The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity



Garden to Table

February 24, 2008

As the dominant spirit of Europe, vodka has long been considered the national drink of Russia. The word “vodka” comes from the Russian word “voda,” meaning “little water.” Of course, the drink is anything but little, and it’s been around for hundreds of years. The first recorded exports of Russian vodka were to Sweden in 1505. The first documented production of grain spirits in Russia dates even further back, to the end of the 9thcentury.
Prized for its potency and clarity, vodka is a clear liquid purified by distillation from a fermented substance like grain, potatoes, molasses or beets. Connoisseurs tend to rate potato vodka as inferior, however, some Polish producers hold potato vodkas in high esteem. Russians usually make their vodka from wheat, and in Poland, vodka is usually made from a rye mash. Cheaper brands of vodka are often produced with molasses.
Once the grain of choice is harvested, the distillation process can begin. The first step is to select a still, or container, in which to distill the grain. Certain still materials will produce a clear vodka. Others – like the ones used for Cognac and Scotch whisky – will add tint and flavor elements. While most Russian vodka is filtered through charcoal to ensure that it will come out clear, some distillers use what is called a “rectification” process to do the same job. Absolut, for example, distills their vodka through a number of columns, each designed to remove different impurities. Smirnoff uses charcoal – seven tons to be exact.
The type of liquid used in the distillation process can also affect the product’s results. Some producers use purified water, while others use distilled water, filtered water or de-ionizing water. But the goal is always the same – to produce a liquid that is almost entirely alcohol. To achieve this result, the liquid is diluted repeatedly until it reaches the 80-proof level – the level at which most vodka is sold at market.
There is no uniform way to classify vodka. Polish vodkas are graded according to their degree of purity as “standard,” “premium” or “deluxe.” Russian vodkas are labeled as “special” or “strong.” U.S. vodkas are merely defined as “neutral” and “distilled with charcoal or other materials.” That means that American vodkas are very similar, with only subtle distinctions in taste between brands. Alcohol content and price are often the only differentiating factors.
All vodkas vary in taste, depending on the type of grain used. Wheat vodkas tend to taste like aniseed, while potato vodkas tend to taste creamy and buttery. Rye vodkas taste mellow and nutty, and barley vodkas taste light and nutty with a hint of spice. Taste can even vary among vodkas made from the same ingredient. Mouthfeel (delicate, rich, or creamy), the degree of sweetness, and even if the flavor is subtle or more pronounced, can all be influential factors. Another recent flavor trend is to combine different grains, like rye, potato and wheat, within one vodka for a true taste explosion.
Whatever your preference, one thing is guaranteed. There’s a vodka out there for just about anyone. Enjoyed “neat” or in cocktails, vodka is also used to fortify other beverages, a tradition made popular in 19th century Spain. Today, vodka is used to fortify port, sherry, and other fortified wines. Flavored vodkas, once designed to mask the taste of inferior vodkas, are now very popular and made for many premium brands. There are over 1000 different kinds of vodka in Russia alone, and among them dozens of flavored varieties.