The earliest distilled spirit in Eastern Europe was distilled from mead (honey wine) or beer and was called perevara. Vodka, from the Russian word voda meaning water, was originally describes grain distillates used for medicinal purposes. As distilling techniques improved, Vodka, Wodka in Polish, gradually came to be the accepted term for beverage spirit, regardless of its origin.
Vodka is the dominant spirit of Eastern Europe. It is made by fermenting and then distilling the simple sugars from a mash of pale grain or vegetal matter. Vodka is produced from grain, potatoes, molasses, beets and a variety of other plants. Rye and wheat are the classic grains for Vodka. Most of the best Russian Vodkas are made from wheat, while in Poland they are mostly made from a rye mash. Swedish and Baltic distillers are partial to wheat mashes. Potatoes are looked down on by Russian distillers, but are held in high esteem by some of their Polish counterparts. Molasses, a sticky, sweet residue from sugar production, is widely used for inexpensive, mass-produced brands of Vodka. American distillers use the full range of base ingredients.
The choice of pot or column still has a fundamental effect on the final character of Vodka. All Vodka comes out of the still as a clear, colorless spirit, but Vodka from a pot still (the same sort used for Cognac and Scotch whisky) will contain some of the delicate aromatics, congeners and flavor elements of the crop from which it was produced. Pot stills are relatively “inefficient,” and the resulting spirit from the first distillation is usually redistilled (rectified) to increase the proof of the spirit. Vodka from a more “efficient” column still is usually a neutral, characterless spirit. Except for a few minor styles, Vodka is not put in wooden casks or aged for an extensive period of time. It can, however, be flavored or colored with a wide variety of fruits, herbs and spices.
There are no uniform classifications of Vodka. In Poland, Vodkas are graded according to their degree of purity: standard (Zwykly), premium (Wyborowy) and deluxe (Luksusowy). In Russia Vodka that is labeled Osobaya (special) is a superior-quality product that can be exported, while Krepkaya (strong) denotes an over proof Vodka of at least 56% ABV.
In the United States, domestic Vodkas are defined by U.S. government regulation as “neutral spirits, so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.” Because American Vodka is, by law, neutral in taste, there are only very subtle distinctions between brands. Many drinkers feel that the only real way of differentiating between them is by alcohol content and price.
- Eastern Europe is the homeland of Vodka production. Every country produces Vodka, and most also have local flavored specialties.
- Russia, Ukraine and Belarus produce the full range of Vodka types and are generally acknowledged to be the leaders in Vodka production. Only the better brands, all of which are distilled from rye and wheat, are exported to the West.
- Poland produces and exports both grain and potato based Vodkas. Most of the high- quality brands are produced in pot stills.
- Finland, along with the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, produce primarily grain-based Vodkas, mostly from wheat.
- Sweden has, in recent decades, developed a substantial export market for its straight and flavored wheat-based Vodkas.
- Western Europe has local brands of Vodka wherever there are distilleries. The base for these Vodkas can vary from grains in northern countries such as the United Kingdom, Holland and Germany, to grapes and other fruits in the winemaking regions of France and Italy.
- The United States and Canada produce non flavored Vodkas, both from various grains (including corn) and molasses. American Vodkas are, by law, neutral spirits, so the distinction between brands is more a matter of price and perception than taste.
- The Caribbean produces a surprising amount of Vodka, all of it from molasses. Most of it is exported for blending and bottling in other countries.
- Australia produces molasses-based Vodkas, but few are exported.
- Asia has a smattering of local Vodkas, with the best coming from Japan.
Content provided by Keith Cox, Martin Wine Cellar