The Explainer: the great white spirit, vodka

Vodka, poor, super-premium vodka. In a world where smokey, funky, estery mezcals are highly prized by bartenders, the subtleties and refinement of vodka can seem, well, a little staid.

But you know what? There’s nothing wrong with a Martini made on vodka, provided it’s served bracingly cold, the dilution is on point, and the vermouth and the vodka are made well. There’s a certain time of night when that will make everything just so.

When we think of vodka we tend to think of Russia and Poland, and indeed, those countries have a long history with vodka, with each country laying claim to its invention. The details either way are sketchy — there’s some evidence that the Poles were making wodka in the early 1400’s, and vodka consumption in Russia was sufficiently advanced such that Ivan the Terrible sought to create a state monopoly around its production and distribution in the 1500’s.

But what they were making was probably closer to an unnamed whisky or moonshine than it is to the super-ultra-premium, highly refined, and distilled a gazillion times vodka you’re likely to see today.

That’s because there was no use of the continuous or column still (it wasn’t used in Russia until the 1870’s), so the spirit wouldn’t have been as refined or pure as it is today. The alcohol level would have been lower, there would have been more impurities, and hence more flavour — essentially, they would have been making new make whisky.


So where are we at with vodka these days? When we look around at where the vodka brands are at these days, when they’re talking to bartenders more and more they’re talking about the base ingredients that go into creating the spirit and less about the flavour they’ve sought to strip out through filtering and distillation. There’s a big focus on premium wheat, for instance, being used to create the spirit. After all all, if you put crap in, you expect to get crap out, right?

What are the base ingredients for vodka?
Traditionally, vodka was traditionally made from grains or potato. Rye and wheat are two base materials for vodka with a very long history — it’s likely this was what was being distilled back in Russia and Poland in the early days of production. And it makes sense — turning these grains into a mash to be distilled would be a great way of using up any surplus grain.

Polish vodka is known for making more use of potato, but potatoes didn’t arrive in Europe until it they landed in Spain in the 1570’s (potatoes being native to the New World). According to Mark Ridgewell’s book, Spirits Explained, it wasn’t until the 1800’s that the potato was being used for vodka production in Poland.

But that was then, and today you can find a whole host of base materials for vodka production. Vodka can be distilled from any agricultural product according to the EU, which is a pretty broad scope. So you see vodkas distilled from corn, vodka distilled from grapes; from the must leftover from the winemaking process, from sugarbeets, from just about anything.

What is vodka? How do you define it?
How you define vodka depends on which regulatory framework you’re looking at.
The European Union defines vodka as a spirit produced from ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin. So, pretty much anything. But if it’s made from a material other than grain or potato, then it must labelled with the words “produced from” so as to indicate the agricultural material used.

In the US, it is a spirit distilled to 95% alcohol or above, and bottled at a minimum of 40% alcohol and a maximum of 55%. It is to be “distilled or treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials so as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or colour.” That is, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has said vodka should be “as tasteless and odourless as possible.”

The only problem with that, however, is that vodka is neither odourless nor tasteless.

Vodkas made from rye, for instance, are far from tasteless — the rye that is distilled is often identifiable when nosing and tasting the spirit, so, it clearly has a taste and a smell.

Tasting Notes

666 Pure Tasmanian Vodka
666 is made from using the world’s purest rain water from Tasmania’s Cape Grim and distilling Tasmanian barley in a triple copper pot distillation process. Think Spirits

42BELOW Pure
Made from a base of Australian wheat, and distilled four times in a column still, 42BELOW Pure has aniseed and peppery notes, along with a vanilla character on the palate. Bacardi-Martini

The 86 Co Aylesbury Duck Vodka
With a nose that presents winter wheat starch and layers of root vegetables citrus oils, it’s smooth and dry on the palate before opening up to caramel, fresh baked bread and citrus characters on the palate, with a medium long peppery finish. Vanguard Luxury Brands

Grey Goose
Made from soft winter wheat from northern France, Grey Goose presents with floral aromas and subtle citrus on the nose, with a smooth, rounded texture on the palate and a hint of almond character leading to a fresh, bright, and long finish. Bacardi-Martini

Summum Vodka
Summum is a handmade vodka distilled from wheat and made in the Cognac region of France. The use wheat from the Beach region in northern France and employ multiple plate column distillation, and spring water from the Gensac region of France to create a top quality vodka. Cerbaco

Tito’s Handmade Vodka
Made from 100% corn, Tito’s Handmade Vodka has a rounder and slightly sweeter taste than some vodkas made from wheat and potatoes. This six times pot-distilled craft vodka has subtle vanilla and caramel notes. SouthTrade