II when all the vodka distilleries were acquired by the USSR. Unfortunately, many of the distilleries struggled after Poland’s independence and some even filed for bankruptcy. However, it brought on a new era for young brands to make a name for themselves.
Where Is Vodka Made?
Grey Goose Vodka
Traditionally, the spirit is produced along what is referred to as the “Vodka Belt”, which covers most Slavic countries and a variety of Scandinavian ones too. Historically, vodka is associated mostly with Russia and Poland. That said, there are a number of other Slavic countries that also produce it.
Meanwhile, there is a strong vodka production in Sweden as well as Norway. Yet, Sweden never officially produced what was designated as vodka until the 1950s. Such neutral distilled beverages were referred to as brännvin or “burn wine”, which is not too different from the old Polish “gorzałka”.
Conversely, Sweden was mostly known for its akvavit, which is a similar but herbal spirit.
Unlike most of Western and Central Europe, Eastern Europe’s climate is generally too hostile for cultivating grapes. Therefore, most of its inhabitants would instead produce clear spirits through distillation with the ingredients that were available.
Historically, this has been regarded as a “peasant’s” or “people’s” drink as the wealthy nobility would instead import wine.
However, this has drastically changed in the last century. Today, there are a number of newcomers to the vodka industry with many premium brands in France, Iceland, and the USA.
Russian Vodka Vs. Polish Vodka
As hinted above, the great debate is whether vodka was invented by the Russians or the Polish. Indeed, both countries have a compelling vodka heritage, which was has been a source of tumult for centuries.
Indeed, the Poles have even claimed that the Russians pursued a rigorous culture cleansing campaign during their membership of the USSR to try and convince them otherwise.
Whether that’s true or not, there is no irrefutable evidence that credits either country. In Poland, the term “wódka” was first recorded in 1405 but it would refer to medicine in a similar way to akvavit. However, the actual drink was often called “gorzałka”, which refers to the burning sensation when drunk.
Similarly, the first recorded instance of “водка” in Cyrillic first appeared as late as 1533 when a medicinal drink was exported from Poland to Russia by Rus merchants.
Meanwhile, Italian ambassadors presented the Grand Duke Dmitry Donskoy with aqua vitae in 1386. However, this “water of life” was produced with grape must.
In fact, it’s claimed that Russian vodka wasn’t invented until 1430 when Isidore, an Orthodox monk, developed the recipe in the Kremlin’s Chudov Monastery.
In either case, both countries have played a significant role in both vodka’s development and proliferation. Despite their grievances and misgivings, hopefully this common ancestry can be celebrated.
What Does Vodka Taste Like?
Technically speaking, vodka is considered and defined to be a neutral or even flavourless. While this may be the case for some varieties of vodkas, the manufacturing process can produce some very nuanced aromas.
Typically, vodka is particularly rich and spicy, which is partly due to its distinctive alcohol bloom. Its accompanying flavours can be remarkably subtle, though. In some cases, you may experience notes of yeasty bread dough, black pepper or occasionally a zesty sweetness.
Indeed, vodka can be quite varied in flavour, especially when considering the various bases used for its distillation as well as the different countries where it’s produced.
Finally, cheaper vodkas can be described as diluted nail polish remover due to the pure ethanol content.
How Vodka Is Made & Its Ingredients
Chopin Vodka Distillery, Poland
Traditionally, vodka is produced using grain such as corn, rye, or wheat. Yet, many Polish vodkas were also often made from potatoes. Today, vodka is still made from one of these ingredients but may alternatively be produced from sugar beet molasses, grapes or even soybeans.
Whatever based is used, it must be rich in starches or sugars in order to be properly distilled.
Historically, the distillation process was repeated several times to produce vodka. In Poland, this was undertaken three times, which were referred to as brantówka, szumówka, and okowita. Interestingly, okowita is a reference to aqua vitae.
This is still undertaken today and distilleries may either perform several distillations or use a fractioning still to improve the vodka’s purity.
Like most distillation processes, a master distiller will ensure that the fore-shots, heads, and tails are removed as these contain toxins and impurities that are detrimental to the resulting taste.
To be considered vodka, the spirit must be filtered and refined after it has been distilled. In the traditional Vodka Belt cultures, the spirit will usually undergo a thorough distillation process and then only minor charcoal filtering to accentuate the flavours.
Meanwhile, European and American producers tend to prefer extensive filtration during the distillation process, which is then repeated again afterwards.
Finally, the strong spirit is diluted using pure water. It is only after this point that vodka may be flavoured.
While flavouring may seem like a desecration to some purists, it is both a popular and long-established practice by traditional Vodka Belt cultures. For instance, one of the most famous is Żubrówka, which uses hand-picked dried bison grass blades.
Likewise, honey, pepper, and ginger are particularly popular natural flavours in Russia.
Typical Alcohol Volume Percentage
As touched on earlier, the minimum ABV for vodka is 37% in Europe and 40% in the USA. However, it can be much higher depending on the distillery and country of origin. For instance, Bulgarian Balkan 176° has 88% ABV. Yet, this is not technically vodka as it hasn’t been filtered.
On average, vodka will be between 40 to 45% ABV in order to cater to both European and American markets.
How To Serve & Drink Vodka
Firstly, there is no right or wrong way to drink vodka as long as you enjoy it. While we try to offer guidance and advice, we don’t seek to dictate how such beverages should or shouldn’t be consumed.
Vodka is always kept in the freezer to be served at an ice-cold 0°C in heritage vodka-drinking cultures. That said, some producers argue that premium vodkas should be served slightly higher to allow the aromas to evaporate.
Similarly, vodka is served without ice as it usually results in diluting the drink in a way that can’t be controlled.
