What is Vodka - A complete guide

A complete Guide to Vodka

By Timo Torner / Last updated on October 19, 2022 

First published 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% - however, those are not intended for drinking. Most Vodkas 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 term Vodka derives from the Slavic word Voda, which means water. Adding a "k" in Slavic languages indicates smallness, or in other words, it creates a diminutive similar to adding -let or -y in English. So literally, Vodka translates to little water. It makes a lot of sense, considering it is the most neutral of spirits.

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. The history of Vodka is quite opaque. Actually, it's more likely that Vodka's true origin lies in Poland.

Both Poland and Russia claim the invention for themselves. But with what we know today, the origin is impossible to trace as it dates back long before people even thought about documenting things in writing.

Historians suspect that a version of the clear spirit was already around as early as the 8th or 9th century. But nothing is proven.

The first time Vodka got mentioned in writing was in 1405 in Poland. However, there are indications that it could have been already in 1174 in Russia. So let me give you some details on those two things:

There are court records from Sandomierz in Poland from 1405 which concerned a particular distillation process and included the word Vodka. But then the chronicles of Vyatka, a region in Russia, mention something that can be interpreted as an early variant of Vodka made of grain. So, at least until this day, there's no way of knowing for sure.

What happened afterward is more transparent, though. Like so many alcoholic beverages, Vodka started as a medicine rather than a stimulant and something you drink for pleasure. In the mid-1400s, there was a significant surplus in grain that led to Russian farmers distilling huge amounts of Vodka. Hence, the common belief that Vodka must be from Russia.

The Vodka Belt

In the late 15th century, the early version of Vodka was brought up to Scandinavia and all over the Baltic. Until today, these regions have a significantly above average Vodka consumption and are known as the Vodka-Belt.

Soon, the clear spirit became so popular that the church condemned it and prohibited production. The Vodka of medieval times had only around 25% percent, but naturally, that was enough for some to get concerned about its effects.

In the centuries that followed, Vodka in Russia was subject to a state monopoly at regular intervals with the occasional release periods in between. Then, Russian prohibition was proclaimed by the Bolschwics, and Vodka got banned until 1925.

Once it was permitted again, it didn't take long to become the famous mixing spirit. And since the 1950s, it's been one of the most consumed spirits all over the globe.

How to make Vodka

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

Preparation

When making Vodka, the first step is to add water to the base ingredients, like grains or potato. Then, you need to heat the mixture and let it cook until the starch of the base has fully converted to sugar. The result is a sweet-smelling 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.

It must be noted, that the quality of the water used for blending is crucial for the quality of the end result.

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