Introduction to Vodka – Where, When, and What?
Vodka is a distilled beverage, also known as a spirit, that is comprised of ethanol and water. It can also contain other ingredients for flavoring. The spirit has been around for quite some time, however, its exact creation time frame is a hotly debated subject among vodka historians. While there are some historical records dating back to the 14th century mentioning a product similar to vodka, it is likely that these were very low ABV medicinal drinks. Vodka in a more modern format can be seen in writings from the mid-15th and 16th centuries. In either case, vodka has been in existence at least as long as many other popular spirits like cognac or Scotch whisky.
The Birthplace(s) of Vodka
Vodka can be traced back to three separate origins: Poland, Sweden, and Russia. Again, the history can be a bit fuzzy and of course pride gets in the way of accuracy so the answer to who had it first depends on who you ask. Both Polish and Russian vodka goes way back, and Sweden has been making a spirit that is essentially vodka called brännvin since the 15th century. Nailing down a specific birthplace for vodka is impossible but these three countries each claim their style of vodka as their own.
What is in Vodka?
As we have seen, there appears to be a “big three” group of early vodka producers: Poland, Sweden and Russia. Each of these regions created a similar spirit, however, each area had its own unique twist on the major ingredients. Let’s look at each individually.
Polish vodka must be made from one of five grains: rye, wheat, barley, oats, or triticale; or it must be made from potatoes. Only the potatoes are required to be grown in Poland. Otherwise, the ingredients can be from anywhere as long as it the vodka itself is produced in Poland. The obvious other main ingredient is water, which is filtered and has the minerals removed.
Swedish vodka typically contains two primary ingredients – winter wheat and water. The Swedes clearly prefer to keep it simple, as their other ingredient sometimes utilized is potatoes.
Many people hear “vodka” and automatically assume it is from Russia. While we have seen that there are other origins, Russia has taken over the common belief that it is the mother of all vodka production. It may have to do with the stereotype that in Russia, vodka is preferable to water. Russian vodka is similar to Swedish vodka in that it is typically made from two ingredients: either wheat or potatoes, and water.
What’s With all the Potatoes?
As vodka was first being produced, aristocrats in both Sweden and Russia dictated that only noblemen could produce the spirit. Thus, not everyone could make or afford to drink what quickly became a popular liquor. However, in a tale as old as time, the poorer folks determined they could use a cheap ingredient (potatoes) and make a “good enough” quality vodka. Eventually, vodka production became commercialized and it was unnecessary for people to make the spirit at home. However, many producers still use potatoes in their recipes and there are plenty of popular potato vodka brands on the market from all over the world.
How Vodka is Made
We have established the basic ingredients typically found in vodka but how do those ingredients become the clear liquid we know as vodka? Vodka goes through a process called distillation and utilizes any starch or sugar-rich plant materials. As we know, this typically means grains or potatoes. Some vodkas are more inventive, utilizing beets, crystalized sugar, or even manufacturing byproducts like wood pulp as their main ingredient.
The distillation process is quite important to vodka, as it removes all the “heads” and “tails” that cause coloring and flavor. Each time vodka is distilled, more undesirable taste is removed and clarity is improved. As we know, the ideal finished vodka is virtually taste free and as clear as water. Importantly, vodka attains a higher percentage of alcohol each time it is distilled. Since vodka is often repeatedly distilled, the finished product is often diluted with water to bring down its ABV to a drinkable level.
Filtering is a process utilized by vodka makers primarily to remove taste from the finished product. Often, charcoal filtering is used to remove anything that may create a poor taste. However, many vodka makers prefer not to filter this way, as it can remove some of the inherent flavor that makes their product unique.
What About Flavored Vodka?
It is certainly common to see rows and rows of flavors when walking through the vodka section of a spirits retailer. Flavoring vodka is not a new phenomenon, as its roots can be traced back to the times of medicinal uses. Many people flavored their recipes with local fruits or honey to cover up some of the less than ideal taste. The flavored products available today, especially the more unusual flavors, are created by adding chemicals to the vodka after distillation and filtration.
Like most spirits, major production regions have specific regulations that dictate what can be called vodka. All vodkas are distilled neutral spirits, resulting in a virtually clear finished product. Here are some specific regulations required by vodka producing regions.
The EU went through a bit of a tussle about a decade ago, with some new rules going into effect in 2008. Some traditional vodka producers were feeling the pressure from countries producing vodkas made without grain or potatoes, namely grapes. This led these countries to decry these products and demand stricter regulations. Now, any vodka produced in the EU made without grain or potatoes must clearly indicate what it is made from on its packaging.
The U.S. has kept their vodka regulation fairly simple. Per their spirits regulation, “Vodka” is neutral spirits so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.
