Booze Primer: Vodka in 1000 Words or Less - IMBOLDN
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Vodka is like the burger of booze – pretty much everyone likes it, and it can be as simple or as fancy as you like. In fact, there’s even a vodka-infused mustard on the market, but that’s a condiment conundrum for another day. Today is all about the beautiful base flavors of humble vodka, a grain alcohol that’s so popular it’s practically ubiquitous and so versatile it’s widely considered mandatory for every bar, restaurant, tavern, club, lounge, and tiki hut worth its salt.

A Quick Shot

– Proof: 80

– Calories Per Ounce: 64

– Big-Name Brands: Smirnoff, Belvedere, Absolut, Ketel One, Grey Goose

– Classic Cocktails: Martini, Cosmopolitan, Bloody Mary, White Russian, Salty Dog, Moscow Mule

– Famous Song: “It’s Martini Time” – The Reverend Horton Heat

– Did You Know? Billionaire Vodka is known as the most expensive vodka in the world. For a mere $3.7 million, you can treat yourself to a 5-liter bottle of vodka made from a secret Russian recipe and filtered through millions of dollars in diamonds. Of course, the container itself is just a swanky, thanks to decorations that include more than 3,000 diamonds and Swarovski crystals. Boom.

A Brief History of Vodka

No one knows for sure where vodka got its start, but there’s evidence it existed at least as far back as the Middle Ages. It’s mentioned in Polish court documents from the 1400s, and the drink was so popular it spread quickly, finding its way to Denmark, Germany, Austria, Romania, Bulgaria, England and beyond (all places where Polish vodka was the undisputed star) by the 17th and 18th centuries. One Polish botanist believed vodka could “increase fertility and awaken lust”, while others used vodka to treat fatigue, soothe skin, and prevent early labor.

Then there’s the Russia connection. Vodka is referred to as a medicinal drink in Russian text from 1533, and in fact the word vodka comes from the Russian word voda which means “water”. Vodka is almost stereotypically Russian, and that has much to do with the fact that that liquor was once manufactured under a government monopoly. Once that restriction was lifted, production skyrocketed, prices dropped, and vodka was as easy to obtain as, well, water.

The word vodka comes from the Russian word voda which means “water”.

The growing popularity of vodka led to industrialization of the distilling process in the late 1700s, and soon more factories followed. Production techniques also evolved, helping to transform crude early vodkas into the clear, thoroughly distilled wonder we know, love, and mix with cranberry juice today.

Over the last several hundred years, conflict (thanks, World War II) and abolitionism have threatened to damped the vodka party enjoyed world over, but public demand ensured that the delicious tipple endured. Thank goodness.

Production, Taste, and Trends

All you need to make vodka is water, ethanol, some type of fermented plant matter, and a distillery, though the final result definitely benefits from extra tweaks to remove impurities and mitigate off-flavors. The ferment itself is often cereal grains or potatoes, but production can include anything from soybeans to sugar beets. Choice of ingredients definitely impacts the end taste, but unlike many liquors like scotch (smoky, nutty, caramel) or gin (herbaceous, citrus, spiced) which lend themselves to variety and invite distillers to get creative with the recipe, vodka is famous for its neutrality.

Though many people adore vodka because it’s such a clean, crisp liquor, flavored versions are currently all the rage. Pepper vodka? Check. Cinnamon vodka? Check.

Though many people adore vodka because it’s such a clean, crisp liquor, flavored versions are currently all the rage. Pepper vodka? Check. Cinnamon vodka? Check. You’ll also find bottles of vodka that supposedly taste like birthday cake, bison grass, bacon, dill, peanut butter & jelly, pickles, jalapenos, buttered popcorn, and – the favorite of every basic Becky – pumpkin spice. Some flavors are less crazy and actually rooted in tradition; Nordic countries love to season their vodkas with a combination of fruits, herbs, and spices, and other Eastern European countries have their own local traditions that see everything from watermelon to flowers tossed in the mix.

Try It: Three Vodka Recipes

Vodka’s neutral flavor profile lends itself to almost any mixer you can imagine, so it’s no surprise that vodka lovers have thousands of interesting cocktails to choose from.

Moscow Mule

It’s hard to know whether this drink is so trendy because of the cool copper mug it comes in or simply because it’s delicious. Either way, a stupid-easy recipe and broad appeal make this cocktail worth keeping in your back pocket for special occasions and impromptu get-togethers.

  • 1 ½ ounces vodka
  • ½ fresh lime juice
  • Ginger beer
  • Lime wedge

Add ice to a copper mug and top with vodka and lime juice. Add ginger beer to fill. Squeeze and drop the lime wedge as garnish and serve.

Lemon Drop Martini

A little sweet, a lot refreshing, and nice as an aperitif, an accompaniment for your main meal, or as a way to wind down after the never-ending slog that is your work week. Lemon Drop Martinis are easy to make, but you’ll need to carefully balance the ingredients or risk creating a taste bud-bruising mess.

  • 1 ½ ounces vodka
  • ¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
  • ¼ ounce simple syrup
  • Lemon twist

Pour vodka, lemon juice, and simply syrup into a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake to combine. Strain into an ice-cold martini glass. Rub the twist around the edge of the glass then drop in the drink to garnish. Serve.

Vodka Collins

Simple, refreshing, relatively low calorie (you can control the sugar or omit it completely and still have a tasty drink – though it would no longer be a Collins), and suitable for purists and mixed-drink enthusiasts alike.

  • 1 ½ ounces vodka
  • 1 ounce fresh lemon juice
  • ½ ounce simple syrup
  • Club soda
  • Maraschino cherry, orange slice, and/or lemon twist for garnish (depending on how fancy you’re feeling)

Fill a tall glass with ice and add the vodka, lemon juice, and simple syrup. Top with club soda and garnish with a simple lemon twist or a whole fruit salad, your choice.