Vodka is more than a mere vehicle for your energy drink.
Shaken not stirred: Vodka has been having a bit of an image crisis. Previously noted as the drink of choice of sharp-suited double-oh spies and mucho macho Russian oligarchs, over the past couple of decades the association has gotten significantly less… manly. Mention vodka to your average scotch-swilling aficionado and chances are he’ll dismiss it as either too feminine (thanks, Carrie Bradshaw) or too young (vodka-Red Bull and glow sticks, anyone?) – and he wouldn't be entirely wrong.
Given its smooth, near tasteless nature, vodka is the easy gateway drink for palates not yet accustomed to stronger spirits. Like a liquid chameleon, a vodka-based drink takes on the properties of whatever you mix it with: cranberries in the case of the Cosmo, OJ if your poison is that college-bar staple Sex on the Beach and Red Bull for hundreds of thousands of bouncing club-goers the world over.
But news flash: That’s not all vodka is good for. If you give it the chance to prove itself – instead of drowning it in the juice du jour – vodka emerges as not just a nuanced spirit but also a multidimensional one. James Bond knew that. As does any Muscovite – neat, chilled, in a shot, or not at all. When in Moscow…
What is vodka exactly?
No, “the white spirit that’s not gin” is not the answer we’re looking for. Vodka is any clear drink distilled from fermented ingredients like grains and potatoes, sometimes sugar or fruit, and largely consists of water and ethanol. Like whisky, it goes through a distillation process – though usually in column stills rather than pot stills – and is then filtered to remove as many congeners as possible (which contributes to the almost neutral taste of the spirit – and is also why drinking premium vodka rarely induces a bad hangover).
So then what makes one vodka different from another?
It’s a myth that all vodka tastes the same. Sure, its essential characteristics are that it’s smooth and nearly tasteless – but then why would anyone spring for a super premium brand over a regular one? Here’s why: Premium vodkas have subtle yet distinct characteristics. This has to do with their base ingredients, the number of times the spirit is distilled (which affects alcohol percentage) and the rigour and methods of filtration (traditional vodka-producing countries are more likely to allow some congeners to remain for “character”). So, which one should you drink?
These are traditionally the Russian-style vodkas: smooth, with an oily mouthfeel and a faint taste of licorice, which is what distinguishes them from the rest. The premium brands can be knocked back neat or mixed in with something neutral like soda or tonic.
This base grain is most commonly found in Polish vodkas. You know it from the hints of rye bread when you nose it, as well as a slight spiciness on the palate. Some high-end vodkas fall into this category – don’t kill them with an overpowering mixer.
Less common than grain vodkas, the potato-based spirit comes at a premium price – and is absolutely worth it for its creamy, rich mouth feel. This one’s for sipping. Shooting at Arctic temperatures is also acceptable.
This sugar by-product is used mostly in mass-market, non-premium brands – ie, highly avoidable. Especially if you’re looking to escape one hell of a hangover the next day.
Every major commercial brand – be it grain, grape or sugar-based vodka – has diversified into flavor infused stuff. Note: You are not, nor should you be, the target market. Leave that to the kids.
And if you must mix…
The list of vodka cocktails is short. For the most part, they’re daytime cocktails – except for the classic vodka martini, naturally. As for the rest: We’d never say no to a Bloody Mary, that staple of late Sunday brunches and all-round hangover killer. And a lime caprioska, to beat the summer heat, is also acceptable. But absolutely no kamikazes. What are you, 16?