Vodka: an introduction on how to think of it, or Sydney Frank is the Devil*
Dallas Taylor said to me once, “It’s really all just flavored vodka.” This is a somewhat true but very Zen approach to tending bar. Sometimes when I’m on my high horse riding around in my ivory tower I say “Vodka is the greatest marketing scam ever.” Zane Harris, is more accurate and mature when he says, “Vodka is miss-understood.” Here is why we are all correct. Without burdening you with specific measurements and charts, generally speaking, all liquor starts off as vodka. Vodka is by definition a spirit that is intended to have no flavor, a “grain neutral spirit” as it were. We distill it and filter it to be flavorless and add water to it to bring it down to bottling strength to keep it flavorless. So when you distill grain to 190 proof and cut it with water that’s vodka, if you don’t really distill it that high, leaving some flavor in, throw it in a wooden cask for a few years, that pretty much whiskey. Or you could instead distill in a little juniper and citrus, and its gin. Like I said, these are generalities, but let it color your thinking.
So that’s Dallas, Here is why I’m right, vodka companies market to you purity, style, and sophistication. In reality, many vodka companies just buy industrial alcohol, filter it and add water, they then tell you that it was made by an artist, they tell you it tastes good** and that drinking it will get you laid. I assure you that those would be at best correlative coincidences, not causal effects. Even worse some vodka companies (remaining nameless) buy all of their products from other countries and bottle them in their country to sound more exotic.
Vodka is a bottle of lies in a box of deceit.
But which brand is the best? 42 Below from New Zealand, best air and water quality in the world, great rich soil for quality crops and they totally flew me to New Zealand to prove it and then they gave me a bunch of stuff. 42 Below Vodka, the best in the world, they paid me.
And then Zane, a better compromiser than Henry Clay, basically Zane isn’t full of hate like me. So when some one says they like Vodka, they’re really saying that you like the mixers. Though vodka does have distinct styles and flavors, most are too subtle to stand up to cocktail mixers. Zane would say: “Vodka is misunderstood.”
If someone says:
“I like vodka cocktail,”
“what do you like about them?”
most common response:
“sweet, but not too sweet, fruity or vodka soda.”
Which in translation means:
“I like sugar, but still make a balanced drink, likely not all booze (because I am a woman) but I drink vodka sodas because of an old article from Cosmo.”
So what you should do:
“Well there are a few drinks I could recommend, the Last Word is on the tart side, The Vesper is on the strong yet soft side (a cocktail for a vodka tonic drinker) or perhaps the White Lady or The Corpse Reviver #2. All of these are basic classics that you should be able to get anywhere.”
Theses drinks are also all gin based*** but jump off that bridge later.
Perhaps you noticed a sexist remark in that exchange, that’s because I will talk with a lady who says she likes vodka, they are to be treated better than men. However, a dude that says that is an ass clown. What? What is wrong with whiskey little boy? Look, drink what you want BUT a dude that says he likes vodka should be abused unless he has a thick accent and makes reference to vodka being in his baby bottle when he was born. I make fun of vodka drinkers a lot but some people DO LIGITIMATELY LIKE THE FLAVOUR, but they do so chilled, or on ice, or with caviar (as if that happens often, but it is spectacular) which brings us to:
Lets instead enjoy vodka as a crisp clean kangaroo kicker, or on the rocks, or chilled ice cold, or as a mixer itself, used to soothe flavors from other strong liquors. A large part of the world does love vodka but they are bereft of shitty marketing. Unless they are from New Zealand and are able to watch really awesome 42 Below ads**wink wink** However vodka aficionados will know the distinct styles and mouth feels of vodka. Those being:
Polish, definitely the origin of the spirit, the word and not made of potatoes. The spirit distilled as vodka with a still is first on the books around 1405. Potatoes are new world, the white man new not of them for another 200 ish years. But long before either of those the Polish would freeze wine or beer and skim the hard alcohol off the top like so many college students. For trivia, wodka, as Eson Checkov would say is the Polish word for Vodka and also for water. Most Polish Vodkas are made of rye and have a creamy hints of bread. And because of the Vodkas being rye, the Polish don’t sweeten their Vodkas.
The Russians: what is there to say other than, well, it wasn’t them first, Russians normally make Vodka from wheat (sweetened slightly with honey) and that Stoli is an American company. The Russians do say that Theodore Lowitz invented charcoal filtration, from what I can tell that’s a lot like saying Edison invented the light bulb or Ford invented the car.****
To simplify: Vodka can be (and is) made out of anything and though there are
generalized regional examples of styles here is a cheat sheet for flavors:
-Barley- nutty, spicy
-Rye – nutty, sweetness
-Wheat – aniseedy
-Potato- vegetal notes, smooth mouthfeel
Flavored vodka is the polyester of the booze world. Raspberries aren’t blue and how can something taste like an orange and not be orange? Oranges are called orange because they are orange, right? Though there are exceptions, most flavored vodkas have never been in the same room with the flavor they claim to imitate. Those know to me are a recent Sky infusion line and Hangar One. But that’s about it. If you go to whole foods and drink flavored vodka (chemical booze) you are indeed an oxy moron. If you want vodka to taste like something get a bottle of 42 Below, and some food or herbs (better if its both, combine them in bottle, done.
*Sydney Frank launched Grey Goose Vodka and priced it high so that you thought it would be better. If you ever pay over $30 for a bottle of vodka it is his fault. But I am a big fan of this letter (from Grey Goose) that explains how they don’t care about France at all
**I catch myself doing this all the time and have to try not to “NEVER TELL ANYONE WHAT SOMETHING TASTES LIKE BEFORE THEY TASTE IT.” Aside from being incredibly rude, it robs the taster of an objective opinion. I test myself frequently, blindly (I have a lot of spare time) to maintain a true palate free from the marketing devil and perceived value.
*** So for gin I offer you this: gin is not the devil. Gin is called the devil because its not cool to drink what your parents drank, because human’s self destructive capabilities knew no bounds (research the London gin epidemic) and because any cheap spirit tastes awful. I wasn’t drinking the good stuff in college either. Try it again, the new grown up you will be ok now. Don’t believe me? Many of the world’s best bartenders frequently offer to substitute gin for what we call ”juniper and citrus infused vodka” only to hear “this is the best lemondrop I ever had.” We are a sneaky subversive and sometimes piratical bunch us bartenders are. For gin I might suggest Martin Miller’s, pretty tasty on its own but crisp and strong enough to stay alive in cocktails. They took me out to dinner one time.
Do you have a gin allergy? Probably not, is questionable if people with Celiac Disease (wheat allergy) react to liquor, I’m not a doctor but I have served many not dead people too many wheat based vodkas (most are) or whiskies only to see effects not dissimilar to drunkenness or hangovers. Most juniper allergies are pollen based, furthermore basic gins frequently contain: aniseed, caraway, cardamom, fennel or coriander seed, cinnamon, cloves, calamus root, licorice, orris root, sloe berries, juniper berries, nutmeg, orange or lemon peel to name a few. Being allergic to some of these things could mean you have a gin allergy, however they are only the smallest amount by volume of gin and you’d likely know because at this point you’d just be allergic to Christmas, all of Scandinavia, much of France or Germany and by proxy: food
Don’t be a baby.
***They didn’t invent these things they invented the best most easily manufactured: the winners