Here in the United States, there is the general misconception that vodka is just a flavorless addition, good only for making something alcoholic that otherwise wouldn’t be. This does absolutely no justice to the history of vodka and to the myriad of subtle differences that defines the spirit.
We will start with the history, because that’s one the parts I personally find most fascinating. In the United States it usually boils down to “there was a time before vodka, then there was vodka and everyone loved it and it was good! Also it comes from Russia, haha lets make some Russia jokes”. In reality, the history of vodka is lengthy and tied intimately to the history of distillation and all spirits.
Credit for the still as we know it is given to a woman named Mariah Hebrea, a Jewish researcher in Alexandria about the year 200. Distillation for drinking purposes doesn’t come onto the scene until about 1100 AD and that is in Russia. This is not vodka as we know it. It’s an incredibly rough distillate, on par with the shoddiest of illicit moonshines available today. William Pokhelbkin claims in his book “A History of Vodka” that Russia invented Vodka around the 14th century while Poland, the next contender followed in the 16th century. It is worth noting though that this book was originally a report commissioned by the Russian government to prove that they were the original home of vodka so, take his claims with a grain of salt. In 1470 Tsar Ivan III (better known as Ivan the Great) established state control over distillation that lasted until the 1700’s when Tsarina Catherine II (also, the Great) relinquished state control. In 1917 the Bolsheviks took control of the Smirnov distillery (one of the largest in Russia) and the operating Smirnov son and head of the company escaped and established distilleries elsewhere. Eventually, rights to the Smirnoff brand name (name changed in 1920’s) found its way into the hands of John G. Martin who collaborated with Cock N Bull restaurant to create the Moscow Mule and vodka popularity skyrocketed. In 1983 the Nolet family in the Netherlands produced Ketel One, the first Ultra-premium vodka on the world market. In 2000 Grey Goose ran a very clever campaign establishing themselves as THE Ultra-Premium vodka and shifting the perspective of the United States, showing them (us) that vodka can be a fine spirit.
This is obviously leaving out a great deal of very interesting history that you can find in several books listed in the notes, or you can contact us about doing vodka education classes for your bar or distillery or book club or secret society. These would be a great deal more in depth and also very fun!
Before we get into how to categorize, I want to take you through the various legal definitions of vodka, as they are deeply connected with that topic.
In the European Union Vodka is defined as a spirit produced from ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin of at least 37.5% ABV. This means that anything that grows in the ground can be made into vodka.
In Russia, the legal definition is still the traditional one, established by a gentleman named Dmitri Mendeleev in 1894. He defined it as a spirit made from Grains (traditionally Rye), triple distilled and diluted with water to 40% Alcohol by weight.
In the United States it is a neutral spirit so distilled and treated after distillation with charcoal and other materials as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.
Discussion: Now, The E.U. definition is particularly upsetting to the “vodka belt” traditional manufacturers because it is not nearly restrictive enough in their opinion. Can Titos (A very neutral, corn based spirit) really fall into the same category as a classic Russian vodka, a full flavored rye spirit? They say no, and furthermore that it’s hurting the reputation of their vodka. In 2007 they got some concession, when the Schnellhardt compromise decided that vodkas made from anything other than Cereals, potatoes and Sugar beet molasses have to label their vodka as “Vodka made from ____”. The Russian definition is clearly too limited for modern purposes but gives us a good idea of what you should expect from a more traditional vodka. To the average American palette, it will probably be more reminiscent of a “White Dog” Whiskey or Moonshine, depending on your preferred nomenclature. Now the U.S. definition of vodka completely misses the mark in the opinion of vodka lovers. Luckily, it’s hard to enforce the idea of ‘flavorless’ so when qualifying your vodka with the government, it mostly has to be clear and of the appropriate legal proofing. While this is great for creating variety, it’s less great for us trying to categorize our vodkas.
