Distilled Water, with a Kick
There is more Vodka sold in the U.S. today then any other spirit. The average consumer probably knows more brands of vodka then they do of all of the other spirits combined. And of course everybody has their favorite brand of vodka, and will defend it against all comers. Unfortunately, most of what the average consumer knows about vodka comes from the marketing campaigns that surround them.
Let’s spend a few moments to look at exactly what vodka is, and hopefully get the chance to better understand it and its role in cocktails and mixed drinks.
Vodka has a characteristic that makes it different from almost any other spirit. Brandy is distilled from fruit, Whiskey is distilled from grain, Rum is distilled from sugar, and Tequila is distilled from Agave. In fact, the very classification of these spirits is based upon what they are made from. But what is Vodka made from? Your first guess might be potatoes, but while that guess might be technically correct, it accounts for such a small percentage of the vodka we consume that it won’t earn you any points. Actually, vodka can be, and is, made from almost anything. The most common vodkas are made from grain of one type or another, but it can also be made from beets, sugar, fruit, milk, whey, honey... the list is almost endless.
Then what exactly is vodka? If you look at the list of possible products that you can use to make vodka, you’ll see that it can be made from the same products that might otherwise produce brandy, rum, or whiskey. Why is vodka different? What makes it vodka, and not whiskey?
The Vodka Process
The secret to creating vodka is in the distillation. Almost anything that contains starches or sugars can be fermented in order to start the cycle to producing a high-proof spirit. This first stage, where yeasts and sugars interact in order to produce alcohol, can only go so far. If the living environment of the yeast gets much beyond 15% alcohol, the yeast will die. This is why the alcohol level of most wine will be between 12% and 15% alcohol. To increase the alcohol level, it is necessary to distill the product in order to concentrate the alcohol. This process will separate out the alcohol from the other liquids contained in the product. The more efficient the distillation, the more alcoholic the end product is. For the spirits like Brandy, Whiskey, Rum, and Tequila, they will distill it out to between perhaps 40% and 55% alcohol by volume. The further you distill it, the more impurities you remove, but by the same token the more you’ll loose any characteristic flavors. If you were to distill the product out to 100% alcohol, you would have obviously removed any trace of flavor, except for whatever you might consider the "flavor" of alcohol itself. This is the secret of vodka.
Creating a product that is 100% alcohol is very, very difficult, to the point of being technically and commercially impossible. As it turns out, alcohol exhibits a chemical attraction to water. If you were to create a 100% alcohol product, it would almost instantly start drawing in water molecules from the air around it. This equilibrium settles out at just a little bit below 96%, so technically the strongest alcohol you can make will only be 191.5 proof (or 95.75% Alcohol By Volume). At which point you would have what is commonly referred to as a "Neutral Grain Spirit" (aka NGS). It is from this point that all vodkas begin.
The Spirit Of Neutrality
Since a neutral grain spirit is so...uh... neutral, it not only has no distinguishing characteristics, but there also isn’t much difference of what might be produced from one distiller to the next. Because of this, few vodka labels actually distill their own NGS. In the US, there are four distillers who produce about 99% of the NGS that is used to make vodka in the US. In Finland, Germany, and Sweden, the government actually owns the distilling process, and produces all of the NGS that might be used to make vodka in those countries.
What then is it that makes one vodka different from another? In a word, water.
The vodka you buy in the liquor store is far from being 191.5 proof. Normally it will be between 80 and 100 proof. It is the vodka manufacturer who takes the NGS that they either make themselves, or more likely purchase from a bulk NGS producer, and add water to it in order to bring it down to an appropriate level. Many distillers will also process the product through various filtration mechanisms, either before or after the water has been added, in order to better purify their product.
So let’s do just a little bit of math. If you start with something that is 95% alcohol, and you want to reduce that percentage down to 40% (80 proof), how much water would you need to add? By my calculations it turns out to around 58%, thus making your vodka 60% water. This would result in making the water you add to your vodka the most important component from a flavor perspective. So when you are drinking vodka, you are basically just drinking alcoholic water.
So what then is all of the fuss and popularity of vodka all about? It’s hard to say exactly, but my bet would be on marketing. It was back in the early very late 1930’s that vodka first starting becoming available in the US, manufactured by a small American company that had purchased the right to use the name "Smirnoff", from the Russian distiller Pierre Smirnoff. Their output was extremely small, and their product was having difficulty catching on. Then in 1939, the company was bought out by the Heublein Corporation, and in order to justify their purchase, launched a nation-wide advertising campaign which attempted to convince the American public that this "new" spirit was something exceptional. Their catchphrase in their early advertising was "Smirnoff Leaves You Breathless", an attempt to infer that unlike other spirits, vodka wouldn’t leave any telltale odor on your breath. It was also a common misconception that vodka wouldn’t give you a hangover. Throughout the 1940’s vodkas use gradually grew, but it wasn’t until the 1950’s, when Smirnoff started advertising the use of vodka to replace the gin in your Martini and other common cocktails, that things really started moving. By 1976, vodka was outselling all other spirits.
When the point of drinking is just to get drunk, then vodka is the perfect product. You can take any non-alcoholic beverage you like, add vodka to it, and you now have the same beverage, but this time with a kick. This concept is similar to the soda-pop wines of the early 70’s. The goal here was to create a product that would be approachable to a newly "of age" crowd that had grown up on soda pop and fruit drinks. Give them something that would present a familiar and agreeable taste, but that was now "all grown up" because it included alcohol. Eventually, this introduction allowed people to discover the more interesting and complex flavors of Rieslings, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet and other true wines. In a sense, you can think of the soda-pop wines as playing the role of training wheels for wine drinkers. Likewise, I’d like to think of vodka as being the training wheels for the cocktail crowd.
Compared to the other spirits, vodka, is bland, tasteless, and without hardly any distinguishing characteristics. Besides its alcoholic side effects, it adds virtually nothing to a drink, except of course alcohol, and its characteristic "burn". Because of this, it provides a great way to introduce neophytes to the world of cocktails. Starting off with a simple and approachable drink such as a Screwdriver, then moving on to something a little more adventuresome, like a Cosmopolitan, and then eventually arriving at a Vodka Martini. This provides the beginner with a process to acclimate themselves to the often overpowering experience that alcohol provides without also having to deal with the unaccustomed tastes that the other spirits might present.
Continuing to stick to vodka cocktails is a little like leaving the training wheels on your bicycle long after you’ve learned to ride. While the safety and security might be comforting, eventually you need to move on and get the full experience that are available through the other spirits, and the myriad of cocktails that they provide. I feel that this is the problem that cocktails are facing today.
The Next Step
I’m not saying that vodka is bad, or that there isn’t any such thing as a good vodka cocktail, only that it is important to understand the importance of proper variety. Just because you might like mashed potatoes doesn’t mean that you should put lemon juice on your potatoes and call them an appetizer, then put catsup on them and call it the main course, to be followed by a desert of mashed potatoes with honey.
I feel that it is important to understand that once you’ve gotten to the point where you can handle the various vodka cocktails out there, it would probably be worthwhile to investigate some of the other spirits and liqueurs available to see what they might have to offer.
If something like the Lemon Drop or Cosmopolitan strikes your fancy, then you might want to try something like a Sidecar, Margarita, Daiquiri, or Mojito. If you’ve found that Vodka Martini’s are more your style, then you could try something like Fallen Leaves, Manhattan, or even a real (gin) Martini. From there, you can begin to experiment with a wide range of cocktails that are available.