Bartenders Guide: Vodka
“When even shoeshine boys are giving you stock tips, it’s time to sell” -attributed to Joseph P. Kennedy
"When Young Jeezy and the Ying Yang Twins are giving you drinking tips, you're a dumb***." -Frost
OK, maybe that's a little heavy-handed. After all, I'm certain that Jeezy gets cases of booze that I can only dream of and Grey Goose is a sublime product...absolutely delicious. I simply ask that you know why it's delicious. Know that it's made with springwater that's been filtered through Champagne limestone. Know that it's made with Winter Wheat in a continuous still. Know something besides the fact that it's mentioned in a catchy song. Same goes for Absolut, which in my opinion, is a mediocre vodka with a brilliant marketing campaign.
Once you know that, move on to other, dare I say better vodkas, that don't have multi-million dollar pop endorsements. Like Chopin, for example, one of the few true potato vodkas easily accessible in the states. Or Belvedere, from Poland, which I think makes the perfect Gibson. (A martini with onions, instead of olives.)
Know that the thrill of vodka is in the hunt, the chase. Any fool can dump it in orange juice or shoot it from the freezer. I have been such a fool on many occasions, myself. To truly appreciate your vodka though, it must be taken neat. Are there citrus notes? A stony minerality? A hint of soft cream or licorice? Although the recent trend of infused vodkas has produced some dazzling flavors, they often lack subtlety and are rapidly blurring the lines between a vodka and a liqueur. The best vodkas are elusive, seducing you with a whisper instead of a shout, keeping you coming back for more.
And then you can go back to poppin' hos.
Vodka is a distilled beverage which consists of mostly water and ethanol purified by distillation. It has the least amount of congeners, or additives, of any spirit except perhaps Everclear or other pure grain spirits.
By law, Vodka must be odorless, colorless and tasteless. Obviously, this is not true, or all vodkas would taste identical. There are several factors that influence a vodka's flavor. These are:
The fermented product, which is usually grain but can be potatoes (much rarer than you think), sugar beet molasses and more recently, grapes, rice and pretty much anything else you can think of. (Ciroc is made from grapes).
The method of distillation and number of times distilled. Pot stills, column stills, etc. Most vodkas are distilled multiple times, generally between 3-5. Too little distillation leaves impurities, too much strips away delicate flavor notes.
The source of water used and filtration methods. Some vodkas use natural waters for slight mineral notes, some use ultra-purified water to obtain the cleanest taste possible.
And lastly, the amount of water used and the resulting alcohol percentage. Although the general standard is 80 proof, there are vodkas with higher and lower alcohol content. Too little and it tastes watery, too much and it has a very "hot" mouth-feel.
There is a recent surge in "infused" and flavored vodkas. Some are delicious. Some are swill. I encourage you to try something before shelling out big bucks for it. Just because it's new, doesn't mean it's good.
Although vodka is traditionally drunk neat in the Eastern European and Nordic countries, here in America we generally chill it, first...a sure sign we are barbarians. Vodka is also the basis of cocktails such as the Screwdriver, Bloody Mary, Cosmopolitan or in a martini.
Because vodka is relatively flavorless, care must be used when adding it to cocktails. It's easy to go overboard.