The most basic categorization is ingredient: What is it made of? Is it old school eg. Grains, potato, Sugar beet molasses or is it new world like grapes and sugar cane and rice? Also, corn and rice may technically fit into the category of grains and therefore be an old school ingredient, but making vodka from either is relatively new and is definitely used more in “new world” vodkas, so which category is that? Now, you might be wondering what ‘cereal grains’ actually are. Maize (Corn), rice, wheat, barley, sorghum, millet, oats, rye, triticale, fonio , and teff. Wheat, Barley, and Rye are the essentials when it comes to distillation though you don’t have to look far to find distillates made from the others. Now historically, the Vodka states tended to make vodka from whatever they had handy, which is probably why they are supportive of the term “Cereal Grains” even though there are non-traditional ingredients. Potato is pretty self-explanatory and sugar beets and their molasses is actually a fascinating story for another time. According to Wikipedia, in 2009 sugar beets accounted for 20% of the world’s sugar production, they’re a big deal. “New World” ingredients include… everything else! Ciroc is made from grapes, and interestingly, was the catalyst for the great debate above. Many distillers in the United States are turning to pure sugar bases such as cane or molasses, like over-distilled rum. In order to capitalize on the world’s great thirst for vodka, some people are creating distillates that might be better categorized as brandies or eau-de-vie (such as from apples, cherries, and pears). Vodka purists might argue that they should be, or perhaps the world should come up with a new name for such spirits.
The next categorization is also somewhat easy to discern: Where did it come from? Some purists, particularly those who stand to profit, believe that vodka should have appellations like wine, where you can only call it vodka if it is made in a certain region (a la Champaign only being from Champaign, France). The original Vodka Belt consists of the Eastern European states plus a few: Russia, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Greenland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Each of these nations has rich vodka making traditions and cultures that are deeply tied to national history and pride. It is not, in my opinion, unreasonable for them to want their names, histories, and culture to be associated only with the high quality, traditional spirits that they produce and export. Tequilas history is inseparable from Mexico. I cannot imagine a day when wine is no longer associated with France. The Caribbean and South America will always be deeply tied to Rum, its production and its history. Should Vodka be extended this same limitation/protection? How would it affect sales and the reputation of vodka? Would all nations honor it or will they find loopholes by which to protect producers in their country? So, while the question of where your bottle comes from is easy enough to answer, it raises a series of other serious debates in the world of spirits.
The third major vodka category is much more difficult to ascertain… What kind of character does the vodka have? Is it neutral? Sweet? Spicy? Bold? Subtle? If the official Russian definition is any indication, a bold, spicy vodka is the original vodka. If the American definition (and taste) is to be believed, it’s a completely neutral, flavorless spirit! What about the variations in between? The vodka produced by one of our local Arizona distilleries that specializes in rum has a distinctly rum characteristic, as if they merely sent their silver rum through one or two more distillations. Is this vodka or merely very light rum? We ourselves describe our vodka as having a slightly sweet character as a result of using 100% corn. I read recently of a distillery which made vodka from three different varieties of potato in order to illustrate the difference it makes in flavor of the final product. If these differences are so clearly discernible, then why is it that vodka has the reputation it does for being utterly without complexity or depth? But then… if a full flavored vodka is all that should be truly called vodka, then what about those who have built their fortunes on neutrality?
Putting it All Together
Hopefully it’s clear now why it might be difficult to properly categorize vodka… Many old world countries are using old world ingredients to make new world style neutral vodkas while many new world countries are using new ingredients to make full flavored spirits. Though the U.S. defines vodka as being neutral flavor, it doesn’t actually check or care about whether the vodka has too much “character” and should be called something else. As history has taught us again and again, the U.S. government has little concern for the ethical and spiritual categorizations of alcoholic beverages, and more for the taxation of it. Would Vodka Belt countries actually profit from a restriction in the name and production? Or would they simply cause a fuss while the fickle Western market moves on to some new and exciting spirit, leaving vodka in the dust, suitable only for mixing with over-sugared drinks for college girls?
Or perhaps, with craft spirits, craft beer, craft cocktails carving a place in the competitive food and beverage market, people will begin to learn and appreciate vodka for what it is. Slowly but surely, misconceptions can be corrected and depth of knowledge can grow… maybe someday vodka can be spoken of the same way whiskey is, with understanding of character, origin and ingredients.