Once you start to delve into the world of vodka, you’ll find a fascinating product with bags of history and a wide range of styles and flavours. The raw material used has a big effect on a finished vodka’s taste, as does the mind-boggling variety of herbs, spices and fruits used as flavourings.

A traditional vodka-producing column still

Vodka’s origins lie in either Russia or Poland more than 1,000 years ago. There is no definitive evidence as to who was first, but what is certain is that commercial distillation flourished in both countries in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Early vodkas were pot-distilled and flavoured with herbs, spices and honey to disguise their more unpalatable impurities. 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’.

The emphasis on creating a ‘pure’ vodka was a factor even then, and it continues to this day. Purification processes are crucial to a vodka’s individuality, with much focus placed on the number of distillations or the method of filtration. Filtration may take place through a variety of substances designed to strip further impurities from the liquid, most commonly activated charcoal, but also quartz sand, Herkimer crystals, seaweed, silver and lava rock.

Broadly speaking, vodka can be divided into neutral-style vodkas, and the fuller-flavoured examples from eastern and northern Europe. Neutral vodkas are rarely drunk neat, being used instead for cocktails such as the Cosmopolitan, Bloody Mary, Seabreeze, White Russian or Espresso Martini.

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.

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.

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.

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Did you know?

  • the word ‘vodka’ is Russian for ‘little water’
  • vodka sales in the US were transformed in the 1950s by the Moscow Mule cocktail (vodka, lime juice, ginger beer)
  • before 1885, vodka was only sold in Russia in 12-litre buckets

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