Vodka’s Back: Contemporary Vodka is Anything but Flavorless
Waltz into any cocktail bar in 1980, and there’s a good chance that more than half the patrons would be drinking a vodka cocktail. Clean, crisp, and quenching, vodka’s low-key flavor profile and supreme mixability made it the darling of the ‘80s and ‘90s cocktail scene. But times have changed. These days, spirits like whiskey and tequila are mixologists’ tipples of choice, and vodka might be the most misunderstood spirit in the whole liquor cabinet.
Yet writing off vodka would be a mistake—and fortunately, we’re seeing a quality-focused revival of the vodka category propelled by the same people who made mezcal an everyday word. If you’ve put off learning the finer points of vodka, there’s no better time than now to get acquainted with one of the world’s oldest and most diverse types of spirits.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF VODKA
Vodka’s origins can be traced back to the 1400s, when people began distilling grain, fruit, and root vegetables in the Ukraine, Poland, and Russia. Those early vodkas were probably a lot less alcoholic, and a lot more flavorful, than what we think of as vodka today. That’s because distilling technology was in its rudimentary form back then, and there’s a direct relationship between the purity of a distilled spirit and its flavor. The more pure (read, higher in ethanol) a spirit is when it exits the still, the lighter in flavor it will be.
The first written mention of the term vodka (which means “little water” in Slavic languages) dates back to a 1405 government document from Poland. At the time, spirits were primarily used for medicinal purposes, providing effective bases for tinctures and offering essential warmth during those cold eastern European nights.
The beverage quickly spread throughout Eastern Europe, including Russia, where it became widely popular. Often referred to as “bread wine” or “burnt wine,” it was made on pot stills from a wide range of feed stocks, including rye, potatoes, and wheat, and was frequently double or triple distilled to increase its purity. It’s likely that many of those early vodkas tasted a lot like unaged whiskey, which is made in a similar fashion.
The 1800s brought two major innovations to the world of vodka: the continuous still and charcoal filtration. The continuous still made it possible to increase production capacity and purity at the same time, creating a more neutral and refined beverage. Charcoal filtration allowed distillers to further refine their products, eliminating many of the heavier compounds that add flavor and—some say—contribute to hangovers. With these two inventions, modern vodka was born.
Modern vodka became popular in the United States after World War II, buoyed by interest in Czarist Russia during the Cold War. Cocktails were on the rise, and drinkers loved anything with a lighter, more refined flavor (blended Scotch became popular then, too). In the 1980s and 1990s, flavored vodka made a huge impact on the bar scene (remember all those Absolut advertisements?). During the first wave of the bourbon boom in the 2000s, vodka saw its popularity dip a bit, but today, it’s on the rise again. Craft producers are making exceptional vodkas, including flavored and unflavored versions featuring unusual and high-quality ingredients, complex flavor profiles, and an amazing balance between purity and flavor that helps vodka go toe to toe with other spirits categories.
HOW TO TASTE VODKA
The common wisdom is that good vodka is flavorless, which makes the idea of tasting vodka sound a little silly. What exactly are we tasting if there’s no flavor to begin with? But vodka isn’t flavorless at all; it’s just subtle, and anyone can teach themselves to appreciate the finer points of vodka just like wine, whiskey, or craft beer.
- First, you’ll need a good glass. Choose something with a rounded bowl and a narrower, fluted neck. A white wine glass can be a good option, or a Glencairn-type glass, which is frequently used in whiskey tasting. First, taste the vodka at room temperature; freezing can mask flavor.
- Like any spirit, you’ll want to use all your senses. What does the vodka look like—is it sparkling and clear? A little cloudy? Colored? Then smell it. What aromas do you notice? Is it sweet? Spicy? Fruity? Even herbaceous?
- Finally, sip the vodka, allowing the spirit to coat the inside of your mouth. Swallow, and then breathe out, which moves aroma molecules past your olfactory nerve through a process called retronasal olfaction. What do you taste? How long is the finish? Does the alcohol provide a pleasant warming sensation, or an irritating burn?
HOW TO DRINK VODKA
The most important thing to remember about drinking vodka is to drink it how you enjoy it. Fine vodka can absolutely be sipped, neat or over ice, just like whiskey or rum. Of course, it’s also a standout cocktail ingredient, forming the base of classic concoctions like the Moscow Mule, the Vodka Martini, the Cosmopolitan, and the Bloody Mary.
Or, if you’re looking to switch up your glass of wine at dinner for something with a little more oomph, try vodka with food. In Eastern Europe, vodka is frequently consumed not as a cocktail ingredient or party shooter, but as an important accompaniment to meals. Chilled carafes of vodka are served alongside food, poured into tiny glasses and used to fuel long nights of feasting, toasting, and revelry.
Not only does vodka taste great alongside traditional Russian foods like caviar, pickled vegetables, and farmhouse cheeses, but it also cleanses the palate and stimulates the digestion to make feasting even more fun. Plus, big meals help stave off the intoxicating effects of the vodka—a virtuous cycle indeed.
To drink vodka the Russian way, stick the bottle in the freezer for several hours before dinner. Then, once the food is ready, set the table with small glasses and bring out the vodka. It’s polite to pour for one another, and always toast your dining companions before drinking. Cheers!