In Russian it means ‘little water’, but this name can be deceiving. Vodka is far from water, with a large range of cocktails and effects. On the surface, it is unassuming yet far-reaching, transparent yet full of possibility.
In a way, this nebulous spirit is unique among the other aqua vitae we’ve explored thus far. Spirits like gin make use of juniper and botanicals to form a framework of complex herbal aromas and notes – whiskey will be aged in the barrels of different woods and distilled with organic ingredients like peat to grant distinctive color and flavor. Vodka, on the other hand, often neglects to make a direct statement through its flavor and color – a central part of the distillation process has to do with the removal of the substance. It is largely known for its neutrality and absence of distinctive flavor. Among most base spirits it is seemingly colorless, tasteless, and odorless.
While this may initially bore some of those that seek adventure in a single ingredient and desire to drink their spirits neat (there are lots of interesting vodka variations once you know how to look, so to my neat drinkers, fear not and hold fast because there is absolutely a vodka for you), vodka’s chameleon status makes it an incredibly versatile base to your favorite cocktails and deserves to drink often.
Many of the native drinkers of vodka – largely from Baltic and Nordic countries – swear by drinking it neat. In the cold winters of Krakow and Stockholm, having a strong, stiff spirit that warms the body and soul seems like a necessity. However, in places where vodka can be enjoyed for its variations rather than its ‘medicinal’ effects in the face of the cold, many still enjoy drinking the little water on its own or with a few ice cubes. It’s not my preferred way to drink it (I am partial to cocktails) but I have had a number of very exciting experiences sipping some vodka on its own and drinking a few that have forced me to change my idea of what this spirit can be.
Thus, one of the little mysteries of the little water emerges: its neutrality is no weakness but in fact the spirit’s core strength. When drank on its own tiny, subtle nuances emerge that can be very fun to pick out and explore. When mixed properly, the vodka matches the color and flavoring of the compositional ingredients of the drink, creating a strong foundation for a balanced and exciting cocktail.
This is absolutely the spirit for you if you like bright, straightforward drinks without a significant ‘boozy’ flavor – as long as the balance is right. Without the right balance, vodka’s neutral ethanol flavor will be prominent and completely overpower anything else. As such, it’s a great spirit for those learning how to make cocktails; it will forgive your technique if you under-stir or shake too much but can equally punish you when you need to be taught a lesson about making a cocktail too strong.
An absolute classic. What is there to say about the martini that the martini can’t say itself? Vodka will give this a bit of a clearer flavor to me and highlight other ingredients, especially if you make it a little ‘wet’ (extra vermouth). Definitely try it with a twist and definitely experiment with some unique vodkas for a little nuance in your cocktail. The beauty of the martini is in the subtlety.
There are drinks that taste good and drink that taste bad. The Cosmopolitan is a drink that tastes very good. It’s pink and cute. It smells good. It’s bright and tart. One of the top searches on google about this cocktail is asking if it’s a girly drink. There is no such thing as a girly drink. Try one. You’ll want triple-sec or some sort of sweet orange liqueur to complete the roundness and this lovely cocktail will blow you away on a patio evening.
This is a polarizing drink. Many people are scared of a ‘savory’ cocktail, but some of you have seen with our recent whiskey article that I am a lover of the savory and alcoholic, especially in the form of pickleback shots. The Caesar is made with clamato and many fixings, a perfect hungover brunch recovery drink on a day where you have nothing to do. The salinity of the clamato will help refuel some electrolytes (probably not, I’m not a doctor) and the hair of the dog will keep you awake (this one I can vouch for). Read further for some of my favorite ways to drink a Caesar.
Lemon Drop Martini
If people think the Cosmo is girly, wait until they see the Lemon Drop. Don’t forget to rim the glass with sugar (sour sugar if you want to go crazy) and fill the glass with the sweet-sour cocktail. They’re honestly pretty good.
