For National Vodka Day, we’re answering the important questions.
We’re covering all the Vodka basics right here. Where is Vodka from? How did Vodka make its way into the limelight? And how to make a great Vodka drink!
What is Vodka?
Technically Vodka is an odorless, colorless, flavorless spirit that’s been distilled to a high alcohol percentage and diluted to between 40-80% alcohol by volume.
There’s much more to this open ended spirit, though. Often the go-to for novice drinkers, Vodka is regularly thought of as an accessible spirit for all drinkers. It’s easy going, light in flavor and easy to mix. Today, Vodka Sodas are one of the most called for drinks in a bar.
How is Vodka made?
Unlike many spirits, Vodka can be fermented from any raw material or base ingredient that will ferment. Where Tequila must come from Agave and Rum must come from Sugarcane, Vodka has a history of being produced from all sorts of raw materials. Most Vodkas are made from cereal grains such as rye [Belvedere], wheat [Grey Goose, Absolut, Ketel One], barley [Sipsmith], corn [Titos], and potatoes [Chopin], or fruit [Ciroc]. These ingredients deeply affect the flavor of the Vodka that is produced.
Like any distilled spirit, the first step to making Vodka is fermentation of the raw materials. Certain yeasts, when combined with sugar, produce ethanol (the type of alcohol that we drink). These yeasts will ferment these raw materials, producing alcohol, until the mixture is about 16% alcohol by volume (ABV). Beyond 16% the yeasts will die out (too boozy for a single celled organism!) To get this mixture up to the 40% ABV required to be called Vodka, producers then distill it.
How is Vodka Distilled?
Distillation is the process of separating pure alcohol from the base mixture by heating. The fermented mixture, or mash, is put into a still and heated. Alcohol evaporates at 172 degrees Fahrenheit, where water evaporates at 212 degrees. When the alcohol evaporates and becomes gaseous the still catches this gas and condenses it back into a liquid, separate from the original mash.
As a rule, Vodka must be distilled to 190 proof, or 95% ABV. That’s very high. This is why Vodka tends to have a neutral flavor. Much of the flavor imparted by the raw material is pulled out during the distillation process. The good news is, in distilling to such a high ABV, the producers also remove the majority of the congeners, or toxins, from the alcohol. This could certainly mean less of a hangover after a night of vodka cocktails. Big win!
How is Vodka Diluted?
As you may know, Vodka is typically bottled between 37.5-50% ABV (though sometimes higher). The super high proof liquid brought off the still is taken down to the bottling percentage, or brought “to proof,” by adding water. Many vodka brands take great care to use specific water in their product. After all, more than half of what you pour from the bottle is water. In many ways, your favorite Vodka may resemble your favorite bottled water. There are arrays of textures and flavor nuances that make all the difference!
How is Vodka flavored?
Vodka was flavored very early on in its history. Early production didn’t offer as many options as today’s infusion techniques, so people would often infuse their vodkas with honey, herbs, roots and fruit to soften its intense flavors.
Today, vodka brands produce all sorts of flavored Vodka. Given Vodka’s fairly neutral base, it can take on lots of fun flavors with ease. In fact, home bartenders love Vodka for its easy infusions. Vodka will quickly and easily take on interesting flavors from infusing it with all sorts of ingredients.
What is the History of Vodka?
Historically, Russia and Poland both claim to have invented the spirit. It’s certain that Vodka was being made by the 15th century. Like most alcohol, Vodka was made for medicinal and ritual purposes.
Even today, we drink for big occasions and gatherings. The word Vodka actually comes from the Russian word for water, Voda. The added “k” brings the meaning to “little water.”
In Russia, the tradition of Vodka is so B, there is a museum of Russian Vodka in Saint Petersburg. One of the museum’s founders, Sergei Chentsov, stated "We decided to repair a historical injustice. There are museums of French cognac, there are museums of whiskey. Russian vodka is known at least as much, if not more, and it has a huge history.”
Vodka was first distilled in America in 1933, when the Smirnoff (then a Russian company) heir sold the rights to produce Smirnoff Vodka in America to a Russian-American distiller named Rudolph P. Kunett. Kunett later sold it to John Martin, president of Heublin, a liquor and foreign food exportation company.
How Vodka became popular in the states is a contested issue. One story states that it began with John Martin and Jack Morgan (the owner of Cock’n’Bull restaurant, a star studded, Sunset Strip joint that made their own Ginger Beer) going out for drinks one night, discussing their inability to sell their respective products. They had the wild idea to mix them, throw on a lime wedge and call it a “Moscow Mule.” Smirnoff, and subsequently all vodka, took off in America after the Hollywood crowd fell in love with the Moscow Mule.
In 2003, Vodka took the lead as America’s most drunk spirit, and it doesn’t seem to be looking back any time soon.
Here are three of our favorite ways to enjoy Vodka in a cocktail:
Shake and strain into a tall glass or copper mug. Top with Soda Water
Shake and strain on the rocks or in a cocktail glass
Add ingredients to a shaker tin and add ice. Shake 10-15 seconds and strain “up” into a Martini or Coupe glass
For more fun recipes to celebrate National Vodka Day, click here! Enjoy sipping and celebrating this fascinating spirit with your friends and tell them all about what you’ve learned!