A GUIDE TO VODKA
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
Vodkas birthplace and back story are widely debated between Poland and Russia, who both lay claim to its creation and celebrate it as their national drink. Perhaps, though, the truth is irrelevant since today’s product is indisputably different to that of the 15th or 16th Century.
RUSSIA: STATE & SPIRIT
The first distilled spirits appeared in both Russia and Poland between the 8th and 9th Century and were initially intended for medicinal use. Utilising the wintry climate, innovators in Russia developed an early form of freeze distillation, leaving beer outside overnight to freeze and remove the water content. This produced a spirit with higher alcohol content but resulted in concentrated levels of fusel oils and other impurities.
Russia can take credit for many of modern vodka’s key characteristics, such as the invention of charcoal filtration to remove impurities from the final spirit, attributed to 18th century chemist, Theodore Lowitz. He created the system in 1780, when the Russian Tsar commissioned him to make the national drink “more hygienic”.
The Russian aristocracy became increasingly involved and eventually held a monopoly over vodka production at the expense of the working class. This was a major factor in the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, which forced leading distillers, such as Vladimir Smirnov, to abandon production and flee the country. Smirnov found himself in Poland, and later France, before taking his brand across the Atlantic, helping facilitate the introduction of vodka to the western world.
POLAND: FANCY POTATOES
The Polish word ‘wódka’ can be traced back to 1405, referring to alcohol-based medicines and cosmetics derived from frozen wine. Later, in the 16th century, it was customary for families to produce their own vodka at home, flavoured with fruit and herbs to disguise the rough taste of the alcohol. This tradition of using natural flavourings still characterises Polish vodka production today.
Poland is famous for producing potato vodka. This began after a royal exchange at the beginning of the 19th century, when the Austrian Emperor gifted the Polish King the exotic item from the Americas. The introduction of new technologies later in the century also enabled the production of more refined vodkas, with rectification close to today’s standards implemented in 1871.
Today, there are over 1000 Polish vodka brands, but the import that boasts Russian roots, Smirnoff, is amongst the best-selling as many Poles consider it more premium.
THE WEST: CARRIED BY A MULE
In the time leading up to World War II, both Poland and Russia were distilling high quality vodka, but almost all of it was consumed in the country it was produced. It wasn’t yet considered a global spirit like whiskey, rum or brandy.
When the US rights to Smirnoff were sold in 1938, the colourless, odourless liquid held little appeal to North American drinkers, accustomed as they were to whiskey which had flourished after Prohibition. It took the ingenuity of John G. Martin, an executive at the Heublein drinks company, to launch the vodka invasion.
A series of clever marketing plays, including the Smirnoff rebranding, culminated in the creation of the celebrated Moscow Mule – a drink that embodied the spirit of vodka: fresh, dry and spicy. This announced vodka’s arrival in the West and helped launch a cocktail revolution that would sweep America.
HOW IS IT MADE?
Vodka can technically be made from anything with a sugar or starch content, but most are produced from either grain, potato or, in the case of Cîroc, grapes.
Fruits contain sugars that can be fermented by simply adding yeast, but for other raw materials such as grain and potatoes, enzymes must be added to convert the starch to sugar.
Once a sugar-rich wash is prepared, yeast and water are added to create alcohol. Using grain or potato, this fermented wash will typically be between 5-7% ABV, but fruit washes can be higher.
Column stills are most commonly used in vodka distillation, thanks to their efficiency and ability to produce a cleaner final product, but some artisanal brands are increasingly using (or combining) pot stills.
Unlike traditional pot still distillation, column stills operate by carefully controlling hundreds of smaller distillations through the introduction of steam and temperature control.
As the alcoholic wash is pumped in to the bottom of the still, it is heated by steam and rises up the long column. The wash evaporates and condenses on perforated sheets, known as bubble plates. The bottom of the column has a higher concentration of water, whereas the top has a low concentration of water but a high concentration of light alcohols.
The sweet spot is somewhere near the top of the column, where the concentration of ethanol will be at its highest (above 96%) and this is where the liquid can be drawn off to produce vodka. The process is continuous as the wash can be continually pumped through and ethanol continuously drawn off.
Copper pot still distillation offers a more traditional approach but must be used in conjunction with a column still when producing vodka, as the pot still alone isn’t capable of reaching the necessary purity.
Most vodkas are then filtered through activated charcoal to remove impurities and colouring before being reduced to bottling strength (a minimum of 37.5% ABV). Charcoal also mellows the flavour of the spirit by removing many of the more volatile components.
After distillation, almost 40% of the spirit is made from water – much more than any other spirit. Therefore, the quality and mineral content of the water used is especially important to distillers and these days, nearly all vodka distilleries neutralise their water beforehand.
SMIRNOFF® NO 21 production
STYLES OF VODKA
Neutral – Multiple-column still distillation and extensive charcoal filtration produce a particularly smooth, light flavour profile. This neutral style is hugely popular worldwide, with Smirnoff being the best-known example.
Characterful – Perhaps more subtle than other spirit categories, but the choice of base material plays a huge role in naturally imparting flavour to a finished vodka.
Russia (and many other nations) use wheat as a base, which typically delivers notes of pepper, lemon zest and subtler tones of aniseed. Rye, once favoured in Poland, gives the spirit a nutty sweetness, leaning towards cereal and bread flavours. However, the swap to potatoes gave a denser, creamier textured vodka with slight vegetable notes.
Flavoured Vodka – Vodkas can be flavoured with spices, fruits and botanicals using a variety of techniques. Natural flavours can be extracted using maceration, distillation and percolation; nature-identical flavours can be added using cold compounding. With the increasing consumer demand, most brands now offer multiple flavoured versions of their core spirit.
Check out these vodka brands for more information on their style and range:
Smirnoff No. 21 Vodka is the number one-selling premium vodka brand in the world, and distributed in over 130 countries.
The Dutch vodka takes its name from the original coal-fired pot still used by the Nolet family today, creating a pure but deliciously complex premium spirit.
Ultra-Premium Vodka crafted from fine, succulent French grapes, distilled a fifth time at the Distillerie de Chevanceaux in southwest France.
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