Greetings and salutations, my dear tipplers (that’s old-timey for “drinkers”)! Cecelia Strick9 here, your resident feminist bartender extraordinaire! I’ve decided to help all of you lovelies learn about the world of spirits, taking you across the globe and back, all in a glass.
The world of spirits and boozing can be really intimidating at times. With aisles full of new products popping up on a constant basis, shopping for your home bar can get really, really overwhelming. What I want is for everyone to be able to build a concise, accessible home bar that can be shared with friends and family alike. I also want to show you how to make great cocktails and drinks for parties that are easy to make and taste delicious.
Each article in this series is going to go through a spirits category; vodka, gin, North American whiskey, Scotch and Irish whisky, brandy, tequila, rum, and liqueurs. Along with some viable history about these spirits, I’m also going to give you tips on how to shop for, taste, appreciate, and make cocktails with all this fun stuff.
So, put your drinking hats on: it’s time to talk about vodka!
Where vodka originated has been a topic of debate for just about as long as anyone can remember. Whether vodka, a name that comes from both Russian and Polish phrases that mean “dear little river”, or “water of life”, actually came from Russia or Poland, no one really truly knows. Both of these countries will lay claim to being the originators of the stuff, and it’s a great source of national pride in both cultures.
Vodka as we know it today does not resemble the stuff that folks were drinking in the 14th and 15th centuries, when vodka was thought to have been first created. The stuff they consumed back in those times would have been lower in alcohol and more reminiscent of an un-aged whiskey. Most, if not all, families had their own recipes and a family still which they used to produce their own vodkas for consumption at home. Vodka can be made out of almost anything, by the way. So most families used surplus crops to make their vodka. In Russia and Poland, the most prevalent crops were (and still are) rye, wheat, corn, and potato. These vodkas were often flavored with fruits, spices, herbs, vegetables, and grasses to enhance the taste.
“Modern vodka” became possible in the late 1800s with the invention of the Coffey, or column still. This allowed the spirit to be distilled many, many times and to become the nearly flavorless, odorless spirit we are all too familiar with today. But make no mistake; vodka’s history in the US is one filled with uphill struggles.
Many Russians emigrated to the US during the Russian Reformation of the early 20th century, and brought their businesses and traditions with them. Smirnoff Vodka found its way here during this time, and in the 1930s, the first vodka distillery was established in the US. Vodka, however, did not have the market here that it did in Russia. Americans were too busy drinking ultra-flavorful spirits like whiskey and gin to be bothered with vodka. No one knew what to do with the stuff. Smirnoff even launched a campagne for vodka that involved calling it a clear whiskey that would “leave you breathless,” so one could have a few drinks at lunch and no one would be privy.
It wasn’t until the 1940s that vodka really gained hold in the US, and that’s all thanks to brilliant marketing. A bar owner in Hollywood, a metalsmith, a guy making ginger beer, and Smirnoff Vodka got together and created a drink called the Moscow Mule, named because the drink packed quite a kick, like a mule would. Anyway.
These guys got together and mixed Smirnoff vodka, ginger beer, and lime juice. They served it over ice in a fancy-schmancy copper mug, and got celebrities to pose for polaroid pictures drinking Moscow Mules. And, like anything marketed well, vodka finally caught on. And it never stopped. Vodka finally started matching gin sales in the 1960s, and by the 1970s, vodka had become the number one selling spirit in the US. Currently, it’s not only the number one selling spirit in the US, but it outsells it’s next 3 competitors combined.
As I mentioned before, vodka can be made out of almost anything. And when I say anything, I mean anything that has sugar in it. Milk? Yep. Maple syrup? That too. Grapes, corn, wheat, rye, spelt, or oats? You bet. However, most vodkas are made from a combination of grains, typically rye, corn, and wheat. (Pro tip: spirits that are distilled, like everything that I’ll be talking about in this series, don’t contain any gluten. The protein is destroyed during the distillation process. This means that people with gluten allergies can actually enjoy vodkas made from grains, because there isn’t any gluten in vodka. Beer, on the other hand, is another story).
So, you want to buy a nice bottle of vodka for your home bar, but your head spins every time you walk down the vodka aisle, amiright? I know mine does, and I’m a professional spirits buyer. So here’s a few tips about labels, marketing ploys, and other things to watch out for.
