Among all spirits, Vodka is one of the most popular ones. Especially in Eastern Europe, no other spirit does come even close to reaching similar popularity. And surprisingly, according to Worldatlas.com, the United States are following suit and rank in position 6 of the countries with the highest per person Vodka consumption. And the United Kingdom is not far behind on position 9.
However, where North-Eastern Europeans prefer to consume their spirits neat as a shot, other nations love their highballs and cocktails. And the high versatility of Vodka certainly is one reason that drives its consumption in Western countries. So it's about time to find out what Vodka is made of and why it has such a neutral taste compared to other favorite spirits like Whiskey, Tequila, and the like.
What is Vodka?
Vodka is a clear and odorless spirit with a neutral taste. It usually contains a minimum of 37.5% alcohol when sold in the European Union and 40% ABV when you want to sell in the United States. Usually, the range goes up to 55% ABV, but some even have as much as 80% alcohol by volume or 160 proof.
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 the diminutive similar to adding -let or -y in English. So literally, Vodka translates so little water. It makes a lot of sense, considering it is the most neutral of spirits. And due to the absence of intensive flavors and aromas, Vodka is a very versatile spirit. That is why it goes so well with all kinds of mixers, juices, liqueurs, etc.
Traditionally, Vodka is distilled from fermented grain - and not from potatoes, like it's so often stated. That came only later. But generally, there's a whole range of options one can use to make Vodka.
What is Vodka made of?
It's somewhat common sense that potatoes are involved in the production of Vodka. However, traditionally Vodka is made of grain, with rye and wheat being the most common. Potatoes were brought to Europe from South America only in the middle and later 1500s, whereas the origin of Vodka goes back more than 1000 years. So the starchy vegetable had nothing to do with it for quite some time. But that would change later on.
As with most spirits that go back to medieval times or even further, the quality was far from anything even remotely enjoyable for the taste of today. And frankly, it couldn't have been much better for the people back then. That is why in the mid 18th century, flavored versions of Vodka came up. Producers (state-run and private alike) experimented with flavorings of all kinds of berries, ginger, hazelnut, citrus fruit, herbs, spices, and apparently even horseradish.
And the 18th century wasn't done with the evolution of Vodka, yet. Far from it. Around the same time, a Russian professor discovered the method of purifying Vodka with charcoal which improved the quality a lot. And further, people started to use the famous potatoes for making their Vodka, as well. It was cheaper than grain and quickly brought the clear spirit the nickname potato-schnaps.
Today, Vodka can be made of almost anything. From grain and potato to corn, rice, and fruits. Pretty much everything that contains sugar and ferments is a potential candidate. Also, Vodka is a liquor with next to no legal requirements when it comes to the choice of ingredients. So there are no limits to one's imagination. And despite being labeled as a neutral spirit, one can usually taste the different base ingredients.
And besides a fermentable base element, you need water and yeast.
A short excursion into the history of Vodka
The history of Vodka is quite opaque. Both Poland and Russia claim the invention for themselves. But the actual 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, as I said, nothing is proven.
The first time Vodka got mentioned in written form could have been in 1405 in Poland or 1174 in Russia. And just that question is the crux. 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 more of a medicine than a stimulant and something you would enjoy. But in the mid-1400s, there was a significant surplus in grain that led to Russian farmers distilling their own Vodka. Back in those days, Vodka was made of grain only. And because there was so much of it, people started making spirit instead of bread. Or rather in addition to bread, actually.
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 allowed 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 is Vodka made?
When making Vodka, the first step is to add water to the selected base ingredient. 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 to which yeast gets added to start the fermentation process.
So far, when working with grain, the whole procedure is actually very similar to brewing beer. But now it starts to differ. Within a short time, the mash turns alcoholic (6% - 8% ABV are required) and ready for distillation.
For this, the mix gets heated up to 173°F (78.4°C), whereupon the alcohol within begins to boil and vaporize. Once the vapor cools down, it returns to its liquid state and is filtered through charcoal to ensure clarity and a neutral taste. This procedure gets repeated until the distillate obtains the desired alcohol content.
