At base, vodka is a base. At least it is in the U.S., where it has become the base spirit for endless cocktails, and for equally endless versions of flavored spirits, due largely to its neutrality. In the beginning, however, it was, and is, the tipple of choice in Eastern Europe. Which part of Eastern Europe first distilled it, however, is only slightly more disputed than Balkan borders. The word is a diminutive of voda, the Russian word for water (diminutives are a Russian specialty) and wòdka in Polish, both of which make it “little water.” The evidence, shaky as it is, points toward Poland as the initial source, although Russians will, not surprisingly, give you an argument. In any case, it dates in more or less its current form from at least the 14th century and was firmly established (nothing is ever shakily established) by the 15th, with production controlled by the aristocracy in Russia and Poland, and pretty much everywhere, and then by local governments. And as with almost all distillations, it was initially used for medicinal purposes, but, as is also the case everywhere, people got over that fairly quickly and vodka was soon found on every table east of the Oder.
Vodka is ethyl alcohol in its purest form, especially in its most recent Western incarnations, distilled at a high proof and generally unaged. It can be, and is, made from virtually any grain or vegetable material. Today it’s made from fermented and distilled cereal grains, potatoes, molasses, beets and a number of other things found growing outside the back door. Russian and Scandinavian vodkas today are generally wheat based, while many Polish versions are made from rye, with some potato devotees. U.S. distillers play no favorites and often distill what the market declares, including corn, wheat and beets, while the least expensive vodkas are often made from molasses. Unaged spirits from grapes have generally been called eau de vie (yes, of course, water of life) but when distilled at high-enough proof, they can meet the U.S. definition for vodka, and now do, which led the European Community to require any vodka not made from grain or potatoes to list all ingredients on their label.
Definition: There is no universal definition vodka. In Poland, Vodkas are graded according to their degree of purity: standard (zwykly), premium (wyborowy) and deluxe (luksusowy). In Russia Vodka that is labeled osobaya (special) usually is a superior-quality product that can be exported, while krepkaya (strong) denotes an overproof Vodka of at least 56% ABV (alcohol by volume. In this case, 112-proof). In the United States, domestic Vodkas are defined by U.S. government regulation as "neutral spirits, so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color." In practice, neutral spirits are distilled at above 85% ABV (170-proof).
Production: Before there was distillation, the extreme cold in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia resulted, initially by accident, in wines and beers freezing to a thickened slush above a block of ice. The slush was the alcohol, which only freezes at -173.2 F. The smarter serfs and Vikings figured this out and would put the beer in the yard overnight, then pour off the alcohol in the morning. Better living through amateur chemistry.
Actual distillation began with copper pot stills, as it had in Southern Europe, where the distillate of choice was wine. North of the grape-growing line, grains and cold-weather vegetables, including potatoes and beets, were the choice. Pot stills, even with multiple distillations and careful collection of the spirit, leave some esters, congeners and other impurities in the spirit, so that pot-still vodkas will be likely to have some residual taste, which was true of early vodkas and remains true. This is why some rye vodkas, distilled at a slightly lower proof, will retain some identifiable rye notes. The advent of the continuous column still in the 19th century meant that something very close to pure ethyl alcohol could be produced. The effective maximum is approximately 195-proof or approximately 98% ABV. Most vodka today, and all commercially produced U.S. vodka (call us if we’re wrong) is made in column stills. This nearly absolutely (pun intended) neutral spirit results in a vodkas distinguishable in large measure by mouth-feel (think dry versus oily) and tingle (think alcohol prickliness on the tongue) rather than definite flavors. Most vodka from the U.S and Scandinavia is distilled at these very high proofs and is bottled at 80-proof (40% ABV), with some exceptions. (Bottling proof is reached by adding water to the water of life.) Since the 18th century, vodka’s neutrality has been enhanced by additional, usually post-distillation, filtering. The oldest filter is probably river sand, and the most traditional is charcoal. In recent years any number of other substances have been used, including “diamond dust.”
Flavored Vodka: Flavored vodka has been traditional in Eastern Europe, and should be distinguished from contemporary flavored versions.
Older styles include:
Kubanskaya – infused with dried lemon and orange peels.
Limonnaya - lemon-flavored usually with a little added sugar.
Okhotnichya -hunters vodka, flavored with ginger, cloves, lemon peel, coffee, anise and other herbs and spices, blended with sugar and a touch of a wine similar to white port.
Pertsovka –made with both black peppercorns and red chilies.
Starka - "Old" vodka, a holdover from the early centuries of Vodka production, infused with everything from fruit-tree leaves to brandy, Port, Malaga wine, and dried fruit. Some are aged in oak casks.
Zubrovka - Zubrowka in Polish. Flavored with bison grass (also known as sweet grass), an aromatic grass favored by the herds of the rare European bison. The distinctive, almost vanilla-like aroma and flavor comes from the compound coumarin, which is also found in tonka beans.
Contemporary flavored vodka: In recent years some wood-aged vodkas have appeared, but should not be confused with the older styles. Citrus, black currant and pepper-flavored vodka, based on traditional styles, appeared a generation ago. In more recent years, modern distillation techniques, flavor-industry advances and marketing opportunities have given rise to a bottomless cornucopia of bottlings. These include but are certainly not limited to:
Apple (green, sour, oriental, and wild), cherry (black, Bing, and wild), Berry (red, black, wild, acai, and rasp), maple syrup, Fruit Loops, rainbow sherbet, root beer, smoked salmon, red liquorice (sic), peanut butter & jelly, buttered popcorn, peach, vanilla, pear, cranberry, grape, whipped cream, cake (birth and strawberry short), frosting, bacon, pecan, menthol tobacco, sriracha, pineapple-coconut, Cinnabon, mango, tomato, banana, bubblegum, cola, marshmallow, cookie dough, ginger snap, donut, dill pickle, horseradish and waffles.