Vodka 101

Crystal clear, nearly-neutral vodka is something of a conundrum. Some people love it because it’s mild and easy to mix; others revile it because it doesn’t have a strong enough personality. For years, many craft cocktail bars even declined to carry vodka, although even the most ardent detractors now have at least one bottle on the backbar. Yet, vodka remains one of the world’s top-selling spirits.

What Is Vodka?

By definition, vodka is a neutral spirit with no distinctive flavor, aroma, color or character. It can be made from pretty much any raw material, although the most common base products are potatoes and grain (primarily barley or wheat, though sometimes rye or corn). That said, vodka can be, and is, distilled from wildly diverse ingredients, such as grapes, apples, rice, agave, honey, beets, maple sugar, cane sugar, milk and whey.

Like its flavor profile, vodka’s history is bland. Not much is known about the spirit’s origins, but Poland claims to be the spirit’s home, with residents there first distilling something vodka-like in the 8th century. During the Middle Ages, neutral spirits were used for medicinal purposes, as well as in gunpowder. It wasn’t until the 15th century that Russia first started producing pot-distilled vodkas that were somewhat like the drink we have today. The 1800s saw a major change in vodka. Not only was the column still perfected and patented, but a professor in St. Petersburg discovered a method for filtering alcohol with charcoal. It was only then that producers could efficiently and effectively create a crisp, nearly flavor-free spirit.

How Is Vodka Made?

To make vodka, distillers—or, quite often, big ethanol producers who then sell to vodka companies—start by fermenting a base made with anything from grains to potatoes to grapes.  Then they distill it numerous times, usually in a column still. A distiller can decide how many times to distill a vodka, but by law, it needs to be distilled to 190-proof strength (or 95-percent ABV) and bottled at a minimum of 80 proof (or 40-percent ABV). After this high-proof distillation, the vodka is filtered through activated charcoal to remove any remaining impurities that could add unwanted flavor. Some vodkas are filtered multiple times for absolute purity, while others are passed through different types of filters, such as bamboo, diamond dust, quartz or fabric. Though these variations may or may not improve the purity, they certainly don’t seem to hurt the final product.

The Gluten Myth

While some vodkas are distilled from wheat and rye, the gluten in these bases does not make it through distillation to the final product. All spirits (assuming distillers opt not to add anything after distillation) are gluten-free by definition.

The Calorie Myth

Unfortunately for calorie counters, neutral-tasting vodka is no more neutral in terms of diet than any other spirit. A shot of vodka clocks in at just under 100 calories, around the same amount as in whiskey or rum. A Vodka Soda is indeed one of the least caloric cocktails at the bar, but there are several other (more flavorful) drinks that rival it, like an Americano.

Where Is Vodka Made?

Vodka is produced pretty much anywhere and everywhere. Russia is notable for a long history and tradition of vodka production, but so are several other countries in Eastern Europe, which together make up the “Vodka Belt.” Poland produces Belvedere, Latvia makes Stolichnaya, and Scandinavia is home to Sweden’s Absolut and Finland’s Finlandia. Even so, many people still think of Russia as the motherland of vodka.

America makes plenty of vodka, too. Smirnoff, for example, which sounds like a Russian brand, is made in America. Almost every craft producer makes and bottles vodka while they wait for longer-aged spirits like whiskey to mature because vodka doesn’t require aging time in barrels.

Types of Vodka

It’s tempting to assume that all vodkas are “odorless, flavorless, colorless,” but that’s not always 100 percent true. Yes, they are almost always clear, and some vodkas absolutely are distilled and filtered to complete neutrality. But quite a few have fleeting aromas or flavors, and many have distinctive textures, making them feel light and silky, viscous, oily, or even slightly creamy. Flavors in vodka tend to be nuanced, tartness suggesting citrus peel or light sweetness reminiscent of vanilla, almond or marshmallow. Potato vodka tends to have faint earthy notes and can feel slightly oily on the tongue. By comparison, wheat-based vodkas can have a slight creaminess.