Rather than shot glasses, glassware has traditionally consisted of stemmed karczmiak flutes since the 18th Century. Unlike regular shot glasses, these allow drinkers to hold them without warming the vodka.
Like Scandinavian akvavit culture, vodka is rarely consumed without reason. Instead, it is often enjoyed as a celebratory drink. It is also often accompanied by a variety of different aperitifs too.
In Russia, these are usually referred to as “zakuski” and consist of pickled vegetables of which cucumber is the most popular. Similarly, vodka can be served with dried or cured fish, cold meat and ham, and black or rye bread.
Finally, there are a few supposed techniques often used by Russians and the Polish to negate the effects of vodka. If you drink with Slavs, you’ll notice that they’ll often follow a shot with an audible exhalation, which is supposed to reduce the resulting hangover.
Similarly, it is sometimes said that sniffing your own armpit after a shot will counteract the alcohol burn! Indeed, Russia is a country known for its superstition. Therefore, be sure that you can finish a bottle of vodka if you open it!
Popular Vodka Cocktail Recipes
Grey Goose Vodka Premier Cocktail
Of course, vodka is primarily consumed as a cocktail base in the west. Indeed, it is rarely drunk neat unless the objective is to get absolutely s**tfaced. Thanks to its neutral and clean taste, vodka is even celebrated as the most neutral cocktail base that you can use.
Therefore, here are a few notable examples of the best vodka-based cocktails that you can make. However, there are countless more that we couldn’t possible list them all here.
The cause of many a barman’s eyerolls, the vodka martini is admittedly one of the most iconic cocktails in the world. It’s incredibly simply to make and consists only of equal parts vodka and dry vermouth with bitter. Despite what everyone’s favourite super-spy says, it should actually be stirred and not shaken.
Introduced in the mid-twentieth century to introduce Americans to vodka, a Moscow Mule is simply vodka added to ginger beer and some lime juice.
The Black Russian is a well-known combination of vodka and coffee liqueur with some optional cherries. Furthermore, cream can be added to make it a White Russian. However, whichever you prefer is just… Like… Your opinion, man.
A popular variant of the vodka martini above, the apple martini rarely features any vermouth at all. Instead, this zesty cocktail is simply made by combining vodka with green apple schnapps liqueur with a touch of lemon juice.
A Bloody Mary is the result of mixing vodka with tomato juice as well as Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, pepper, hot sauce, and celery salt. Additional garnish can be used to make this iconic brunch beverage even more gourmand.
Similar Drinks & Vodka Substitutes
Being probably one of the most cleanest and purest alcohols, there is no direct equivalent to vodka per se. However, it can often be replaced with other spirits if you’re looking for something more flavoursome.
In fact, vodka is actually used to replace other spirits that some people may not like. For instance, gin is often substituted for vodka when people have an intolerance or simply don’t like it.
Alternatively, if you want something a little different, we’ve been experimenting with akvavit as a vodka and gin substitute with some surprising results!
What Are The Benefits Of Drinking Vodka?
Grey Goose Vodka
Historically, vodka was a medicine much like many of Europe’s other clear distilled spirits. This notion has actually persisted over the centuries and it is still considered as such by many to this day. In fact, a popular remedy for a cold or cough is ground pepper in a shot of vodka.
Yet, there is some truth to these claims. Firstly, vodka is a natural disinfectant. Therefore, it can be drank to soothe sore throats and tooth ache or even applied topically on injuries.
Furthermore, vodka can help reduce cholesterol, improve circulation, and has been proven to help reduce stress even more than red wine.
Additionally, vodka contains very few impurities. Therefore, it’s actually considered safer than most spirits. Being a purer spirit, there are reduced side effects from excessive drinking.
While it is still a strong spirit that can cause heavy intoxication, the pains of the morning after are said to be milder than other more flavoursome spirits.
Gluten, Carbs, & Calories In Vodka
Like gin, vodka is often said to be gluten-free even if it’s distilled from grain. Yet, people with celiac disease can react poorly from consuming it. Nevertheless, vodka produced from other bases such as potatoes are completely gluten free and safe to drink.
Needless to say, an alcoholic spirit as neutral as vodka contains no carbohydrates. Similarly, it’s a simple combination of ethanol and water. Therefore, it’s quite low in calories too. A single shot of 40% ABV vodka features 96 calories but this can increase depending on the concentration.
How To Buy Vodka?
Grey Goose Vodka Espresso Martini
Vodka is one of the easiest alcoholic spirits that you can buy and it’s readily available from most supermarkets and convenience stores. However, the brands stocked by such places tend to be quite basic and not particularly interesting.
Of course, you can go to a specialist merchant to find better quality vodka. Yet, this may prove to be quite expensive.
Conversely, we’ve been having some excellent experiences with a few online retailers. For instance, Drizly partners with local shops and strives to provide fast deliveries to your door.
Meanwhile, if you’re willing to wait, Reserve Bar has an excellent vodka selection that it sells at lower prices than Drizly.
Pricing: How Much Does Vodka Cost?
Vodka prices can vary depending on the quality and the brand. Most cheap vodka will range between $15 and $20. However, premium vodka can cost much more as you’ll notice in some of the examples listed below.
Top 10 Best Vodka Brands
As mentioned above, we will now cover the top 10 best vodka brands that you can buy online:
- Grey Goose VX [Premium Vodka]
- Belvedere [Polish Vodka]
- Chopin [Polish Potato Vodka]
- Beluga Noble Russian [Russian Vodka]
- Stolichnaya [Russian Vodka]
- Żubrówka [Infused Polish Vodka]
- American Harvest Organic [Idaho Vodka]
- Absolut Elyx [Swedish Vodka]
- Hangar 1 [Californian Vodka]
- Reyka [Icelandic Vodka]
Scroll down to see them all or jump ahead using the links above.