Guest drink: Vodka
Words: Louise Crane
Friday 08 June 2018
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Play vodka in a game of Scrabble and you’ll earn 13 points. Play it across a triple-word, double-letter score combo and that lucrative K will help net you 54. Rub it on a wound for a cheap and easy disinfectant. Oh, and you can drink it, apparently. Vodka is often dismissed as a base drink for a mixer, or some kind of potato moonshine drunk by faraway Russians. There may be some truth to those two perceptions, but there is so much more to vodka. Come closer, and you’ll see.
If Scrabble had been around in the Middle Ages, you could have played the word vodka in 1405, when it appeared in written form for the first time, in Polish court documents. The word itself (originally wódka) is a diminutive form of the Slavic word voda (water), and means little water. At this time, wódka referred to medicines and cosmetics that were made from distilled alcohol; the drink was actually called gorzałka, a word that comes from the Old Polish verb gorzeć, meaning “to burn”. Back in these times vodka was usually drunk with added herbs “to increase fertility and awaken lust”.
Early vodka was usually low-proof, and distilled three times in pot stills (like giant kettles). The first distillate was called brantówka, the second szumówka, and the third was okowita (from aqua vitae). This would yield a final spirit of 70-80% ABV that would then be watered down to 30-35% ABV for drinking. Purity was an important aspect of vodka even back then, and distillers used freezing, cask ageing and clarification with dried fish bladders (or isinglass) to give their vodka an untainted edge.
Flavour in the spirit would come from the wash, which would be made from not only potatoes, but fermented grains (usually wheat or rye), sugar beet molasses and carrots. Jan-Roman Potocki of Polish vodka brand Potocki explains: “The raw material was always the one most readily available. Rye was used in particular, as it is the staple grain for making bread in this part of the world. In Lithuania, where forests and honey were in abundance, mead was made.” In some parts of Russia, wood alcohol was used, giving a smell like kerosene. Talk about setting your mouth on fire.
There are Polish vodka brands still around today that go back hundreds of years, notably Żubrówka, from about the 16th century and Goldwasser, from the early 17th century. “The gold flakes in the famous Gdansk Goldwasser, like flavourings, were meant to hide the bad taste of imperfect distillation. Here in Poland people would use cumin, bison grass, pepper, honey and sour cherries,” notes Jan-Roman.
By the 18th century, Polish vodka was well known in the Netherlands, Denmark, England, Russia, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, Bulgaria and the Black Sea basin. Russian vodka was also very popular, having been around since at least the 14th century (there’s evidence that homemade stills were being used as early as the 900s). There is a legend that says a Kremlin monk named Isidore who had great knowledge of distillation and special mechanical devices came up with the recipe for the first Russian vodka. This was known as “bread wine” and for a long time was produced only in the Grand Duchy of Moscow.
Vodka is now the drink of choice for many Russians because of the 1860s government policy of promoting consumption of state-manufactured vodka. By 1911, 89% of all alcohol consumed in Russia was vodka. This level remained high during the 20th century, fluctuating a little to reach around 70% in 2001. Vodka is also the biggest selling spirit in the USA, at 34% of cases sold, followed by whiskey at 24% and rum at 12%. American vodka has a heritage that comes from Russia, via France. After the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks confiscated all private distilleries in Moscow. Distillers went into exile, and one such man revived his vodka brand in Paris, using the French version of his last name: Smirnoff. He then got together with a Russian émigré living in the United States, and together they set up the first vodka distillery there in 1934.
This kicked off a vodka boom not only in the US but across the Western World. The Moscow Mule brought vodka cocktails to the masses, and as a clear neutral spirit with little to no flavour it was a very important part in the rise of cocktail culture during the post-war period. The 1990s were hugely successful for vodka, with more than 100 new brands being introduced between 1998 and 2002. Vodka has stayed its leadership as the most popular spirit in the US since 2003.
American-style and traditional European vodka are different beasts. One is usually drunk neat, as a single shot, served straight from the freezer, to give a thicker, creamy texture. It has a little flavour, a lingering of the wash character, with perhaps some added herbs. The other puts a premium on clarity and purity, so it can slip into a mixture of cola and lime, vermouth and ice, or any other cocktail with hardly a trace except the familiar burn of high strength alcohol.
Vodka’s reputation for all tasting the same comes from its industrialisation. Today, vodka is distilled in column stills rather than giant kettles in a process called continuous distillation. “It’s so efficient that it’s used for most spirits nowadays, including the majority of rums, brandies and tequilas and just about all vodkas and gins,” explains spirits writer Tim Forbes. Huge factories process what’s called ‘neutral grain spirit’, or NGS. Frighteningly tall column stills distill alcohol to very high strengths with very few chemical impurities (e.g. congeners) in one pass, using a series of plates to collect alcohol at higher and higher ABV percentages. The wash could be from potatoes but more often is wheat, or in the case of Ciroc vodka, grapes.
The final result is a clean alcohol that is around 94-95% pure alcohol. This is then sold in bulk to individual distillers, in both the USA and Europe. And turned into branded vodkas via various proprietary methods. Super-premium brands proudly proclaim how many times the product has been distilled for extra smoothness, when really they’re just saying how many plates the alcohol passed through in the column still. Filtration methods run from the ordinary to the opulent, with activated charcoal, quartz sand, Herkimer healing crystals (Crystal Head vodka), lava rock (the Icelandic Reyka), and even diamonds (Tears of Destiny), all of which are heavily marketed to make the customer believe there is an amount of individuality to the product.
Since the year 2000, consumer tastes have developed towards the idea of ‘ultra’ premium brands and artisanal vodka. There’s FAIR vodka, made from quinoa, or Konik’s Tail, made from spelt grain, rye and winter wheat by Pleurat Shabani, who is building a remote distillery for extra authenticity. Jan-Marint’s Potocki is a deliciously nutty, small batch, 100% rye vodka, distilled just twice for richness without any harsh flavours. Vestal vodka borrows from the wine industry: “I wanted to create the world’s best tasting vodka and took inspiration from the ideas of terroir and vintage, planting potatoes in different fields around our family farm in Northern Poland. Each is uniquely different. In 2008/2009 our first vintage was ready, and to this day surprises anyone who says vodka is boring,” says owner Willy Borrell. On the other end of the scale, there’s black market Russian vodka, made bathtub style, that can be sold cheap because of tax avoidance. In March 2007, a BBC documentary found that an industrial disinfectant was being added to vodka by illegal traders, leaving at least 120 dead and more than 1,000 poisoned.
The middle-to-top of the quality scale sees Smirnoff, the French-made, trendy Grey Goose, Absolut (from Sweden), Ciroc (endorsed by Puff Daddy/P Diddy/Puffy) and Kristall, Russia’s number one Vodka producer, responsible for Stolichnaya and for producing five million bottles per month. These vodkas certainly won’t poison you and will go perfectly in a Cosmopolitan, and you might struggle to tell them apart at a blind tasting. As a guide, Russian and Polish vodkas are considered the heartiest of the lot, Scandinavian countries are known for their lighter cocktail-friendly vodkas and Dutch vodka is regarded as sweet and gently textured. Get hold of an artisanal brand, and you might even enjoy sipping it. But to truly get into the spirit of vodka, it needs to be a slam dunk. So raise your glass, cheer “Na Zdorovie!” and knock it back.
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