The Story Of: Vodka


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Vodka is the most popular distilled spirit category in the U.S., one with a centuries-old history behind it primarily from Eastern Europe and Russia. The term vodka is, in fact, derived from the Slavic word voda, which means “little water”. The reference to water makes some sense since the U.S. government defines vodka as a spirit with no distinctive character, aroma, taste or color, even though most spirits experts disagree with that definition.

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Essentially, vodka is an un-aged, neutral spirit that is distilled from any fermentable matter, including vegetables (such as onions, sugar beets) and grains. The potato is used for the production of vodkas in Poland, Scandinavia and North America, but grains such as rye, wheat, barley and corn are the more popular choices with distillers.

Potable liquids were distilled on a small scale in Eastern Europe as early as the 13th century CE. But large-scale vodka production began in western Russia in the 15th century. Until the late 19th century, all the world’s vodkas were produced in the original method of distillation, the pot-still method.

First, grains were heated in water to release the starches for conversion into sugar. The soupy liquid was called a “mash.” Then the mash had yeast added to it to spur fermentation before distilling, essentially creating a beer. Originally, vodka was the product of a single distillation with a relatively low proof. By the 16th century, distillers learned the benefits of two or more distillations in order to improve product quality and the raise the alcohol level. A second distillation heightened both the strength and the purity of the final product.

Most contemporary vodka has no color, but the majority of domestic and imported vodkas do have distinctive aromas, textures and flavors, which are dictated by the base materials, the type of distillation and the variety of filtration. For centuries, vodka has been flavored with herbs, spices, honey and fruit. Nowadays it is commonplace for vodka brands to have flavored line extensions, using a whole universe of flavorings from fruits and spices to herbs and vegetables.

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

Below are tasting notes of some vodkas that I had the pleasure of tasting. Some are flavored, some are not, but all are worth trying!

Naked Jay Vodka: Creamy on the nose, hints of vanilla and cinnamon spice. Very harsh and acidic on the palate, a very heavy burn for vodka. Creamy mouthfeel, but not sure if I would drink this without a dominating mixer.    

-Big Dill: The neon green color is a little intimidating, but the briny, sour smell of pickles is surprisingly tame. The smell of pickles is definitely there, but the taste is not. This is a decent vodka with a hint of pickle, but there isn’t enough of a defined pickle flavor.

-Whipped Cream: Sweet and creamy on the nose, this definitely smells of a very rich whipped cream. Unlike the Big Dill flavored vodka from Naked Jay, the whipped cream actually does have a satisfying whipped cream flavor, without it tasting like a sugar bomb. Tastes like sweet cream ice cream.

Platinum 7X: Caramel and vanilla on the nose. Hints of clove and cinnamon even, like a pumpkin spiced coffee drink. Very smooth and creamy, wheaty. Wet cereal and raw oats are very present. No acidity, a very pleasant vodka to sip on.

Ketel One Vodka: Clean and crisp on the nose, notes of fresh apples and pears. A hint of spice on the back of the tongue, with a nice amount of acidity at the back of the throat. Creamy mouthfeel, with notes of apricot and peach. A very smooth finish, this is a rich vodka with a lot of body and character.

-Oranje: This smells like fresh tangerines and clementines; sweet and citrusy with a hint of tang on the nose. The orange fruit flavor is manageable and pleasant without being too much. There is also a hint of spice which is very refreshing, like drinking an iced orange tea. Very smooth and satisfying.

-Citroen: The lemon flavor is very present on the nose without channeling too much lemon cleaning product, which most citron vodkas tend to do. Hints of lime are also present, providing a nice sour contrast to the sweet and tangy lemon. The lemon flavor tastes fresh and is more of a suggestion than an in-your-face flavor. Would be nice over ice with lime zest.

SKYY Coconut Vodka: I find most coconut flavored vodkas to smell like suntan lotion rather than actual coconut. This, however, tastes like there is shaved coconut in the glass! Very clean and refreshing. Crisp, smooth, but a slight chemical-like burn at the end. A nice coconut vodka indeed.

-Pineapple Vodka: An incredibly unexpected fresh and sweet smell of pineapples on the nose, I feel like I could take a bite out of a juicy piece of it! Sweet and crisp on the palate without tasting like fake pineapple flavoring. This is absolutely one of the better flavored vodkas I’ve had.