Anything with ginger beer. I love ginger beer. The Moscow Mule is a fantastic cocktail traditionally served in a copper mug. It uses vodka, lime, simple syrup (or ginger syrup), and ginger beer (or soda if you used ginger syrup). You want the ginger to be a prominent flavor, the bite and the burn are what make it good.
We have three delicious highballs to explore. In case you don’t know, a highball is a blanket term for a spirit mixed with one other ingredient, the mixer. In whiskey, a highball usually refers to whiskey and ginger ale but for other spirits, the highball is anything mixed with soda, coke, tonic, etc.
Vodka is so neutral that in a highball it can often barely be noticed. It’s a good drink for people who don’t particularly like the flavor of alcohol but simply want to have a couple of drinks on a night out.
Vodka soda is perfect for that. It barely tastes like anything and can be quite refreshing once you add the lime.
The Vodka Tonic adds a little bit of bite and sugar to your drink but still masks the flavor well.
My favorite, however, is the Vodka Cranberry; the sweet tartness of cranberry juice really makes the spirit blend well with vodka and it goes down easy once you’ve squeezed lime in there.
While technically a highball, this combination is so popular and well-known it deserves its own mention. For maximal effect, use fresh orange juice. You can even make it a spiked mimosa with a little bit of bubbly wine.
If you want a little bit of pep to your Fuzzy Navel, add a tiny bit of vodka and lower the amount of Peach Schnapps. The orange juice and peach liqueur complement each other well and the vodka seems to just sneak right in. Vodka always works well with orange juice.
Equal parts lime, triple sec, and vodka, this vodka margarita/daiquiri is bright and refreshing. With low-ingredient drinks like this, the higher quality your ingredients the more you’ll get out of them. Fresh lime juice for sure.
If you like the bitter Aperitivo from which this drink derives its name, you’ll love this cocktail. This is a very simple recipe and can be served in a cocktail glass or a rocks glass with ice (or even neat). Despite the minimal ingredients of only bitters, vodka, and Campari, this is a surprisingly refreshing and balanced drink.
Sex on the Beach
This drink is juicy, fruity, and quite sweet. The peach Schnapps acts as a syrup and the blend of the sour cranberry with the citric OJ balances this drink out very well. Sex on the Beach is a summer staple – the drink I mean.
The gimlet works really well with the neutrality of vodka. Instead of the daiquiri/kamikaze route, a little simple syrup helps lower the alcohol content of the drink and makes it a mellow, easy sipper. I’d recommend fresh lime juice for this too.
It would be a shame to not include at least one sour on this list. I like using a little bit of a liqueur-like schnapps to give it some extra color and sweetness. I also like using egg whites, but there are vegan foaming agents available out there for vegan readers.
Milk and alcohol can be tough for some – not for me. The White Russian is made with milk or heavy cream, as well as Kahlua and vodka. The result is practically a milkshake. This drink is so good, throw a cinnamon stick in there and toss it back. Use the ice from the shaker for maximum foam.
The Black Russian is for the individual who perhaps doesn’t want the alcoholic milkshake just above but likes the coffee-vodka combination. Instead, stirring the Kahlua and vodka and pouring the mixture into a rocks glass offers a completely different, toned-down, and very delicious cocktail experience.
The traditional ‘caipi’ uses cachaca, a sugarcane spirit produced in Brazil. While cachaca has its own unique flavor, the vodka caipi is a unique twist to the classic Brazilian cocktail. They’re fun to build and they’re absolutely crushable, especially when you don’t have any cachaca.
‘Spiked’ Vodka Spritz
Balancing a little bit of vodka and aperitivo with sparkling wine and soda makes for a delicious, bitter cocktail that is perfect in the summertime. Try fun aperitivo combinations like Cynar.
Vodka Berry Smash
Using Vodka as a cocktail base is especially effective with fresh fruits as the spirit matches their flavor well. Making a smash is thus a perfect drink for vodka. It can be nice to pair the fruit of choice with an herb to add a bit of dynamism to the drink. Try blackberry and basil or raspberries and mint – those are some of my favorite smash combinations.
