What is Vodka - A complete guide

A complete Guide to Vodka

By Timo Torner / Last updated on September 20, 2022 
Vodka is a neutral spirit often made from grains, potatoes, and other ingredients. Its taste and aroma are almost neutral, making Vodka one of the most popular spirits in the world.

In many countries, Vodka is served primarily neat as a shot, but it also is a popular ingredient in cocktails. And although Vodka is always first associated with Russia and Eastern Europe, the liquor is also a top seller in the West.

For instance, the USA ranks 6th in the world per capita consumption of Vodka, and the UK ranks 9th.

Vodka Fact Sheet

Spirit base: Grains, corn, grapes, or potatoes
ABV: 37.5% to 96%
Proof: 75 to 192
Calories per ounce: 62 to 190
Origin: Poland & Russia
Color: Transparent
Best served: Chilled or in cocktails

What is Vodka?

Vodka is a clear spirit with an almost neutral taste, often served as a shot, neat or chilled. The ABV is at least 37.5% but can go up to 96%. Most Vodkas, though, are bottled at 40% ABV, which also is the lower legal limit in the US.

In most cases, Vodka is distilled from fermented grains. Other popular bases are potatoes and grapes.

two shots of Vodka

Due to its subtle aromas and flavors, Vodka is a popular choice in simple two-ingredient drinks. It pairs well with every mixer - juices, soda, tonic, coke, and energy drinks.

The different Vodka types

There is more than one way to classify Vodkas. Yet, usually, people differentiate them by the base ingredient. Therefore the main categories are:

  • Grain Vodkas
  • Potato Vodkas
  • Fruit Vodkas
  • Molasses Vodkas

Even with the subtle flavors, that makes sense tastewise. For example, potato Vodka usually has the most neutral taste making it an ideal base spirit in cocktails. Vodkas made from grains have a slightly stronger aroma.

Then, you can also categorize Vodkas by production country. Especially in Poland, people are very proud of their traditional products. No wonder Polish Vodkas are top tier and include premium brands like Belvedere and Chopin.

Flavored Vodkas are actually not really Vodka. Those Vodka-based liqueurs are often infused with (fruit) flavors after distillation and typically clock in at 30% ABV or 35%, which is below the legal minimum.

The taste of Vodka

In general, though, the spirit has a crisp and clean taste. Still, the flavor can vary slightly, depending on the ingredients.

Rye Vodka typically has a stronger aroma and packs more flavor. A great Rye Vodka can even have subtle notes of grains or nuts.

Wheat Vodka is velvety smooth with almost no taste and no harsh alcohol bite.

Potato Vodka is gluten-free and has a richer mouthfeel than grain Vodka. In combination with its neutral taste, potato Vodka is an excellent choice for bars to use in cocktails.

Skinny Bitch - Vodka cocktail

How to drink Vodka

Most Vodka worldwide is drunk chilled but neat - not on the rocks. But especially in Western countries, it is also often used in mixed drinks and cocktails.

Classics like the Skinny Bitch, Espresso Martini, Cosmopolitan, and White Russian rely on Vodka as the base spirit. The neutral taste but high ABV does a great job of highlighting the other ingredients in the recipe.

One cocktail where this works exceptionally well is the Bloody Mary. A savory drink with a base spirit that actually makes the tomato shine. Something that's not possible with any other spirit like Gin, Rum, Whiskey, or Brandy.

The history of Vodka

Asking people about the origin of Vodka, most would intuitively say Russia. This prevailing opinion is reflected in many Vodka cocktails named after its alleged mother country.

Drinks like the Black Russian, White Russian, or the Russian Spring Punch are all named "Russian" because of their Vodka base.

However, if we're looking closer at the history of Vodka, the answer isn't as straightforward. Actually, it's more likely that Vodka's true origin lies in Poland.

The first written mention of Vodka in Poland dates back to 1405. The first Russian mention of the spirit is from just a hundred years later. And although this is no ultimate proof, it indicates that Polish Vodka was there first.

Even today, the people from Russia and Poland are arguing about who invented the famous spirit. But as records are scarce, it's likely that we'll never know for sure.

How to make Vodka

The process of making Vodka comprises four steps. So, here are the steps to make Vodka.

Preparation

The base ingredients, like grains or potato, are mixed with water and heated until the starch turns into sugar. That is vital in Vodka-making as this sugar later becomes alcohol. The result of this step is a sweet mash.

Fermentation

By adding yeast to this mixture, the fermentation process is started. Within a relatively short time frame, the mash turns alcoholic. At that stage, the mix typically contains about 6% to 8% ABV.

Distillation

During distillation, the low-ABV mash is heated up to 173°F (78.4°C). At this temperature, the alcohol starts to boil and vaporizes. When the vapor cools down, it becomes liquid again and is filtered to ensure a crystal clear and neutral-tasting distillate.

This step is repeated until the spirit contains the required amount of alcohol.

Blending

In the final step, the Vodka is blended with water to achieve the desired amount of alcohol in the liquor. Typically this means 40% ABV. Yet, some products are not blended and bottled at very high ABVs.

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