Vodka

Vodka

By
Benny Roff
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742702445
Photographer
Bonnie Savage

What is vodka?

When a new staff member starts work at Borsch, the list of vodkas is truly overwhelming. The clear vodka freezer alone is a mystery, with bottle after bottle of colourless liquid reflecting the light through clear glass. Part of the joy of working here is in getting to know the differences between them. Staff are encouraged to sample the product on a regular basis to familiarise themselves with the vast array of flavours. At one stage I spent several weeks only sampling clear vodkas in an attempt to get a grasp on the subtle differences.

I remember one day, a couple sat at the bar and between us we tried to find the perfect vodka for their martinis. They had several before we hit upon one that they thought was approaching perfection, when one of them asked me, ‘So, what makes you a vodka expert?’ I think I answered swiftly that I was no such thing.

Three years later, I would have answered the same way, but added that constant tasting, serving, talking and reading about vodka has given me some insight. When I stopped managing the bar at Borsch, I thought it would be fitting to try to quantify what I had learned for newer staff members. I put together a vodka reference manual of sorts. A great deal of the early history of vodka is poorly documented and heavily contested. Furthermore, there is not a great deal of legislation covering methods and materials used in vodka production. So what appears here is my best effort to pull together the disparate and conflicting information into a general overview of vodka.

Vodka is a neutral spirit distilled either from fermented grains, such as wheat, rye and spelt, or from potatoes or beetroot molasses that has had water added to it. It is typically distilled to the highest potency possible and then watered down with very high quality water. The European Union has set a minimum alcohol content of 37.5% ABV (alcohol by volume) for any beverage sold as ‘vodka’, though most traditional Russian and Polish vodkas tend to be 40% ABV (to simplify tax calculations which have been based on alcoholic content for over a century). The United States has set a minimum of 40% ABV for products sold as ‘vodka’. Elsewhere the strength is not regulated.

Defining what vodka actually is can be a little problematic. We have already discussed that it is distilled to the highest potency and watered down but this definition could also include other drinks distilled to high potency, like gin. The difference with gin is that aromatics are usually mixed into the wash or a partially distilled product and then distilled again. Compound gin, however, is made by infusing botanicals or adding flavour essences without redistillation. While this does not produce particularly high quality gin, the method of infusing flavour without redistillation is the way flavoured vodka is made. Which begs the question: is compound gin therefore vodka?

The trouble with these definitions is that there are exceptions and differences around the world. Starka (meaning ‘the old one’ in Polish), for example, is a vodka made from rye grain and only twice distilled in a pot according to tradition. Then there are many modern tequilas and rums that are distilled using column stills, which means they are produced from almost pure alcohol just like vodka is. There are also several flavoured vodkas, such as Jarzębiak, that have fruits and eau de vie added and are redistilled.

The big difference with vodka is that by the time it leaves the distiller, it tends to have far fewer flavour compounds, such as esters, than other distilled spirits. Then again, spirits, such as Aguardiente from Spain and Poteen from Ireland also have minimal flavour (if you’re lucky that is, Poteen can be bloody horrible).

All this makes the labelling of a beverage as ‘vodka’ seem completely arbitrary. Certainly it is treated that way in much of the world. Croatia produces at least one brand of egregious fruit liqueur of about 25% ABV that they label ‘vodka’ and the French produce a rather delightful neutral grape spirit (probably more accurately labelled an eau de vie) that for pecuniary reasons they label ‘vodka’. There is a movement in the ‘Vodka Belt’ — the traditional vodka-producing countries of Eastern Europe and Scandinavia — to restrict the use of the term ‘vodka’ so that it only applies to beverages made from grain, potato or beetroot that are strictly produced from within the traditional Vodka Belt. This is a similar idea to the French A.O.C. for Champagne or the Italian D.O.C. for Parmigiano Reggiano. It is an idea that the boss supports, and one that we espouse as part of our business philosophy at Borsch, Vodka and Tears.

In the meantime, there is no completely clear definition of vodka established by the law and no agreement among the cognoscenti. The best thing you can do to really appreciate this wonderful spirit is to familiarise yourself with some of the labels detailed in this book, appreciate how they have been made and enjoy drinking them. Most important of all, you must practise. Practise until you can differentiate between brands just by taste. Practise until you form solid opinions of your own. Then, after a particularly heavy practice session, you will be able to join the belligerent discourse that surrounds vodka.

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