Crystal clear, nearly-neutral vodka is something of a conundrum. Some people love it because it’s mild and easy to mix; others revile it because it doesn’t have a strong enough personality. For years, many craft cocktail bars even declined to carry vodka, although even the most ardent detractors now have at least one bottle on the backbar. Yet, vodka remains one of the world’s top-selling spirits.
What Is Vodka?
By definition, vodka is a neutral spirit with no distinctive flavor, aroma, color or character. It can be made from pretty much any raw material, although the most common base products are potatoes and grain (primarily barley or wheat, though sometimes rye or corn). That said, vodka can be, and is, distilled from wildly diverse ingredients, such as grapes, apples, rice, agave, honey, beets, maple sugar, cane sugar, milk and whey.
Like its flavor profile, vodka’s history is bland. Not much is known about the spirit’s origins, but Poland claims to be the spirit’s home, with residents there first distilling something vodka-like in the 8th century. During the Middle Ages, neutral spirits were used for medicinal purposes, as well as in gunpowder. It wasn’t until the 15th century that Russia first started producing pot-distilled vodkas that were somewhat like the drink we have today. The 1800s saw a major change in vodka. Not only was the column still perfected and patented, but a professor in St. Petersburg discovered a method for filtering alcohol with charcoal. It was only then that producers could efficiently and effectively create a crisp, nearly flavor-free spirit.