The final distillate then gets blended with water to achieve the final ABV of, usually, about 40%. It must be noted, that the water is crucial for the quality of the end result. Tap water won't do if you want good Vodka.
For most Vodkas, that marks the end of the journey, as it is a spirit that doesn't need to mature. Some, however, age in oak casks.
Vodka made of different base ingredients
If you now want to try and compare Vodka made from different base ingredients, here is a list of brands sorted by the base they use:
Vodka made from different grains
Smirnoff is the largest Vodka brand in the world. Once founded in Moscow, Russia by P.A. Smirnov, Smirnoff has a turbulent history. From being the official Vodka supplier of the Winter Palace (once the residence of the Russian Emperor in St. Petersburg) to closing its doors during Russia's "dry law", facing bankruptcy and being sold. Smirnoff has seen it all and survived it, too. Better than anyone in the Vodka business, actually.
Their top-selling Vodka Smirnoff 21 is made of different grains and filtered ten times for extra smoothness. And they are also co-responsible for the invention of the Moscow Mule in 1941.
Vodka made from winter wheat
Renowned brands like Grey Goose (France), Absolut Vodka (Sweden), and Russian Standard distill their Vodka from winter wheat. Winter wheat is a wheat variety planted in the fall to sprout and then remains dormant in the vegetative phase -after germination but before flowering- during winter. It resumes growth in spring and then is harvested in summer. -Opposed to spring wheat, which is sowed in spring and harvested in autumn.
Vodka made of corn
A fine representative for Vodka made from yellow corn is Titos Handmade Vodka from Austin, Texas. After a bumpy start, Bert “Tito” Beveridge was the first to obtain a legal distilling permit in Texas.
Tito's story starts with instance, self-teaching how to distill and build his own pot stills according to photographs. As this was in the early 1990s, he could not just google how to do things.
And once he had figured everything out and found a formula for making Vodka that worked for him, one investor after the other turned him down. Eventually, he took all his savings, maxed out 19 credit cards, and got himself into business.
Vodka made from rye
Belvedere is one of the best-known luxury Vodka brands and owes its name to Pałac Belwederski in Warsaw, Poland. They pride themselves on representing more than 600 years of experience in the craft of Vodka-making. Because they follow the Polish Vodka legal regulation, which is one of the strictest in the world, they use 100% rye grown and harvested in Poland.
Vodka made from potatoes
Two brands that distill their Vodka from the often referred to potato are Blue Ice and Boyd and Blair, both from the United States. Both brands value sustainability and use local resources for their production.
Boyd and Blair is a family business that launched its handcrafted spirit in 2008. They use 100% Pennsylvania-grown and harvested potatoes for their distillate.
Blue Ice is the leading brand of 21st Century spirits in Los Angeles. They obtain their potatoes from local farmers in Idaho.
Vodka made from grapes
And last but not least, something truly extraordinary. Cîroc Vodka is made 100% from the finest French grapes for the Cognac region. The grape base gives the spirit a unique flavor and extra fruity notes. The base product gets distilled four times in a column still before being transferred to Maison Villevert Salles d’Angles in Southern France for the finishing touch. There, it gets distilled a fifth and final time in a traditional, tailor-made copper pot.
Cocktails made with Vodka
Popular classic cocktails made with Vodka are, amongst others, the Cosmopolitan, the Espresso Martini, and of course, the White Russian. But also more polarizing drinks like the Bloody Mary and the Appletini are based on the neutral spirit. The Vodka makes the tomato in the Bloody Mary shine. It allows creating this more savory sort of drink that seems almost impossible to achieve with any other spirit. And it works equally well with cocktails that aim for the exact opposite: sweet and easy-to-drink.
And then there's the other virtue of Vodka. It is a high-proof spirit that has a relatively low calorie count. Therefore, it is popular with everyone who's on a diet. Especially Vodka Soda, also known as Skinny Bitch, is a favorite when weight watching without wanting to abstain from alcohol completely.