In 2007, the European Union tried to refine their legal definition for vodka. Previously, the EU had defined vodka as a distilled spirit made from any agricultural product. After much debate, the new legal definition says that vodka can still be made from any agricultural product, but if it is something other than grains or potatoes, the label must specify what the other ingredients are.
Why is it so hard to define what vodka is? Because it is so versatile--in how it is made and how it is consumed.
The word vodka comes from voda, the Polish and Russian word for water. The exact origin of vodka is lost to history. Our best guess is that it originated in Eastern Europe or western Russia in the 14th century. It was initially used as a medicine, and later as an alcoholic beverage.
Early stills were quite primitive, and the resulting vodkas were not very high in proof. Part of the problem was the difficulty in regulating the exact temperatures required to boil the ethanol and not the water. As distilling technology improved, so did the vodkas.
Poland was a center for vodka production for hundreds of years starting in the 15th century. Polish vodkas were made from grain during this time. Potato vodka was developed in the 19th century. The Russian Tsars used taxation on their vodka industry to gather huge amounts of revenue. In some years, 40% of revenues came from taxes on vodka.
Up until World War II, vodka was mainly consumed in only Europe, Scandinavia, and the Soviet Union. It was not yet a worldwide spirit.
After the Russian Revolution, Smirnoff moved to the United States and started selling vodka to Russian immigrants. At first it was a slow business. Then in the 1950's, when vodka really took off in the United States, Smirnoff took off with it.
Today, vodka is a ubiquitous spirit. It is the most popular spirit in the United States, Russia, and probably the world. It is easy to make, and mixes with almost anything. Drinkers can adapt it to any flavors they prefer. There does appear to be some pushback developing among the other spirits. High quality rums, gins, Tequilas, and whiskies are becoming more popular, but have yet to push vodka off of its pedestal.
How vodka is made
Vodka is a clear spirit that is distilled from any number of fruits, vegetables, and grains. These include wheat, rye, barley, sorghum, potatoes, grapes, soy, corn, molasses, and sugar beets. The ingredients are distilled to a high alcohol level which removes most of the flavor and character of the ingredients. This leaves a nearly neutral base spirit which is cut with water to bring the vodka to the desired proof--usually 70 to 100 proof.
Traditional vodka is made only from grains or potatoes. But since virtually all of the ingredients' flavors are removed, vodka can be made from almost anything that will ferment. This has led to more nontraditional vodkas that are made from cheap and easy to grow ingredients such as sugar beets.
Column stills are the most commonly used stills for vodka production. They are efficient and lend themselves to multiple distillations to get the base spirit high in alcohol proof. But if you want to give vodka some character (not that much character--remember this is vodka), you use a copper pot still. Some producers have started to do this and make vodkas fully or partially from pot stills. Ketel One, Tito's and Absolut's Level vodka fall into this category.
One other aspect of vodka production is filtration. Most producers are trying to make vodka as the United State government declares: a "neutral spirit...without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color." To remove any remaining "distinctive character", extensive charcoal and other types of filtration are used. This is common in the United States and Western Europe. In the traditional vodka producing countries of Eastern Europe, the custom is to produce a high quality distillate and use minimal filtration. The "distinctive character" is thus preserved and the vodka has a flavor profile that is less neutral than the heavily filtered vodkas.
For more flavor, flavored vodkas are produced by either steeping the flavoring agent in the vodka (this is usually preferred) or by adding flavorings outright to the neutral vodka. The variety of flavors used in vodka are almost uncountable. Some examples are citrus, orange, pepper, vanilla, raspberry, currant, peach, and blueberry flavored vodkas.
Vodka is made all over the world. Its traditional roots are in Eastern Europe and Russia, but now everyone is getting in on making the world's most popular spirit.
Poland Though internationally known for its potato vodkas, Poland also produces large amounts of grain based vodkas. Pot stills are still in use especially for vodkas that are exported. Poland also has a rich tradition of flavored vodkas including lemon and pepper flavored vodkas. One of the more interesting flavored vodkas is Zubrovka, which is flavored with aromatic buffalo grass.
Russia Along with Belarus and Ukraine, Russia produces many styles of vodka. The export market consists of high quality rye and wheat based vodka while vodka produced for domestic consumption varies greatly in quality and in ingredients used.
Western Europe Vodka distilleries have popped up all over Western Europe, especially since the vodka craze started. France has a number of well marketed, premium vodkas usually made from grains such as wheat and rye.
United States Smirnoff started making vodka in the United States in the 1930s and still does to this day. A variety of other distillers make vodka from whatever local ingredients are available, since the U.S. doesn't regulate the ingredients in vodka.
Asia Vodka distillers are sprinkled here and there in Asia, but are not prevalent. Japan makes the best vodka in Asia, including some brands made with barley and rice.
Caribbean There is quite a bit of vodka made in the Caribbean. It is made from molasses and is mostly exported to other countries for blending. Belize makes a Cane Juice vodka for local consumption and exports to the United States.
Vodka is known as the mixable spirit. Since it only has trace flavors of its own, it merely strengthens whatever it is mixed with and doesn't clash with the flavors. Enterprising drinkers will mix vodka with almost anything--Gatorade, milk, energy drinks, juice, even club soda (talk about a light drink).
Thirty or forty years ago, vodka was most often mixed with vermouth to make a vodka martini. Vodka was supplanting gin in this famous drink as the public came to appreciate its dry profile. From the martini, vodka found its way into the Gibson, Gimlet, and Collins. For breakfast, vodka was put into service in the Bloody Mary and the Screwdriver. At the pool, it was served in the Greyhound and the Chi Chi. And after a sumptuous meal, your after dinner drink might be a Black Russian or a Godmother.
Later on in the 20th Century, shooters became popular and vodka played a big part in the Sex on the Beach, Kamikaze, Purple Hooter, and Lemon Drop. At home there were assorted flavors of Jell-O shots. Now you have vodka and Red Bull or any other kind of energy drink.
Differences in flavor between vodkas are subtle, but they are there. Most often flavor and body is determined by the ingredients that were used in the mash. Grains such as rye can result in a fuller vodka while wheat can produce a softer spirit. If ingredients other than potatoes or grains are used, your palate can usually tell, although once again, it is a subtle difference. Ciroc vodka is made from grapes and exhibits some soft, floral character. Jaguar vodka is made from sugar cane, and the cane sweetness, though quite restrained, is definitely there. Zubrowka from Poland is made with buffalo grass and actually has a pale honey color. It is quite aromatic and quite full bodied for a vodka.
The next time you try a high quality vodka, try to discern more about it then whether it burns or not. If you try hard enough, you can detect certain aromas, flavors, and character that you may have never thought were there.