Clear Winner: Versatile vodka plays well with others

My first experience with vodka – at age 21 of
course – was with the cheap stuff from the gas stations, Congress brand to be specific. My girlfriends and I would mix out the sharp alcoholic bite with orange juice or soda. We liked it because it was cheap, effective and easy to mix. These reasons play a large part in why vodka popularity has grown exponentially in the United States for years and is now the best-selling spirit nationwide.

It hasn’t always been that way, however. Before World War II, vodka was relatively obscure, and it didn’t really become popular until the ’60s, when cocktails grew more fashionable. Young drinkers were wealthier, more experimental and in some cases under the sway of “Dr. No,” the 1962 James Bond film that featured Smirnoff. By 1976, vodka had overtaken gin as the best-selling spirit. “Even for being the most popular spirit in the world, a lot of people don’t know much about it,” said Lucas Gamlin, co-owner of SubZero Vodka Bar in the Central West End. “We want to educate people about the world of vodka.”

Currently, vodka is huge on both a local and national level. An increasing number of distilleries are opening because vodka is easy to produce and can be made in mass quantities. It requires no aging like whiskey or wine. “It’s just distill, bottle and go,” said Jonathan Lane, a customer service representative from Lukas Liquor Superstore in Ellisville.

Unlike scotch from Scotland or tequila from Mexico, vodka can be made anywhere and be called vodka. It’s also easy to promote because of its mixability. Vodka mixes well with any fruit juice and can make a variety of shots. “Vodka is a blank canvas and it can come out however you want,” said Ted Kilgore, bar manager at Monarch Restaurant and Wine Bar in Maplewood.

Vodka is defined as an odorless, colorless and tasteless spirit. Despite its bland description, vodka is surprisingly diverse. It can be made out of anything that produces a fermentable sugar, including beets, rice and grapes. However, potatoes, rye and wheat are most popular. The base inevitably impacts a vodka’s taste. Fruits can make it sweeter, rye might lend it a toasty bite and potatoes often leave it dry.

As you explore the world of vodkas, certain base products may be more appealing. Grey Goose brand is made from grain, as are Stolichnaya and Smirnoff. Skyy is made from corn, Chopin is made from potatoes and Belvedere is made from rye. Inexpensive vodkas are typically made of corn and
sorghum mixes.

Vodka is produced by fermenting and distilling simple sugars from a mash of a chosen crop. This process is done in one of two types of stills: a pot still or a column still. Each time vodka is distilled in a pot still, only a portion of the product is good. The first and last parts (the heads and the tails) have a lot of impurities. Generally, vodka must be distilled three times in a pot still to make a good product. In a pot still, no matter how many times it is distilled, the vodka will still have some flavors from the base product.

“A big misconception about vodka is that the more times you distill it, the better it is,” Lane said. “After three or four times, all that really matters is the quality of the ingredients that
were used.”

Because vodka must be distilled several times, pot stills are inefficient. If made in a column still, vodka only needs to be distilled once. Column stills, which were invented in the early 1800s, have a series of screens that trap heavier components while allowing the lightest ones to make it to the top. Although they are more efficient, column stills don’t leave characteristics from the crop.

In general, cheap vodkas are column-stilled because it is cheaper and easier. Typically, better brands are pot-stilled. However, there are some exceptions to this rule. Reyka, a high-end vodka from Iceland, goes through a column still.

Whatever still it goes through, vodka is distilled to 190 proof, which is 95 percent alcohol. Everclear, at 190 proof, is pure vodka. In order to make it 80 proof, what most vodka is sold as, it is cut with water. This means about 60 percent of the bottle is water, according to Gamlin. “Water makes a huge difference in how a vodka will taste.”

Low-cost vodkas often use tap water. Higher-end ones instead select glacier water (Finlandia), spring water (Grey Goose) or water that has been purified (Skyy and Absolut). These types of water are believed not to contain impurities and minerals that can foul up the taste.

The earliest vodkas were made out of pot stills about 1,100 years ago in Poland and Russia (the birthplace of vodka is a source of debate between the two countries). It was considered a peasant drink because just about anybody could make vodka by distilling “whatever they could get their hands on,” Kilgore said. It was cheap and effective; peasants loved it. Russian nobles did, too, and at one time enjoyed the exclusive right to distill it.

Smirnoff, a Russian vodka, introduced the spirit to the United States when its home base moved here in 1934. Nevertheless, it didn’t gain in popularity until John G. Martin, owner of Heublein Inc. (the company that owned Smirnoff), and Jack Morgan invented the Moscow mule in 1941. Martin and Morgan sold the cocktail, made with vodka, ginger beer and lime, in a copper mug to patrons of the Cock ‘n’ Bull Tavern, a Hollywood hotspot owned by Morgan. The drink was a blockbuster.

“Media was one of the driving forces to put vodka in the consumer’s hand, and they haven’t let up since,” Kilgore said.

Until about 20 years ago, Smirnoff was considered the top-shelf vodka. “No one really thought you could sell it at a higher price,” said Bill Doerr, a sales representative at Glazer’s, a wholesale liquor distributor. “Then, Absolut came along.”

Absolut was the first super-premium vodka. Like Smirnoff, there was a following created by its marketing. There was an ad campaign in the early ’80s that made Absolut explode; it became very cool and trendy. In that era, there were still a lot of whiskey drinkers, but vodka really took off and became the drink of choice.

Despite its popularity, Lane said most vodka aficionados don’t like Absolut. It has an oily, menthol heat, according to Lane. Doerr has seen Absolut rank low at blind tastings. “It’s OK for mixing but you would never want to drink it in a martini if you have an educated palate. [Professional bartenders] consider it skunky,” Doerr said.

Flavored vodkas have made the spirit even more popular during recent years. The first flavors were marketed by Stoli back in the ’80s. High-quality flavored vodkas are infused with fresh fruit or spices during the distillation process, according to Kilgore. An infusion creates a richer taste than a flavor made with syrups at the mixing stage.

Despite their recent popularity at stores and bars, flavored vodkas have been around for hundreds of years. Peasants would distill the spirit with fruit, herbs or spices to soften
the flavor.

Today’s flavored vodkas were partly invented for line extension, according to Doerr. The goal is to have as big a spread on the grocery store shelf as possible. “They’re popular because the vodka-makers are pushing them in order to extend their brand,” Doerr said. “If you have another flavor, you go from 12 inches on the shelf to 14 inches. This spreads out your brand and makes your product more adaptable. There are more options for consumers to buy your brand.”

If you look at any individual flavor compared with the mother brand, the sales are not even close, according to Doerr. The goal is to get the brand in people’s mouths. So if they start liking Absolut Citron, for example, hopefully they’ll eventually pick up the mother brand.

Sales of flavored vodka are on the rise, especially pomegranate, pear and coconut. Doerr said he can’t keep Pearl Pomegranate brand vodka on the shelves. Kilgore said the vodka market is also turning to more savory flavors, such as black truffle, pear-lavender and rose. “Right now everyone is trying to do stuff that hasn’t been done before,” Kilgore said. “The vodka craze may run its course, but not for another 10 years.”

In the meantime, now is the time to check out different vodkas. You may even want to try it straight over ice in order to really appreciate the flavors. “Go beyond the initial whiff, which is just alcohol,” Lane said. “You can get toast, oak or citrus. There’s a lot to get out of vodka. It has a lot of flavor but it looks so simple. To me the idea is to try something different than the one you usually try. Most people hesitate and are stuck on the one.”