Why is Vodka Boring?

Vodka is Boring

Vodka is a spirit carefully designed to be plain and boring. Gin starts to have a bit flavour. Vodka though is a great starting point for learning about spirits and that’s where we start with this course. If vodka were to be described in a picture…

I know this is bound to round up the haters. Comment as you wish. Light neutral colours in a living environment is a blank palate which can then be spiced up with select furniture. What is there to say about vodka? To most of us, this is a flavourless and odourless spirit. Add to that, lack of colour. Vodka is simply diluted alcohol ready to add to any mix of your preference. In many ways it is a spirit for those that don’t like spirits. A spirit for those that really like a fancy juice or mix and want to ‘alcoholize’ it. A means for people to get liquored.

I find it really hard to buy a bottle these days because sipping on it solo, no ice… neat in a glass isn’t that exciting. Adding a mix makes it taste like… the mix. Think of the essentials in a Screwdriver? Orange juice is perfect as it is… a bit of sweet mixed with tartness. This of course would have to be fresh squeezed orange juice, especially with the little pulpy bits. To some people though, adding some diluted ethanol to it makes it better? You do get your Vitamin C along with your inebriation… so there is that.

The Legal ABV Requirement

Let’s start by looking at what vodka needs to be by definition. By law, the spirit needs to be distilled to at least 95% alcohol by volume (ABV). In the EU, they require a minimum 96% ABV. When distilling to such a high alcohol concentration, the product coming out of that column still is really just ethanol and a bit of water. Very few congeners make it through the distillation, resulting in negligible additional flavours or aromas. This is defined as a neutral spirit.

For efficiency, a column still is used. This type of still can run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s inexpensive to run, and churns out a whole lot of that high proof spirit. When distilling to those high ABV’s… the result should be a smoothness… but that isn’t always the case. I’m not sure what they do with Skyy vodka, but it just seems to always burn it’s way into my belly.

What Does the Water do?

Pick up a bottle of vodka. What does the the bottle say the alcohol concentration is? In most cases you should be seeing around 40% ABV. To enjoy the spirit without sanitizing your insides, producers will dilute that clean, neutral spirit with water.

Photo by Annie Spratt

Really, vodka is just ethanol mixed down with water. Each producer touts the uniqueness of their water. Is that water from an iceberg? Is it filtered through 500 feet of limestone? How many times have they filtered the spirit? Water is added after distillation to make the spirit palatable. Have you ever sipped on Everclear? 95% ABV is great for cleaning sticky residue off windows, but not great for sipping. We have another product here on the shelves called White Lightning coming in at 50% alcohol by volume. This ain’t a sippin’ vodka. Make Jello Shots with it. Check out the Tipsy Bartender’s ‘Flaming Mouthwash’ video.

Grow your Vodka Ingredients

Over the years, the legal definition of vodka has changed very little. Technically, vodka can be made from any fermented sugary liquid. Legally, it needs to be made from agricultural products. Think anything grown. At one point it was generally accepted that vodka should only be made from grains or potatoes. Potatoes were commonly used during wartime. Premium vodkas seem to be made from wheat or rye.

Do the research. The best selling vodka in the world is made from corn! Ask yourself “What is corn?” Is it a grain? In some cases yes. In other cases corn is a fruit, and others it’s a vegetable.

Photo by Michal Janek

Many more things can be grown than just those staples though. Look hard enough and you can find vodka made from grapes… like Ciroc, hemp, and even waste milk products. There’s a Japanese vodka out there now that is made from bamboo. Check out Dairy Distillery for their Vodkow product (a student just brought a bottle in for tasting. Guess what? It tastes like vodka).

Is Premium Worth It?

Ultimately, vodka producers are interested in taking an inexpensive raw material, then convert it into a sugary liquid. The goal is to create ethanol as cheaply as possible. Look at the sanitizer made by local distilleries. Those distilleries are using plain old cheap white sugar. It’s the marketing people that will jump in there to point out the premium nature of their raw materials or the special nature of the water used to dilute the product. Of course, putting that diluted ethanol in a very pretty bottle with an elevated price tag seems to make some companies a whole lot of money.

Ultimately, the guest/customer is always right. If they figure Grey Goose is superior to Belvedere… then sure. Can they pick up the French winter wheat notes versus the Polish rye spiciness? Unlikely, especially when mixed into a Cosmopolitan or Moscow Mule. Some cheap vodkas are truly cheap, and they burn going down. Others have an oily smoothness that makes sipping them quite enjoyable.

Do a Side-by-Side Taste Test

To appreciate the finer notes though, your vodka needs to be tasted at room temperature… no ice. Add a little water. This will soften the ‘alcohol smell’ so you can appreciate the subtle aroma notes from the raw materials or water source. I do have a bottle of Finlandia at home right now. This is a bottle I keep for tastings with students. It’s a vodka made from barley and water from Finland. I know what barley tastes like and I always add it to soups. I even eat it for breakfast mixed in with steel cut oats (I am an odd one). Finnish water is not something my tongue has categorized. The result is an inexpensive, smooth neutral spirit that tastes like vodka should. That my friends is NOTHING, which makes vodka quite boring indeed.

Chris S.

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