- Not all vodkas are created equally. By law, vodkas can contain additives that enhance mouth feel, such as glycerine, and distilleries are not required to disclose this on the label. One very big, very prominent brand is rumored to add glycerine to their product. Additives simply cover up poor distillation practices.
- It doesn’t matter how many times your vodka is distilled. By law, in the US, vodka has to be distilled to 180 proof, which is almost 100% pure alcohol. This guarantees that the spirit will be as odorless and flavorless as possible. But you know what? If you’re really efficient at making vodka, it might only take you one time to reach 180 proof. It might take you three times. It could take you twenty. It does not matter. The number of times a vodka is distilled is not a reflection on the quality of the product, but on the efficiency of the equipment used to make it.
- In order to be vodka, the proof of the spirit in the bottle must be 80 proof or higher. All of those “reduced calorie” vodkas on the market are reduced calorie for only one reason- they contain less alcohol. The only thing in spirits is the spirit, and the water used to cut it. So, lower calories means less booze. Which means you’ll probably end up drinking more of it anyway.
- Flavored vodkas are usually flavored with fake flavoring additives made in a lab somewhere in New Jersey (seriously. New Jersey.). Even if the bottle says ‘naturally flavored’, the flavoring is often times synthesized and added to the spirit, and does not actually come from a real orange or lemon. Or marshmallow fluff. Now, you can almost guarantee that small, craft brands that are making flavored vodkas, such as Middle West Spirits, Square One or North Shore Distillery, are using the actual stuff to flavor their spirits. Square One uses real cucumbers to flavor their delicious cucumber vodka, and North Shore Distillery uses real fruits and botanicals to flavor their chamomile-citrus vodka. If quality ingredients are important to you, do some research.
- Even though straight vodkas are supposed to be odorless and flavorless, ingredients of can and do affect flavor. Vodkas made with corn are inherently sweet and thin on the palate. Those made with potato are often sweet and heavy. Rye vodkas are pretty spicy, like rye bread. Wheat vodkas are flavorful and rich, but not spicy like a rye. Most vodkas will tell you what they’re made out of right on the label. If you can’t find it, ask your friendly liquor store clerk.
- There are TONS of spirits that are being made locally. The Craft Distilling Movement is about 15 years behind Craft Beer, and more and more distilleries are opening every year. Right now, there are approximately 300 distilleries nationwide, with 400 slated to open this year. Support them! If they make a product you enjoy, tell your friends about them. These small businesses provide jobs, and keep local farmers in business. Most of these businesses are also pretty damn sustainable, too. You can make a political statement with what’s in your glass.
So! Now that you’ve got the low-down on how to buy vodka, let’s talk about some awesome vodka cocktails that are easy to make and delicious to drink. Not only is the Moscow Mule one of my favorite drinks, but it’s easy breezy to make (pro tip: whenever a recipe calls for lime or lemon juice, use FRESH lime or lemon juice. Don’t buy that sour mix that’s electric green and tastes like a color. Just don’t. )
Here’s the recipe!
- 2 oz Vodka
- juice from one lime
- 3-4 oz ginger beer ( i really like Fever Tree ginger beer or Blenheim’s ginger ale. If you want it really spicy, I suggest the Blenheims.).
Shake the vodka and fresh lime juice over ice in a cocktail shaker. Strain into a tall glass (or copper mug if you’re lucky) with ice, and top with the ginger beer. Garnish with a lime wedge. Try not to drink too fast.
Another great summertime cocktail is a fresh lime vodka gimlet. This is where you can start getting a little creative with some of the high-quality flavored vodkas out there, like North Shore Distillery’s Sol, Square One’s Cucumber, or Hangar One’s Citron. If you can’t find these vodkas in your market, ask for them! Or, see what you have available locally.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- 2 oz vodka of choice (I really like North Shore’s Sol, or Square One).
- 1 oz fresh lime juice
- 1 oz simple syrup (1 part sugar to 1 part water, heated to create a syrup). Honey syrup is also quite lovely in this. Just add enough warm water to some honey to thin it out.
Combine the ingredients and shake with ice in a cocktail shaker. Strain into a rocks glass over fresh ice, and garnish with a lime wheel. You can also strain this into a martini glass with no ice, and drink it up.
Next week’s installment is going to be on gin, so be prepared to experiment.