Vodka 101: An Introduction to the Popular Liquor

Not All Vodka is Created Equal, Choose Wisely and Drink Well

Bottles of vodka lined up.
Vodka is a very popular liquor for cocktails. mediaphotos / E+ / Getty Images

Vodka is the most common distilled spirit found in cocktails and mixed drinks and it is essential to every bar. Its popularity comes from the general characteristic that it has no discernible or distinct flavor or smell and it is often clear. This allows the other ingredients of a drink to become the focal point.

There are thousands of vodka cocktails to explore. Those like the Vodka Tonic, Screwdriver, and Cosmopolitan are among the most popular and should be on every bartender's list.

The vodka market today is constantly expanding and there are many brands available, including the big names like Absolut, Grey Goose, and Ketel One. There are also many small distilleries that create interesting small-batch and boutique vodkas and many of these use experimental ingredients and methods.

One thing's for sure, all vodka is not created equal. You will find outstanding bottles as well as those you wish you didn't buy. It's a vast and varied category of liquor and unlike some other spirits, there are no set regulations governing its production.

How Vodka is Made

Vodka is often called a 'neutral grain spirit' because the standard method for making it is by fermenting and distilling grain. This can be corn, rye, wheat, or any other grain that the distiller chooses to use.

Potato vodka has long been a popular product of Poland and other potato growing regions, such as Idaho in the United States.

Other bases for vodka include beets and grapes.

Vodka is a rectified spirit, meaning that it is often distilled at least three times, though some are distilled five or more times. It has become common practice for a vodka brand to broadcast that their vodka has been distilled x number of times. The assumption is that the more times it is distilled, the cleaner and smoother it is.

Generally, this is true. As vodka takes each trip through the still, the 'heads' and 'tails' are often removed. These are the parts of the distillate found on the top and bottom of a finished batch. By taking only the 'heart' of the distillate, the vodka does become cleaner and has fewer impurities.

After distillation, vodka is then filtered, often through charcoal. Vodka requires no aging and is ready to drink right away. However, it is cut with water from still strength to a bottling proof, which is typically 80 proof or 40 percent alcohol by volume.

Vodka's neutral taste also relies on one other factor that is very important and that is water. You will see many brands bragging about using clean, mountain spring water or some other ultra-clean source to create a smooth vodka. This factor cannot be discounted and is very important to the distillation and bottling process.

How Does Vodka Taste?

Since vodka has no distinct taste, a stylistic difference in brands is their texture on the tongue.

We often call this a liquor's mouth feel.

Two brands that represent the two prominent styles are Absolut and Stolichnaya. Absolut has an oily, silky sweet texture, while Stolichnaya is clean and watery with an almost medicinal finish. That said, today's vodka market goes far beyond these older characteristics and it is difficult to pinpoint all vodkas into a few simple categories.

It should also be pointed out that vodka is not necessarily tasteless or odorless and there are distinct differences between vodkas. The flavor of vodka is subtle and often like a clear grain. If you taste enough vodka of a great variety, you will begin to pick up the differences.

You can liken it to the difference in taste between tap water and bottled water. If you pay attention to it, you can easily tell when you drink unfiltered water.

The heat of a vodka is another term you may hear. This is the burn that is revealed on the tongue or back of the throat when you drink vodka straight. It is often another way of deducing how clean or smooth a vodka is.

Heat is often determined by the care a distiller has put into creating a clean vodka using the methods described above. The number of distillations and filtering method is often going to determine a vodka's heat. Less expensive brands tend to burn in the mouth and throat, while premium brands tend to be more smooth and subtle.

Flavored Vodkas

The flavored vodka scene has exploded in recent years and if you can think of a flavor, it is probably available somewhere. This includes favorites like citrus and berry along with chocolate and pomegranate.

A new category simulates the taste of a variety of desserts and candies. There are even more obscure flavors like salmon, bacon, hemp, and even tobacco, though these tend to not last long on the market. 

Some flavored vodkas are produced using the traditional infusion method of steeping ingredients like fresh fruits and herbs in a finished vodka. Many vodkas, however, simply add ingredients like natural or artificial flavor extracts to the vodka.

Another option for flavored vodkas is to do your own infusion. Beginning with a clear vodka and using fresh fruits, herbs, and spices, you can easily create your own flavor combinations that are fun to use in a variety of cocktails. 

7 Tips for Choosing and Buying Vodka

There are many vodka brands available. While the list is seemingly endless and ever changing, there are a few generalizations that can be made when choosing a vodka.

Cheap vodka will taste cheap. Vodka is one of the liquors where price usually reflects quality. In general, the cheaper the vodka is the harsher it will be.

If you're mixing drinks with a lot of fruit and other heavy flavors, most of the impurities of a cheap vodka will probably be masked. However, if you go up one price increment, you are likely to find the quality improves significantly. Yet, as is often the case, there are some decent vodka brands that are surprisingly affordable.

Top-shelf means higher quality. Next time you are at the liquor store, pay attention to the placement of vodkas to get a general sense of their quality.

It is standard practice that the cheaper vodkas are on the bottom shelves (often those $5 liters of gut-wrenching liquor) and the more expensive vodkas (the 'top-shelf') are higher up. If you're looking for a good, mid-range vodka that is great in a variety of cocktails and may be good straight and chilled, scan the shelves at eye level. 

5x Distilled. If a vodka has made multiple trips through the still, the brand will likely tell you very clearly on the label. This can be used as a measure of quality and purity.

It is true that the more times vodka is distilled, the smoother it can be, but that is not always the case. All of the other factors - grain, water, filtering, etc. - will also play a factor in quality and sometimes the '5x Distilled' label is simply a marketing ploy.

The origin of your vodka. Russia has long been known for its great vodkas, as has Poland and both countries continue to produce some impressive vodkas. Though they did once dominate the market, there are now great vodkas being produced all over the world. The American craft distillery scene is actually producing some of the best vodkas available today.

While it's nice to know where your vodka came from, it is no longer as big of a factor in quality as it once was.

Look for the unknown brands. There will always be the big brand names in vodka, but you will find hidden gems if you explore some of the lesser-known labels. Many of the smoothest vodkas are distilled by some of the smallest distillers who take great pride in their craft and these boutique vodkas can really change your view of this liquor category.

That said, it is a rough business and, unfortunately, many of these brands do not stay around for long. If you find a great boutique vodka you enjoy, support them and tell them (almost every brand can be found online and via social media). 

Have a variety in stock. If you enjoy vodka, you may want to have a few of your favorite bottles in stock at all times.

Find your favorite budget-friendly brands to mix into a Bloody Mary, Sex on the Beach, and other heavily flavored cocktails. Then, choose your favorite top-shelf vodka to keep on hand for Vodka Martinis, other light drinks, and for sipping straight (chilled or on the rocks is best for vodka).

It's also a good idea to have a few flavor options in your bar. Citrus is the most common, though you can use something like a melon or berry vodka in a number of drinks that call for unflavored vodka.

Taste in vodka is subjective. As with all liquor, everyone is not going to like the same brands and this is very true for vodka. You can read all of the reviews you like, ask everyone you know, and you will end up with too many different opinions to distinguish which is the best.

Use these opinions as a guide, but I encourage everyone to experiment on their own. Everyone's tastes are different and what I may find pleasing, you may not. After all, you're the one drinking it, right?