VODKA: MORE THAN A MIXER

What should you do if vodka interferes with your working? Quit working. So goes the old Russian anecdote. Vodka: the drink that has caused international disputes, a French army to retreat, is rumored to aid the pain of a jellyfish sting and not give you a headache in the morning.  Sadly, the most popular liquor on the planet does not get the distinction it deserves.

Along with the Scandinavian countries, Russia and Poland all still stake their claim as being the first to produce vodka. There are even claims of it originating in Italy, with 13th century clergymen being credited with its creation. Although the debate will likely continue for generations to come, vodka will continue to be the front runner of the liquor industry due to its versatility and simplicity. And yet it is for these reasons that vodka is not in the same class of complexity or prestige as other liquors.

It was not until the 1950’s when vodka overtook gin as the liquor of choice for most mixed drinks. It then took a further 20 years to overhaul whisky/scotch as the world’s best selling alcohol.  Its high alcohol content coupled with its purity and relative lack of flavor meant that bartenders were able to make a drink without altering the tastes of its base ingredients. It is this quality that allows vodka to remain a staple of bars globally, and eclipses everything else in terms of sales, but there is something missing in terms of its global appeal.

While there are roughly 100 distilleries of Scotch in existence, new vodkas appear seemingly weekly. It is not always the case of the strongest (or best quality) surviving, as marketing plays an important role in vodka’s success. Brands such as Absolut and Smirnoff lead the way and quite often it is the packaging, not the contents, acting as the focus of a brand’s success. This has left a great deal of quality vodkas trailing in the wake of quirky counterparts. With this being the case, a bit of education can go a very long way in understanding what vodka is.

I was once tending bar when two gentlemen ordered vodka on the rocks. One had Belvedere and the other Grey Goose. After exchanging a sample of each drink, neither gentleman enjoyed the other’s choice, yet they couldn’t understand why? Despite both being called vodka, the two they selected were very different drinks. You see, most liquors, such as rum or tequila, have the same base (i.e. rum uses sugar and tequila uses blue agave), vodka can be made from many sources. Beets, rye, grain, potato, grapes and other products heavy in starch/sugar can all be used to create vodka. This, together with varying distillation techniques, produces many different drinks under one name. To call vodka tasteless then is far from accurate and to see vodka as simple in the face of whiskies, brandies, tequila and the like is unfair.

The controversy of what can or cannot go into vodka is for another day.  Yet despite the vast array of vodkas on the market, there are still regional styles and predominant base ingredients for the three main vodka producing regions.

It is important to acknowledge that vodka for Poland, Russia and Scandinavia is more than just a drink. It is a way of life and community, brought out during social occasions and toasts of “Skol” or “Nasdrovie/Nasdrowie”. Vodka has become part of the national identity of these regions, much in the same way the French identify with wine.  Simply put, it’s in their blood.

Poland

Polish distillers predominantly favour potatoes and grain as their base ingredient. Many mid- to high-end producers favour potato as it gives the vodka an approachable, creamy texture and a sweet taste. Chopin or Luksusowa are wonderful examples of these qualities that are readily available in the U.S. Many are distilled four times to give an increased alcoholic content and a smoother texture. The quality of these vodkas is extremely high because this smooth texture is highly desired. In fact, Chopin will dispose of an entire batch of vodka if any imbalances appear during the tasting process.

For those producers that select grain, the experience is completely different. Typically zesty and refreshing, the grain provides an edge that the potato cannot. The most popular example of a distiller using grain is Belvedere, which uses rye as its base. Outside of Belvedere, there are some others that will blend different grains to produce noteworthy vodkas, however none as popular as those already mentioned.

Scandanavia

Scandinavian Vodka, or Brannvin (burnt wine) as it is often known, is predominantly made from wheat and distilled at a greater rate than Russian or Polish vodka, thereby removing even greater amounts of impurities from the liquid. The use of wheat as a base produces a smooth, slightly sweet vodka, with Absolut being far and away the most popular, but other higher quality vodkas exist, so don’t be closed-minded when it comes to vodka from this region.

Another interesting variation of vodka emerging from the Scandinavian countries is liquor known as Akvavit (Aquavit), of which Aalborg from Denmark is the most popular.  It is produced similar to vodka or gin; however it is flavored with various herbs, spices and citrus peel. It is typically yellow in color and is believed to have medicinal qualities, thus the name Akvavit (derived from aqua vitae meaning “water of life”). This is best-suited as an after-dinner drink, as it helps settle the stomach after a large meal.

Russia

Russia’s distillers use predominantly wheat and rye for their vodkas, with blends of the two being quite popular as well. Rye as a base ingredient gives a vodka a distinct bite (as mentioned previously) and many Russian vodkas as a whole certainly pack a punch. Beyond Stolichnaya there are many high quality vodkas available. On the lower-end, Etalon is a classic, ‘Russian style’ vodka, which I recommend you enjoy chilled with rye bread and a pickle for a unique experience. On the high-end, Imperia by Russian Standard, is readily available and quite possibly the smoothest vodka in existence.

The ‘Big Three’ vodka nations take their vodka seriously and would never contemplate using inferior products, such as corn starch, as a base ingredient. Though marketing plays a large role in the success of lesser quality vodka from elsewhere (that is not to disrespect excellent vodkas such as Grey Goose or Ketel One, from France and Holland, respectively) it is from these countries that one can truly grasp the essence of vodka. To experience its complexities and purity on its own is to give you appreciation for a spirit that is largely misunderstood, one that conveys the soul of its motherland.

Matthew Bumford is a former bartender and Food & Beverage Manager at the award-winning Stonehedge Inn & Spa in Tyngsboro, MA.

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Categories: Wine & Spirits

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