Vodka (meaning “little water” in Russian) is made primarily with water and ethanol alcohol of agricultural origin, such as wheat, rye, potato, corn, or barley. The United States and the European Union have slightly different definitions of vodka.
- In the US, domestic vodkas are defined as "neutral spirits without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color."
- The European Union legislation defines vodka as “a spirit drink in which the organoleptic characteristics (since we had to look that one up we will save you the time, it means qualities relating to taste, color and odor) of the raw materials are selectively reduced.”
The notable difference is that the US strives to eliminate the taste and aroma, while the EU only aims to reduce it. The “Eastern” style is a favorite among those who prefer a vodka that retains some of its character and flavor, while the “Western” style is better suited for those seeking a pure, neutral spirit.
Why should I care if my vodka has been triple distilled, charcoal filtered, or made with the best water in the world?
Once an alcohol wash is obtained from the raw materials, it must be distilled. Generally, multiple distillations give you a product of higher purity and alcohol content. Distillers typically mark this “extra” distillation by labeling their vodka as double, and sometimes triple distilled. Filtering can be done in the still during distillation, but is often performed after. During the filtering process, charcoal and other media are used to absorb materials that impart off-flavors to the vodka. However, as stated earlier, many distillers from Eastern countries prefer to use very accurate distillation and minimal filtering, thus preserving the flavors and characteristics of their products. Lastly, the water used to dilute the vodka to its final strength is very important. No matter how pure and distinctive the uncut spirit, diluting it with inferior water will result in an inferior product.
Even though the product may be distilled numerous times, it will still contain trace amounts of impurities. Since the impurities come from the fermentation material and the yeast, these ingredients help to distinguish vodkas in both taste and mouthfeel. Five of the most common ingredients are as follows:
- Wheat is the most popular grain for vodka, and is the grain of choice in Russia. Wheat vodkas are frequently associated with a clean flavor and aniseed finish, sometimes with an oily mouthfeel.
- Rye is the most common raw material in Poland. It tends to produce vodka with a sweet spiciness.
- Potato vodkas tend to have a creamy flavor and texture, with a weighty mouthfeel. They are generally a specialty of Poland, but can be found in other countries.
- Corn has the largest yield of the grains and is generally only used in western vodkas. It is associated with buttery, sweetcorn flavors.
- Barley is the least common of the grains used in vodka, and is usually associated with Finland. It tends to have a slightly sweet flavor.
While most vodka is sold as plain vodka, many are infused with additives to create flavored vodka. This is not a new trend; flavored vodkas have been around as long as the spirit itself. Today, flavors can range from the common, like pepper or citrus, to the extreme, such as bacon.
Whether on the rocks, straight up or used as the foundation for your favorite cocktail, vodka has a reputation for being the life of the party. It is extremely versatile and due to its mixability, it’s a staple in every bar.