Chances are – whether you have just started a gig as a bartender, are learning the spirits list at a new venue, or are a bit of an expert – you’ve come across vodka once or twice.
Whether it’s in a cocktail, mixed with juice or lemonade, or – for those with the stomach for it – drunk as a shot, vodka of any brand or style has a distinct taste. It’s the most commonly used spirit across the world, and a stalwart of bars, restaurants and bottle shops.
But how much do you really know about vodka? Could you reel off the ins and outs of the product to a curious customer?
You say potato, we say potato
One of the most common stories about vodka is that it is made from potatoes – it’s a tale that is told by bartenders, explained to mates at a bar, and constantly referenced in pop culture.
So, is it true? Do vodka distilleries just mash up loads of potatoes and let them sit around until they turn into liquid? Well no, of course not. But there is some truth to vodka being made using potatoes.
Vodka can be made in many ways, but it’s primarily made using potatoes or grains like rye, wheat, corn or barley. Some countries (like Poland) and brands still choose to stick with the more traditional method of using potatoes, but almost any raw matter can be used to build upon and make vodka. Ever noticed flavored vodka in your local bottle shop? Sometimes that is added flavoring at the end, but some of the time the brand itself has used a base product like grapes, apples or honey to build on.
How is it made?
So, we know that the base ingredient of vodka can be myriad different grains, fruits or vegetables – but what is the next step in the process?
First up, the base product is fermented. Next, the distilling happens. Vodka is known as a rectified spirit, which means it is distilled at least three times, sometimes up to five or more depending on the brand and method used.
If you’ve ever noticed that a vodka brand advertises how many times their product has been distilled, it’s because distillation can be a sign of purity. The idea is, the more times the liquid is distilled, the cleaner and purer the end product. It’s important to remember that vodka isn’t just fermented and distilled grains or vegetables – a huge amount of what you drink in the average cocktail or tumbler is water.
After vodka is distilled, it is filtered through charcoal to get rid of any remaining impurities. It is then cut with water, and bottled ready to go to bottle stores and venues. Unlike beer, wine, and many other spirits, vodka doesn’t need to age or even sit for a while – it can be safely bottled and served straight after the filtering process is complete.
Not just a tipple
In most countries and continents, vodka must have a minimum alcohol content of somewhere between 37% and 40% to be sold on shelves and in venues. Vodka – which is referred to colloquially as moonshine in some countries – isn’t a drink for the faint-hearted, or the light weighted! It’s always high in alcohol, and can be served in hundreds of different ways.
In many European countries, drinking vodka neat (that is, without any sort of mixer) is considered the traditional way to do it. In most places vodka is served at room temperature, but some venues like to chill it.
Vodka in its purest and most traditional form should have no taste, odor, or color. But – of course – what you taste and smell will depend on the brand you drink, and the style of the distillery. Some are harsh on the tongue, others go down smoothly, some vodka brewers get experimental with flavors and mouthfeel.
Types of vodka
Vodka is made all over the world, with major distilleries in Russia, the U.S. and Australia. The style of vodka that you buy will depend on your preferences, budget, and the product’s availability locally.
If you are looking for a style to utilize in cocktails or use as a mixer, you might choose something mid-range or cheaper. If you’re looking to find a vodka that you can easily drink neat or create top-level cocktails with, you might go for the top shelf products – or even try something a little different.
While you may not think of single barrel or vintage as referring to vodka, craft distilleries are trialing new and exciting ways to create specialized vodka. They often use limited filtration or niche base products to elicit a stark flavor or feel.
Yes, we did say a little earlier than vodka doesn’t need to age before it is drunk. But that doesn’t mean that distillers won’t do it anyway! Brands as popular as Absolut are trying out oak-aged vodkas, giving them a different feel and taste to the average drop.
Often preferred by younger people, flavored vodkas are available across most of the big brands. Whether it’s to change the overall taste or add something a little extra to a cocktail, some bartenders may turn their noses up at them – but flavored vodkas are extremely popular.
So, now you know that vodka really can be made from potatoes – and that it isn’t one size fits all when it comes to the clear spirit.
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