Vodka is the leading international spirit category, with market leader Smirnoff selling over 25 million cases in 2012. But vodka's versatility, and the popularity of neutral vodkas in Western markets as the foundation for thousands of cocktails, mean the category is frequently dismissed by some drinks enthusiasts as a boring base spirit for no-effort party drinks.
But as we shall see, Vodka is much more interesting than it might appear to the casual observer. Scrape beneath the surface and you'll find a spirit with a rich and diverse history, made from a variety of raw materials, each of which affect the finished product's final taste, and sometimes flavoured with a quite bewildering array of different fruits, herbs and spices from every corner of the globe.
Vodka's origins lie in either Russia or Poland over a thousand years in the past. Contentious debate rages over where and when vodka first appeared, with no conclusion likely due to a dearth of historical evidence. What is certain is that commercial distillation flourished in both countries in the 15th and 16th centuries.
The word 'vodka' first appears in Polish court documents dating from 1405. However, the term 'vodka' then referred to spirit-based pharmaceutical products such as cosmetic cleansers and medical tinctures; early grain spirit beverages were referred to as gorzałka. Etymologically, 'vodka' is believed to derive from the Slavic word voda, meaning water, in much the same way as whisky is derived from the Gaelic uisge.
Early vodkas were pot-distilled and flavoured with herbs, spices and honey to disguise their more unpalatable impurities. In common with many early alcoholic beverages, these vodkas were considered to have medicinal properties: the Polish physician Stefan Falimierz, writing in his 1534 treatise On Herbs & Their Potency, noted that vodka helped "to increase fertility and awaken lust".Luksusowa Vodka
Even at this early stage, purification was an important aspect of vodka production. Various techniques including freezing, cask ageing (sometimes underground) and clarification with isinglass (dried fish bladders) were used, some of which are still practised today.
Vodka production soon spread internationally to create what we now call the Vodka Belt, comprising Russia and many former Soviet republics, Poland, Hungary and the Nordic countries, primarily Sweden, Norway and Finland.
However, it was the fall of the Russian Tsars that indirectly led to the rise of vodka in the west. After being forced to flee the 1917 October Revolution, in 1933 a certain Vladimir Smirnov licensed his US-based countryman Rudolph Kunett to produce his brand in the USA. When Kunett got into financial difficulty a few years later his license and equipment were bought by an enterprising American businessman called John Martin.Russian Standard Gold Vodka
The story goes that one of Martin's distributors in South Carolina received an early shipment of Smirnoff that had been bottled with caps labelled 'whiskey' as no plain caps had been available on the bottling line. This enterprising salesman began advertising his stock under the not-strictly-legal tagline "Smirnoff White Whiskey - No Smell, No Taste".
Sales took off, a few years later the Moscow Mule brought vodka cocktails to the masses and with the advent of cocktail culture in the post-war period, the USA's legally defined style of vodka as a clear neutral spirit with no discernible flavour or aroma became predominant in the west. In the first decade of the 21st century vodka surpassed light rum as the leading international spirit and has never relinquished its position since.
Although a very small number of the new wave of craft producers still make vodka in pot stills, and the mighty Smirnoff have a pot-distilled edition (Smirnoff Black), the vast majority of all vodka is produced in continuous stills, also known as column stills.
Due to their ability to run continuously and their consequent production and cost efficiency, column stills are also used in the production of most mass-produced spirits today, including bourbon, gin, rum, tequila, cachaca and most, if not all, of the hugely popular Asian spirits such as shochu and baiju.
Apart from the continuous nature of their operation, the great difference with column stills is that they are capable of distilling spirits to very high strengths and degrees of purity in one operation rather than pot stills' repeated batch process. Column stills can produce a very clean 'neutral spirit' which is around 94-95% alcohol with almost all impurities removed.Ketel One Vodka
Most vodkas are based on this kind of neutral spirit, with individual producers buying the spirit in bulk before performing their own specific purification processes and, where relevant, adding their own flavouring before bottling.
Purification processes are therefore crucial to a vodka's individuality, which is why neutral style vodkas tend to emphasise their number of distillations (frequently referring to the number of plate chambers the spirit has passed through in the still) or their individual filtration systems. Filtration may take place through a variety of fine substances designed to strip further impurities from the liquid, most commonly activated charcoal, but also quartz sand, Herkimer crystals, seaweed, silver and lava rock.Smirnoff
As we have seen, vodka can be delineated into American made (or influenced) neutral vodkas and the traditional style vodkas of the Eastern and Northern European Vodka Belt.
There is a clear difference in the culture of drinking these two different types of vodkas. Neutral vodkas are rarely drunk neat, being used instead for cocktails such as the Cosmopolitan, Bloody Mary, Seabreeze, White Russian or Expresso Martini.Jewel of Russia Classic Vodka
In the traditional European heartlands, however, vodka is most commonly consumed as a neat shot. Neat vodka should be served from the freezer as this causes the liquid to thicken (real vodka shouldn't freeze), giving the spirit a creamy texture. The neat shot is the ultimate test of a vodka's quality. These vodkas would probably not be distilled to the full 95%, but drawn off the rectification column at a slightly lower strength in order to leave some congeners in the spirit. For the same reason, these vodkas are only minimally filtered.
The flavour of a traditional vodka depends largely on its raw ingredients. Most vodkas are made with a wash of fermented grains, mainly wheat or rye, though corn and barley are also used. Other common raw materials for vodka include sugar beet molasses and potatoes, but any sugar-rich liquid can be used.Crystal Head Vodka
In terms of flavour, rye vodkas, which are particularly popular in Poland, have a dry spiciness, sometimes with notes of herbs or menthol; wheat vodkas, which are more common in Russia and Scandinavia, give a softer, smoother spirit; while corn or potato vodkas are sweeter and, in the case of potato vodka, notably creamier.
In the beginning all vodkas were flavoured. The unpleasant impurities in these early, unrefined spirits were cloaked with an array of traditional herbs, fruits and spices, and frequently sweetened with honey.
Since the turn of the millennium, however, the western vodka market has been inundated with flavours, with everything from exotic Asian fruits through to bacon being added to neutral vodkas to put some extra flavour into the spirit. These recent arrivals are generally intended as a cocktail base, to give a twist to your favourite mixed drink.Zubrowka
Their Eastern European and Scandinavian ancestors, meanwhile, are occasionally mixed - Zubrowka, which is flavoured with bisongrass, is great with cloudy apple juice, while the pepper-flavoured Pertsovka makes a mean Bloody Mary. More often, like their plain brethren, in the Vodka Belt they are taken as shots.
Many of today's European flavoured vodkas have long histories. Zubrowka and Goldwasser have existed since at least the 16th Century; Krupnik honey vodka and many fruit flavoured vodkas including Cytronowka (lemon) and Wisniowka (cherry) have also been around for hundreds of years. While some novelty flavoured spirits may disappear within a few months, these classic flavoured vodkas have truly stood the test of time.Indio Oregon Marionberry Vodka