Canada joined the grain and potatoes only crowd and dictates that vodka must be an uncontaminated alcoholic beverage created by the treatment of grain spirit or potato spirit accompanied by charcoal, resulting in a product without distinctive character, aroma, or taste.
Some Interesting Facts About Vodka
What’s in a Name?
The word vodka is from a Slavic word, voda, meaning water.
Vodka is More than Just a Drink
It can be used for several things around the house like window cleaner and, with a few added ingredients, as an aftershave.
It Really is Best Served Cold
Unlike many other spirits, vodka can often be found in the freezer. This can be attributed to the so called heat that vodka brings to the glass. Drinking it freezing cold takes some of the edge off, making it a far more palatable drink.
Vodka is Gluten Free
Gluten free. Simple enough, right? However, some vodkas contain additives for flavoring so any gluten allergy sufferers should pay attention in those cases.
Vodka Price List
|Grey Goose||France||$35||Soft Wheat||80||Premium|
|Crystal Head||Canada||$48||Peaches and Cream Corn||80||Premium|
|Ketel One||Netherlands||$23||European Whreat||60/80||Standard|
|Stoli||Latvia||$19||Wheat and Rye||70/80/100||Budget|
|UV||USA||$9||Wheat,Potatoes or Corn||60/80||Budget|
|Three Olive||England||$13||British Wheat||70/80||Budget|
|Royal Elite||Uzbekistan||$19||Organic Golden Wheat||80||Budget|
Factors Impacting The Price
The pricing you might find on vodka in a store varies wildly. From under $10 a bottle to well over $100, there are price points for every budget. There are a variety of factors that impact the pricing of vodkas, far beyond a simple name.
Have you ever been to an expensive steakhouse and thought, “Why is this place so much more than the place down the street?” The short answer is likely – the ingredients. If the vodka is based with an ingredient that is easily sourced or combined with other ingredients, then the price of the bottle is likely lower. As you can see in the “Materials” column of the chart below, when you note an unusual ingredient the price is typically a little higher. Ciroc, for example, uses grapes to produce its vodka. Grapes are obviously more expensive and labor intensive to grow than fields of wheat, corn, or rye. Thus, the ingredient is driving the price.
Another major factor that can dictate the price of a vodka is its production method. Distillation and filtration choices are left up to the still master, who makes the vodka. While some vodkas may be distilled ten times and cost less than one distilled three times, the particular method of distillation may be different. Likewise, filtration plays a role in the cost of vodka.
Another aspect of production that can drive cost is the size of the distillery. Small batch distilleries are likely to charge more for their product, as they cannot live off of the smaller profit margins that large distilleries can. If a vodka comes from a larger distiller and is produced en masse, it is far less likely to be high priced.
Many people assume that because a vodka is flavored, that the price will be naturally higher. For instance, a bottle of plain Smirnoff should be less expensive than a bottle of Raspberry Smirnoff, right? Wrong. The flavoring process is inexpensive and has no true impact on the price of the vodka.
Now that we are clear on what vodka is and how it is made, we can begin to evaluate the many options available from around the world. Our brand guide separates vodkas into three distinct levels: Budget, Standard, and Premium brands. There are a variety of factors that create these levels, however, generally you can see that budget bottles are less than $20, standard vodkas are between $20 and $30, and premium vodkas are anything priced over $30. Let’s look at some well known brands from each level, for reference.
- Absolut Vodka: Absolut, made in Sweden, is made from their famed winter wheat product. Absolut is quite popular, as the third most popular spirit behind Bacardi and Smirnoff (another brand in our budget category).
- Svedka: Another Swedish offering, Svedka is a brand more known for its variety of flavored vodkas. Of note, Svedka utilizes the same winter wheat as Absolut vodka.
- Tito’s: Tito’s Vodka has rapidly become on of the most popular vodkas produced in the United States. Made from an iconic American product, corn, Tito’s grew from a micro-distillery to a huge production line now owning over 7% of the United States vodka market share.
- Ciroc: Ciroc is a unique offering from France. As mentioned earlier, Ciroc uses grapes in its production of vodka. So how is this classified as vodka? It meets the requirements of being distilled at 96% and is unaged.
- Grey Goose: One of the most popular high-end offerings hails from France, believe it or not. Ironically, Grey Goose was created in a famous region of France – Cognac. In 1998, Grey Goose earned the vaunted distinction of Best Tasting Vodka in the World, awarded by the Beverage Testing Institute.
- Belvedere: Self proclaimed as the World’s First Super Premium vodka, Belvedere has been around since 1910 and is produced in Poland. Belvedere utilizes Polish rye as its main ingredient and its most recent claim to fame is being selected as the official vodka of the James Bond film, Spectre.