- Perhaps surprisingly, the US has some of the strictest vodka regulations. It must be distilled to 95% ABV or above, diluted back down to between 40% and 55% with water, and be “as tasteless and odourless as possible.”
- While vodka might be popular in Australia, we’ve got nothing on Mother Russia. On average Australians drink 0.94 shots per month. Russians drink 17.28.
- Before the use of a still became common in the mid-19th century, vodka had a far lower alcohol percentage, rarely rising above 14%.
Odourless. Colourless. Flavourless. The ideal vodka doesn’t sound all that appealing, but there are more than a few benefits that come with neutrality. From Russia to Margaret River, here’s all you need to know about the world’s purest spirit.
''While the original aim of vodka distillers was to make their products as odourless, colourless and flavourless as possible, purity being a sign of quality, modern-day producers are far more likely to embrace subtle nuances in flavour and bouquet, even going so far as to actively add impurities.''
Vodka is a polarising drink. Some minds will leap to Russians clinking shot glasses over dinner (former president Boris Yeltsin has a lot to answer for), while others will have flashbacks to their university years, when alcohol levels took precedence over taste, and the adaptability of vodka saw the drink make – and perhaps ruin – its fair share of nights.
But there’s so much more to vodka than these nagging stereotypes would have you believe. It is the purest and simplest of spirits, and boasts a history that stretches across centuries and continents.
Purity equals quality
What is vodka? In its traditional form this spirit is supposed to be odourless, colourless, and to some degree flavourless. In the end you simply have alcohol (in the form of ethanol) and water. This may not exactly have you licking your lips, but with neutrality comes adaptability – vodka mixes with almost anything. This is why vodka that has been filtered and distilled multiple times is so highly prized.
It has traditionally been made by distilling cereal grains or potatoes, but because the end product is nothing more than alcohol, vodka can be made from any starch- or sugar-rich plant matter. Grapes, rice, sugar beets, soybeans and even byproducts from wood processing and oil refining have been used to create vodka.
With every round of filtration and distillation (where the alcohol is boiled away from the water and contaminants) the spirit becomes stronger, and the end product can have an alcohol level as high as 95%, which would prove a challenging sip for even the most Russian of Russians. As such, most vodkas are diluted with water, being bottled closer to 40% ABV.
From the frozen plains of the vodka belt
There’s a reason why Russia, Scandinavia and the Baltic states pioneered vodka – their climates. Far too cold for grape vines, and even too nippy for the barley and hops necessary to craft beer, these countries – known collectively as ‘the vodka belt’ – were left to create a beverage from whatever plant material could survive the challenging local conditions. Because vodka can be made of almost anything, it won the day.
One vodka origin story suggests that a bottle of wine was left outside in the middle of winter, freezing the water while leaving a residue of raw alcohol on top. Whether true or not, it’s likely that vodka has been made in one form or another since the still was invented in the 8th century. The first written mention of the word vodka comes far later however, in a Polish text written in 1405.
The (clear) spirit of Australia
While certainly not a vodka powerhouse, Australian distillers are slowly beginning to chance their arm at vodka production. Following on from the recent successes of our small batch whiskies and gins, the likes of Archie Rose, Hippocampus and The Grove Distillery are proving that vodka production needn’t be left to the very north of the Northern Hemisphere.
But while boutique local distillers will be hoping to take an ever-larger slice of the vodka-flavoured pie, the brands of the vodka belt – Belvedere, Absolut, Smirnoff and Russian Standard, to name but a few – will continue to dominate the market for the foreseeable future. The Australian palate developed a taste for vodka in the 70s that it hasn’t shaken since, so vodka consumption isn’t expected to go backwards any time soon.
Describing the taste of nothing
While the original aim of vodka distillers was to make their products as odourless, colourless and flavourless as possible, purity being a sign of quality, modern-day producers are far more likely to embrace subtle nuances in flavour and bouquet, even going so far as to actively add impurities. The addition of bison grass in Poland is a famous example, although this was for the longest time the exception to the purity rule.
Makers like Absolut now offer a large range of flavoured vodkas, while distillers like Fair are achieving distinct tastes by playing with the raw ingredients, in their case quinoa.
But what is the ‘classic’ vodka taste? In essence, it’s the tart, crisp and warm tang of alcohol. Any residual flavours will come from the material that the vodka has been made from – fruit-based vodkas will taste sweeter, potato-based vodkas will taste earthier, and grain-based vodkas will offer hints of bread.