Vodka is a colourless, flavourless, odourless spirit; it is what most people would say about Vodka, they are wrong! Like most other wines and spirits, Vodka also has a history and a story to tell, let’s take you through it before we give you brief pointer on identifying vodkas based on ingredients….
16th- 19th century:
Vodka comes from the term Woda or Voda means little water and both Russia and Poland claim it to be their invention. This ‘little water’ initially was used for medicinal purposes and was macerated with various herbs and sweetened but only in the 16th century that it began to be consumed for pleasure. In the same period Russia, Sweden, Poland and Finland saw a huge rise in Vodka distilleries and it was made from all things grain. The popularity continued to grow and it grew so much that Catherin the great from Russia and King Gustaf of Sweden actually made it a monopoly by making the whole industry state owned, this was in the 18th century. Today potato vodka is a luxury however distillation from potatoes began in Sweden in1746 when failed harvests leading to a grain shortage and Poland eventually made potato vodkas their specialty.
Vodka and War:
Vodka had got very popular however it was restricted to Eastern Europe and Scandinavian countries often called the vodka belt. Smirnoff which started in 1818, Absolut in 1877 gave the product a great push to an extent that there were calls of prohibition in early 1900s and Sweden finally saw rationing of Vodka and most other vodka belt countries saw a 10-20 year ban on selling and consumption of Alcohol. The market of vodka went down and adding to it was the US prohibition, the US however didn’t have much access to Vodka anyways. The 1930 cocktail book by Harry Craddock listed more than 100 cocktail recipes but only 2 of them had vodka in it and if you were to look at bar menus now, it is a sea change!
Smirnoff who had fled to the USA during the Russian revolution started Smirnoff in the US in 1934 and the same year saw the first Vodka cocktail competition in the country. The Dry Martini and the Moscow Mule were doing their bit for Vodka. Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale the James Bond series pushed the category even further and Vodka became aspirational after Bond’s Vesper Martini. Soon after US and the UK saw an influx of brands from the east and Vodka had officially arrived.
Rise of Cocktails:
Cocktails had started to get popular in the 80’s and first flavoured vodka was launched in the market. Absolut Peppar was the one and was introduced as a base spirit for Bloody Marys which were very popular then. The end of the communism in the east saw privatization of brands and emerged the trend of luxury vodkas in all avatars, glacial water, and diamond filtered, n times filtered etc etc and after a while the differentiation diminished. The category continues to grow, you can now check a bar menu and see the number of cocktails with vodka in it! As the distilling cos say “Vodka pays the bills’.
Lastly how to identify Vodka based on ingredients:
Potato: Mashed potato nose with a creamy and full palate E.g. Chase, Chopin
Barley: Malty on the nose with a hint of sweet spice, begins on a sweet note and with a dry finish E.g. Finlandia, Sipsmith
Rye: Very prominent Rye bread nose with a very spicy finish on the palate E.G. Belvedere, Wyborowa, Chopin Rye
Grape: Lime and lemon scented, you can’t miss this one E.g. Ciroc
Wheat: Some show citrus and some anise and some toasted wheat kernel like aromas… E.g.Absolut Elyx, 42 Below, Ketel One
There are more to ingredients like quinoa, spelt, rice etc coming out from the new trend of micro distilleries. After all this, please remember that if you douse your vodka with juices and syrups and still are able to figure your vodka then you must be drunk!