While riffing on the French 75 I found that using some vodka and Lillet made for a delicious, clear, cocktail that felt spiritually similar to the classic but still managed to inhabit a different space. It is an elegant drink that is less citric than the French 75 but maintains its characteristic texture and balance. As per usual with a French 75, if you can make it with champagne as the recipe intends, go for it.
In all reality, however, any nice dry (and cheap) bubbly white wine will do.
What is Vodka?
In the simplest sense, vodka is an aqua vita compositionally similar to whiskey (and most other base spirits, honestly). Like whiskey, vodka is made through the distillation of fermented starchy or sugary materials like grains and fruit. Rye, wheat, and potato are common fermentation bases for this spirit whose aqueous remains are distilled multiple times. The result is a spirit that is bottled shortly after it has been distilled and maintains a pure alcohol flavor.
Variations are made through many different infusions and flavorings – whether drawing its nuanced flavors from a specific sweet grass that only grows in a few places (like Zubrowka) or simply by the dumping of a bag of skittles inside of a two-six (oh it works), vodka is a porous spirit base with a lot of versatility. As such, any stocked home bar will have a bottle of vodka (in the freezer, even?) and any home bartender should have a couple of ‘little water’ drinks locked down.
Vodka is a strong spirit. Most standard vodkas worldwide sit around 40% ABV (80 proof for our American readers). If drunk neat in the Baltic and Nordic countries, you’ll often see that the vodka is traditionally served ice cold in chilled shot glasses. I believe that the temperature makes it go down a bit easier and probably masks the strong ethanol flavor better than if it was served at room temp or warm. I don’t know why I think that though.
How is Vodka made?
The beauty of vodka’s versatility is not limited to its application in cocktails – given its relatively neutral flavors, there is significant leeway in the ingredients used and possibilities. As long as the finished product is clean, clear, and relatively pure, the spirit can safely be considered vodka. In fact, vodka’s characteristic versatility begins much earlier than in the cocktail step, with the first hints at its chameleon status present in the distillation and production process.
There are many different base ingredients used in the creation of vodka. Given that the final product will not absorb much flavor from the air, will (likely) not be aged, and will (likely) not be infused with any distinct flavor profiles, any sugar or starch-heavy ingredients are perfectly acceptable for the distillation of vodka. The majority of modern vodkas are made from locally-available grains like sorghum, rye, and wheat.
However, there are many distillers who use more creative ingredients like potatoes, sugar beets, grapes, and rice.
Distillation is – on paper – extremely straightforward given the vision for a clear and pure spirit. You just keep re-distilling the liquid that precipitates in the still and filtering it from the excess to continually purify the solution. The result is almost pure ethanol.
The filtration process is thus the key component in attempting to continually filter and re-distill the ethanol solution until the majority of unwanted components that carry specific flavors or odors are removed. Large-scale vodka production will filter distilled vodka (in various points of the spirit-making process) through activated charcoal and other absorbent compounds to remove any trace minerals and vitamins that could affect/alter the flavor of the spirit.
In small-scale artisanal projects, however, the ‘purity’ and neutrality of vodka occurs through the close scrutiny and still adjustments conducted by highly-trained master distillers. By focusing less on broadly filtering the solution and losing unique nuanced flavors, accurate distillation will allow for a more controlled approach to highlighting specific attributes of the spirit’s base, offering subtle nuances to the vodka that is specific to each distillery.
In spirits like whiskey, excess materials from the fermentation, distillation, and filtration process are not wholly taken out and can even be used in the final aging or bottling steps to impart specific flavors onto the spirit. In the sense that vodka attempts to avoid these compounds and flavors, the continuous distillation and re-distillation process removes a vast amount of trace anything, not booze, creating a spirit that is almost pure ethanol (~95%). As such, vodka is always mixed with water to lower the ABV content before it is bottled and ready for consumption,
Furthermore, the majority of infused vodkas gain their flavor after they have been almost completely distilled, then new ingredients are introduced inside the still and then re-distilled again. That’s a lot of still. The purity and clarity of the finished distillation allow it to easily bond with different ingredients and flavors and impact the taste of the spirit in a more subtle way.
