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Vodka: a ‘little water’ 101

Sandrae Lawrence
Vodka might not conjure up the same levels of sophistication as other spirits - but it remains one of our favourite tipples.

Ask most discerning drinkers and they’ll tell you they never touch vodka. It’s bland, they say sniffily as they reach for their botanically-enhanced gin. But vodka has the last laugh. Check the trend reports for the best-selling spirits in the world and there it is sitting proudly at the top of the list. (That’s for consumption in bars as well as our tipple of choice for drinking at home, just in case you’re wondering…). Boutique gins are sexy and bang-on-trend, cognacs and whiskies possess a certain sophistication and depth – but the fact is, vodka sells. In very impressive quantities.

In many ways the cool, clear liquid is the kind of guest you’d want to have at your party. Thanks to its chameleon-like characteristics, it mixes and plays nicely with anything you throw at it. Vegetable and fruit juices, tonic and soda water, pretty much every other spirit category – heck, you can even use it as a base for infusing herbs and spices.

Which is vodka’s greatest strength and also its biggest weakness. It’s why people claim the spirit doesn’t have any real character or personality of its own. They do have a point. Vodka is a clean spirit, multi-distilled at very high temperatures to strip out any impurities – so by its very nature it’s pretty much devoid of any distinct aroma, colour or palate. That’s great news for bartenders who need a neutral, high-strength, alcohol-based canvas on which to build their inventive cocktails. Not so much for drinkers who are looking for something more interesting and complex to sip.

Fighting spirits

Or so you might think. Russian and Polish drinkers wouldn’t dream of anything coming between them and their ‘voda’ – or ‘little water’, to give it its original name. Not even ice.

Mind you, they drink theirs in a hardcore fashion – who needs namby-pamby sipping when you can get the full effect of the high alcohol content in one satisfying shot? But just like gin has gained renewed respect amongst the spirit cognoscenti, vodka is also shrugging off the bland tag with a growing number of super-premium and boutique brands specially created for sipping.

Quintessentially Vodka, which launched in 2012, is a case in point. “It’s made from the finest organic wheat and English water,” says Fabrice Limon, Managing Director of the glamorous liquid arm of Quintessentially, the lifestyle concierge company. “It’s been created to re-engage vodka lovers with the ideals of sipping and savouring in mind.” Other premium brands like Belvedere, Snow Queen, Ketel One, Vestal and recently launched Beluga are proof that vodka can be smooth, bright and sophisticated, and unlike their Barbie-esque counterparts that you can mould into any taste profile you want, these have their own distinct character. Try them for yourself and see.

What is vodka?

At its simplest, vodka is a distillate made with water and ethanol. If you want to get geeky, it’s derived from a starch of agricultural origin – commonly wheat, rye, barley, corn, potatoes, quinoa and molasses but also grapes and even milk! Then it’s distilled, at 96% alcohol by volume (abv) several times for smoothness and to extract impurities.  And there’s the rub; in doing so the spirit loses most of its personality and mouthfeel. That’s all very well if you’re after something with more kick than character but not if you’re after a spirit to sip.

Here’s why you pay more for the premium products. Manufacturers go the extra mile in the way their spirit is rectified and filtered to give it the required distinctiveness that spirit lovers are looking for.

Three things that affect the taste of vodka

The raw ingredients: Potato-based vodkas have a creamy, almost earthy mouthfeel while those with rye at their heart have a spicy or peppery profile and wheat-based varieties are cleaner with an almost aniseed finish.

The distillation process: Some manufacturers use column stills, others go for the more artisanal pot stills, and some use a combination of the two – each has a huge impact on the end result.

Water: Most vodka producers will boast about the source of their water – icebergs in Iceland, deep ocean mineral water, water from local wells – wherever it’s from, however it’s marketed purity is key.

When in Russia…

Do as the Russians do. That means adhering to the five basic rules of vodka drinking:

Gather a group of friends and sit around a table. Place a bottle of vodka in the centre.

Fill shot glasses with vodka.

Make a toast.

Tip back your head and gulp down your shot – no sipping allowed.

Take a small snack of pickled vegetables or pieces of black bread to line the stomach.

Repeat the above until the bottle is empty.

Three unusual vodkas

Ciroc, made in France distilled from grapes

Zubrowska, made in Poland, flavoured with bison grass.

Black Cow, made from the milk of grass-fed cows in West Dorset.

Vodkas for sipping

Knocking it back in one purposeful shot is one thing, sipping slowly neat or over ice is something different altogether. “I would say the most misguided ritual would be the habit of freezing vodka,” says Claire Smith, Head of Spirit Creation and Mixology at Belvedere Vodka. “Today, this is rarely needed since vodka is of such a good quality. Belvedere is best served chilled in the fridge. This allows the characteristics of the vodka to be expressed.”

Take your time to sip and savour the unique properties of the following premium brands:

Ketel One (Holland)

Belvedere (Poland)

Grey Goose (France)

Beluga (Russia)

Chase (UK)

Vestal (Poland)

Konik’s Tale (Poland)

Snow Queen (Russia)

Sacred (UK)

Quintessentially (UK)

Sandrae Lawrence is joint founding editor at The Cocktail Lovers. Image credit: CC Patrick.

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