Vodka is the easiest spirit to discuss stylistically. As defined by law in the United States, vodka must be a pure spirit with no additives except water, non-aged, and basically tasteless and odorless. Generally, vodka is made from grain or potatoes, with grain accounting for well over 90 percent of the production on the international market. Vodka is a rectified spirit, which means it is distilled at least three times, a fact that some brands like to remind us of in their advertisements. The final and very important step in vodka production is filtering through charcoal, though some brands claim to use diamond dust, glacial sand, or even quartz crystals.
The stylistic differences between vodka brands are subtle, since strong flavor is not a consideration. The first and most obvious difference is between grain and potato vodkas. The most distinctive of all the vodkas I tasted in either category was Luksusowa, a potato vodka from Poland that actually has pronounced flavor. I would definitely recommend it to vodka drinkers, but not in a Martini; it should be taken chilled and straight as a sipping vodka. Other potato vodkas readily available in the United States, such as Chopin and Teton (both made with potatoes) and Peconika (made with a potato and grain mix), are almost indistinguishable from regular grain-based vodka. Remember, this spirit is distilled to 190 proof—almost pure alcohol—and then filtered. The impurities that give lower-proof spirits their characteristic flavor, called congeners, are almost completely distilled out of vodka.
The second stylistic difference in vodka is its texture on the tongue, or mouth feel. I find that two of the very popular imported vodkas represent the two prominent styles: Absolut has an oily, almost viscous texture that is often described as silky with a sweet finish; and Stolichnaya has a clean, almost watery texture and a slight medicinal finish. Along with the texture, the Absolut-style vodkas have a hint of sweetness in the aftertaste that is missing in the Stolichnaya. That hint of sweetness and the oily texture are due in part to glycerin, a by-product of distillation present in trace amounts in all spirits. Scandinavian countries tend to produce vodka in the silky style with the hint of sweet in the finish; Russian and Eastern European countries produce vodkas with the clean, almost dry medicinal finish.
The third stylistic difference is heat. I find that vodkas are either hot, rough, and raw, or smooth, round, and finished. Most are 40 percent alcohol, but some reveal their proof on the tongue more aggressively than others. Usually, less expensive bulk vodka will burn in the mouth and throat, while vodka made by a master distiller feels smooth and round. The premium and super-premium brands are a good choice for the Martini or a straight shot of vodka to accompany caviar or other hors d’oeuvres.
* Smirnoff, United States, 80 proof
* Olifant, Holland, 80 proof
* Wyborowa, Poland, 80 proof
* Luksusowa, Poland, 80 proof (potato)
* Absolut, Sweden, 80 proof
* Finlandia, Finland, 80 proof
* Skyy, United States, 80 proof
* Peconika, United States, 80 proof (potato/grain)
* Teton, United States, 80 proof (potato)
* Tanqueray Sterling, England, 80 proof
* Boru, Ireland, 80 proof
* Stolichnaya, Russia, 80 proof
* Frïs, Denmark, 80 proof
* Belvedere, Polish, 80 proof
* Chopin, Polish, 80 proof (potato)
* Grey Goose, France, 80 proof
* Rain, United States, 80 proof
* Cristall, Russia, 80 proof
* Mor, Estonia, 80 proof (potato)
Although flavored vodkas are relatively new to Americans, the Russians have been flavoring their vodkas for hundreds of years. So do you need flavored vodka at your home bar? Sure. If you want to make a great Cosmopolitan, then you need citrus vodka. How about whipping up a fabulous Espresso Cocktail with Stolichnaya Vanil, Kahlúa, cold espresso, and cream? Choose your favorite flavor and have some fun with it.
* Gordon’s Citrus, United States, 60 proof
* Gordon’s Orange, United States, 60 proof
* Smirnoff Citrus, United States, 80 proof
* Smirnoff Orange, United States, 70 proof
THE SMIRNOFF STORY:
In the 1930s, Rudolph Kunett of Bethel, Connecticut, bought the name and formula for Smirnoff vodka, originally produced in Czarist Russia, from Vladimir Smirnoff in Paris. Kunett’s father had supplied grain for the original vodka in Czarist Russia. In 1939, John Martin bought the whole ball of wax from Kunett for $14,000 plus a small royalty on every case sold. Martin was president of Heublein Inc., grandson of the founder. After World War II, Martin ceaselessly promoted his vodka with four main cocktails: the Bloody Mary, the Screwdriver, the Moscow Mule, and the Vodkatini. His most successful promotions established associations with Hollywood and well-known actors. He placed the Smirnoff bottle in movies, especially the hugely successful James Bond films. He hired the young actor and director Woody Allen for the Smirnoff print advertisements. His famous catch phrase to woo the lunchtime gin-Martini drinker was “Smirnoff…It leaves you breathless.”
DeGroff, Dale. The Craft of the Cocktail (Kindle Locations 386-434). Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale.