Editor’s Note: This is a monthly column by Michael Zinser (“Z”) about wine (“The Grape”). The Zinser family owns and operates The Copper Still Wine & Spirits in Gallatin. If you are new to the world of wine and spirits, roaming the aisles in search of the perfect bottle can be daunting. With this column, Michael will help inform your decision by sharing valuable information about the best-known grape types and more.
“Tasteless, odorless, colorless” – these three words describe America’s most popular and best-selling spirit, vodka. While we distinguish other spirits by their flavor profiles, vodka’s “water-like” quality contributes to its versatility as the star ingredient in many well-loved cocktails. However, compared to whiskey, vodka’s popularity in the United States is a relatively new development.
Vodka originated in Eastern Europe. According to legend, in the mid-15th century, a monk with special knowledge of distillation developed a recipe for the first Russian vodka. The first recorded exports of Russian vodka were to Sweden in 1505.
After the Russian Revolution, many vodka producers fled the country. Vladimir Smirnov, who originally founded a vodka distillery in Moscow, was forced to sell his factory and brand, later leaving the country. After reestablishing his vodka as “Smirnoff,” in 1933, he sold the rights to a Russian-American businessman in the United States.
With the fall of prohibition in 1934, many inexperienced drinkers began to appreciate vodka’s flavorless appeal. Classic drinks such as the Bloody Mary and the Screwdriver were invented during this time. A marketing campaign in the late 1930s branded vodka as “white whiskey.” The spirit’s popularity exploded in the 1940s and ‘50s.
Because vodka does not have a strong flavor profile, companies have found other ways to set their products apart. In particular, many vodkas are marketed by how many times they have been distilled and filtered. While each company defines exactly what constitutes a single distillation, there is a general consensus that distillation removes impurities. In theory, the more times vodka is distilled, the more it is purified.
Another way to distinguish between brands is to look at the ingredients. Vodka is traditionally made by distilling fermented cereal grains (including rye and wheat), potatoes, or corn. Today, it is also made from other ingredients, including grapes. Trace amounts of glycerin, citric acid, or additional sugar are sometimes added to give vodka a silky mouthfeel and a touch of sweetness.
At the Copper Still Wine & Spirits, we carry vodkas from around the world. Rye is often used in Russian vodkas; Stolichnaya is made with a combination of rye and wheat and distilled three times. We also offer a Polish rye vodka from Chopin, distilled four times – as well as another variety distilled four times from wheat. Many experts believe that rye vodkas work better in spicy drinks such as the Bloody Mary or the Moscow Mule.
My favorite, the French vodka Ciroc, is distilled five times from grapes. Another French vodka, Grey Goose, is distilled from wheat using a five-step process. Three Olives vodka from London is distilled four times from wheat. Absolut vodka from Sweden is distilled from wheat “infinite times.” Ketel One from Holland is triple distilled from wheat.
In the United States, Smirnoff is triple distilled from corn. Dixie vodka from Charleston, South Carolina is distilled six times from corn. Tito’s and Deep Eddy and, both hailing from Austin, Texas, are corn-based, gluten-free, and distilled six and ten times respectively.
Whatever brand you prefer, vodka is the undisputed spirit of choice for many delicious cocktails!