-Ginger Vodka: This has a very interesting ginger flavor to it; it has a lot more spice to it. Very crisp and clean. A slight fruity aspect to it, stone fruits and red berries. Has the flavor of a fresh piece of ginger, rather than ginger ale. This would be great for a twist on a Moscow Mule with an extra hit of ginger flavor.

Check out the results for the Ultimate Spirits Challenge vodka category here!

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  • TThis is quite amazing, in that the information is accurate. There is a great deal of misinformation about vodka that I keep reading. Good sources of accurate information include: "the pure spirit" and "borsch, vodka and tears" enjoy vodka, and try to find kasprowy from polmos bielsko-biała (Poland) it's really nice!

    Aug 23, 2012 at 5:47 PM

  • Snooth User: rnorth
    814485 4

    I'd like to know some of the better brands of Vodka. I've bought Skyy because someone told me that was a good's ok. but I want something good enough to drink not as a mixer.

    Aug 23, 2012 at 7:26 PM

  • Where the best and most sold Super Premium Vodka in the world? Beluga.

    Aug 24, 2012 at 12:55 AM

  • Snooth User: jnawrocki
    415354 45

    I prefer Chopin - Gold Medal - 2011 San Francisco Spirits Competition

    Aug 24, 2012 at 8:14 AM

  • Chopin and beluga are great. The thing to remember with vodka is, when you buy a cognac for $100, someone has usually spent 30 years keeping it in oak barrels and blending it. Vodka, being unaged, is cheaper to produce, high end ones utilize more industrial production methods like reverse osmosis filtration, but ultimately with vodka, a high price tag pays for a perception of quality, and a great marketing team. Because of that, my favourite vodkas to find are awesome ones with very reasonable price tags. By awesome I mean it tastes great neat and at room temperature - you can still freeze it, but it's a better measure of the quality when it's warmer. Some of my favourites are: Cracovia, extra żytnia, królewska, kasprowy, dwór artusa, and double white.

    Aug 24, 2012 at 1:53 PM

  • Snooth User: Vaughan
    45662 1

    Try Schramms made in Whiatlet BC from organic potatoes grown there. Very distinctive flavour.

    Aug 25, 2012 at 9:18 AM

  • Personally I don't drink any not Russian or Ukrainian Vodkas, Vodka is like Cognac it can be produced only in Russia. And you always can feel it maybe not in taste bud next morning show you the difference :) . And like importer I have always check all chemist analyses and difference for example in Methanol can be really big for example good grappa, premium vodka or some cognac have 1500-3000 mg of methanol on the liter of alcohol and Russian Super premium vodkas 0,0015-0,0030 mg. You can feel the difference? Same difference we can see in heavy metals in water between artesian water and pumped water. This is the reasons why I always choose Super Premium segment and always Russian and of course Ukranian. Need to be sure that you drink. :)

    Aug 29, 2012 at 3:16 AM

  • Snooth User: steve2857
    1001787 3

    The best i have ever had was Starka from ukraine. stil labeled as a USSR product, But i can't seem to find it in the U.S. anymore :( not sure if they even make it anymore.

    Sep 02, 2012 at 12:31 PM

  • Snooth User: Sara Kay
    Hand of Snooth
    1073521 1,420

    I have a few favorite vodkas myself that I keep in my arsenal at all times. Ketel One and Russian Standard are my two staples--they're great in any cocktail as well as on the rocks with a splash of lemon juice (or in a vodka martini if you prefer yours with vodka instead of gin). These vodkas are in a great price point as well, so give them a try and let me know what you think!

    Sep 05, 2012 at 11:50 AM

  • I think, the reasons why Vodka is very low on giving a hang over next morning should have been mentioned. Also, while the tasting notes talk about various Vodkas with flavour .. spice, herbs and fruit smell, there is no note on plain Vodka which most of us drink.

    Comments are great and very informative. Yes, I agree with most commentators that the Russian and the Ukrainian Vodkas are the best. In India, obsessed with scotch whisky, we are just about getting introduced to this great drink. And what more, it is good value for money too ! Nikita Kruschov was right. "God has blessed Russia with Vodka."

    Sep 06, 2012 at 9:44 PM

  • Nemiroff!! Need i say more - absolutely great vodka, great value, just really hard to source in the UK,

    Nov 02, 2012 at 5:33 AM

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