Single Barrel and Single Vintage

Much less popular but groundbreaking nevertheless, these bottlings are to vodka what small-batch and single-barrel bottlings are to whiskey: highly specialized and often quite worth seeking out. A small but growing number of producers are experimenting with single-vintage or single-ingredient vodkas with minimal filtration, meant to show how expressive a vodka can be. For example, Chopin Vodka released four limited-edition “Single” bottlings: single-ingredient vodkas based on potato, young potato (made with potatoes less than a year old), rye and wheat, each filtered just once. Meanwhile, Swedish producer Karlsson’s Vodka releases “vintage” potato vodkas when they feel a year’s crop is interesting enough to showcase. Each of these bottles has distinctive character and flavor, making them an exception to the “flavorless” reputation.

Barrel Aged

Another exception to the “odorless, flavorless, colorless” rule are oak-aged vodkas, such as Oak by Absolut or the occasional, barrel-aged vodka experiment at some bars. There’s some controversy as to whether these vodkas, which take on flavor, aroma and color from the barrels, are considered vodka or flavored vodka.

Flavored Vodka

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, flavored vodkas are here to stay, and they can make useful mixers. Infused vodka has long been a standard drink in Russia and Poland, where additives tend to be herbal (dill, tarragon or coriander) or spicy (horseradish or ginger) in addition to sweet. Absolut was arguably the first brand to take the trend global when they launched Absolut Peppar in 1986 (also launching the trend of creatively spelling ingredients to make products seem more exotic). Flavored vodka has since become a staple in bars and liquor stores across the world.

Although some bars create housemade infusions, vodka makers have rolled out a slew of playful flavors in bottles—making it sometimes hard to discern real flavors from fake ones. Fruit flavors range from the recognizable citrus vodka to the unconventional, such as dragon fruit or açaí. There are also savory and spicy vodkas made with chile peppers, Sriracha or bacon. There are sweet variations as well, like the insane dessert-inspired vodkas flavored with versatile vanilla or salted caramel. Finally, there are the over-the-top, eye-rolling flavors like birthday cake vodka and (arguably the most notorious flavored vodka of them all) cinnamon bun flavored vodka—a collaboration between Pinnacle Vodka and Cinnabon.

While some of these flavors are popular as shots, others have worked their way into cocktails. Absolut Citron, for instance, is required to make a true Cosmopolitan, while any standard vodka classic can be upgraded with a handful of new and improved flavored vodkas.

You can even infuse vodka at home for a DIY boozy gift. No matter what palate your gifting for, you can make bacon-washed vodka, sweet Nutella-flavored liqueur, or a highly seasonal Christmas vodka.

How Do I Drink Vodka Straight?

Chilled vodka shots are traditional in vodka’s historic, European homelands, especially paired with savory bites like smoked salmon or, of course, caviar—all known as zakuski. Pairing protocol dictates that the spirit should be incredibly cold, poured into tall shot glasses and sipped in between bites.

Notable Vodka Cocktails

Moscow Mule: The simple mix of vodka, ginger beer and lime juice is traditionally served in a signature copper mug.

Bloody Mary: A savory, brunch-time standby, the Bloody Mary is traditionally made with vodka, tomato juice and spices. Though it is classically garnished simply with a celery stick, restaurants and bars of late have started serving it topped with everything from a lobster claw to an entire roast chicken.

Cosmopolitan: The flirty pink cocktail is an emblem of the 1990s. It is classically made with citrus–flavored vodka, cranberry juice and lime.

Vodka in Culture

Perhaps the most famous fictional vodka drinker is Bond (James Bond), who in books and films drinks Vespers (a Martini-style drink made with vodka, gin and Kina Lillet) and orders his Martinis (sometimes vodka, sometimes gin) “shaken and not stirred.”

Over the years, a number of vodka cocktails have been given a boost by various films and TV shows. In The Big Lebowski, the protagonist, The Dude, guzzles White Russians (vodka, Kahlúa, and cream). Meanwhile, the HBO series Sex and the City popularized the bright pink Cosmopolitan (citrus-flavored vodka, cranberry, orange liqueur and lime juice).