What is vodka, anyway?
Surprisingly, the quintessential Russian spirit has been America's most consumed liquor on average every year since the 1970s -- we drink about 157 million gallons of the stuff every year (or, enough to fuel at least four sorority parties at the Gamma Beta house). But the first time "vodka" was ever recorded in writing, dates back to Eastern Europe in the early 1400s. The word "vodka" itself is a modified form of the Slavic term voda, which means water. And that isn't because Putin and Co. sip it down like H2O: the spirit is primarily made of ethanol and water. It's that simple.
But, that's also where it gets a little confusing: Vodka can be made out of almost anything. Technically, vodka can be made by distilling any starch or sugar-rich grain. Traditionally speaking, it's usually made of corn, rye, or wheat. But potatoes and beets are also fair game.
In fact, vodka is officially defined more along the lines of what it isn't, than what it is. Our own government classifies it as "any neutral spirits distilled or treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials so as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color." Any flavored vodka is the result flavoring added after the distilling process.
Today, some of the most popular brands of commercially available vodka include Grey Goose, Absolut, Smirnoff, Ketel One, and Ciroc -- with many American imports coming from the so-called "Vodka Belt," a region of Eastern Europe including Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Poland, and Ukraine. That's the birthplace of vodka, and where most of it is still produced.
And some iconic cocktails that traditionally use vodka include the Moscow Mule, the Bloody Mary, the White Russian, and the vodka martini.