The first thing to help you understand different vodkas are the various legal definitions, as they are deeply connected with defining the vodka categories.
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.
But what does that mean?
Now, The E.U. definition is particularly upsetting to the “vodka belt” or the traditional manufacturers. In their opinion, it is not nearly restrictive enough. Can Titos, a very neutral, corn based spirit, really fall into the same category as a classic Russian vodka, a full flavored rye spirit? These nations say: no!, and furthermore, it’s hurting the reputation of their vodka. In 2007 they got some concessions when the Schnellhardt compromise decreed that vodkas made from anything other than cereal grains, 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 and traditionalists. Luckily, it’s hard to enforce the idea of ‘flavorless’ so when qualifying your vodka with the government, they mostly ensure that it is 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. That must be done through other means…
The most basic categorization is ingredients: What is it made of? Is your spirit made from old school ones such as grains, potato, or sugar beet molasses? Or is it new world base like grapes, sugar cane, and rice? Also, can corn and rice technically fit into the category of grains? While this would make them technically a ‘classic’ ingredient, they only recently began being used to make Vodka, so they can hardly fit into the spirit of the compromised definition.
The classic grains:
First things first, you should probably know 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 and the classic “Vodka belt” grains when it comes to distillation, though you don’t have to look far to find distillates made from the others. 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 they include non-traditional ingredients.
The classic not-grains:
Potato is pretty self-explanatory and sugar beets and their molasses is actually a fascinating story for another time. For right now, just know that according to Wikipedia, in 2009 sugar beets accounted for 20% of the world’s sugar production, so they’re kind of a big deal.
The not-classic not-grains:
Now on to “New World” ingredients which 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 sugarcane or molasses, like some kind of over-distilled rum. In order to capitalize on the world’s great thirst for vodka, some people are creating distillates that might even be better categorized as brandies or eau-de-vie (such as from apples, cherries, and pears).
Whether or not it is right for these spirits to be called vodka is certainly a matter for debate… unfortunately though, the cat got out of the bag with this one. Vodka has entered the lexicon and the pubic opinion of the world as it is, and to change it now would take millions of dollars and a re-branding unlike any other.
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 Champagne only being from Champagne, 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.
I’m incredibly passionate about the cultural connection between a place and the spirits that they produce. Tequilas history is inseparable from Mexico. I cannot imagine a day when wine is no longer associated with France and Italy. 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?At Lucidi Distilling, we 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.