Flavoring has more to do with the fermentation of the mash process, in which significantly more sugar and flavoring might be added to give the final product a lot of sweetness. It is also easier to make and takes less time than an infusion, preferable to large commercial operations. As such, in North America and throughout Europe you can easily find many different flavored variations of the spirit.
In Baltic and Nordic countries vodka flavors and infusions range from the herbal to the sweet to the spiced, all at different ABV points. Some flavored vodkas are delicious, many pack a nasty hangover.
Talks about vodka standardization in the European Union have centered around vodka’s base and if there exists a need to limit the definition of vodka to specific ingredients. The fundamental argument had to deal with the European Commission’s idea that vodka could be made from any agricultural raw material (provided these ingredients were listed on the bottle) in the hopes of opening up the international vodka market. Many traditional locales of vodka distillation in Baltic and Nordic countries responded with opposition: Polish vodka makers had stated that vodka could only be made from potatoes and grain to be considered vodka, as well as through traditional methods.
Latvian officials repeated this view, desiring clear and strict definitions of the ingredients that make up vodka in order to ensure a unified understanding of the spirit. This echoes some of the other European legislation that surrounds traditional spirits like gin and whiskey as well, definitional legislation which serves to ‘protect’ the classic methods of distillation and the tradition that surrounds it.
It seems like an understatement to say that the story of alcohol is deeply intertwined with the culture and the cuisine of the places it emerges and is drank. As such, it makes sense that there exists a strong sentiment that desires to protect geographically-specific traditional methods as the culture of alcohol continues to evolve in an increasingly globalized world. By ensuring that certain types of spirits continue to retain their traditional methods and manners of production, distillers in the future will have a greater understanding of the history of the spirits they make.
My favorite vodka brands
Bordering both Poland and Belarus, there exists an ancient primeval forest with trees nearly half a millennium old. This UNESCO World Heritage Site houses some of Europe’s last buffalo and was part of a far larger forest that once stretched over the European Plain many thousands of years ago. The bison feed on a specific grass that grows here, and people of the area have long been using the sweet, citric flavor of the plant to infuse their vodka with.
With hand-picked, individually dried leaves of bison grass from Białowieża Forest, Żubrówka is one of the more commonly-found ‘weird’ vodkas. It has a slightly amber color and a bit of herbal sweetness. It’s delicious and worth a try.
Absolut is a Swedish vodka dating back to the late 19th century. It is based on wheat mash and has a clear, clean flavor. I love this in a martini.
Stoli is a delicious Russian vodka that has a unique filtering and distillation process. It feels pretty high-end and tastes greatly chilled.
A potato vodka from Poland that I first tasted many years ago as a first-time bartender. It is smooth, full-bodied, and the winner of many international vodka accolades. A must-try.
Made in the Netherlands over generations of one family, Ketel One is a bright and semi-citric vodka whose recipe has developed over the last 300 years. It tastes delicious in acidic and fruity cocktails, creating a drink base with underlying spice and complexity.
A French vodka that is now a well-known top-shelf spirit. It was developed in the 90s and bought by Bacardi in the early 2000s. Using local wheat and spring water filtered through limestone, Grey Goose remains one of the tastiest vodkas out there and consistently ranks high in international vodka awards.
Yup, the iconic car brand makes and sells a vodka. Try it. Interesting.
How to make the perfect Caesar
Caesar is an absolute classic. Evolving out of the tomato juice Bloody Mary, Caesar seemed to have had a mysterious beginning with hotly-debated origins and incremental evolutions all over North America. The use of Worcestershire sauce in a Bloody Mary as far back as the early 1950s heralds the advent of Caesar but lacks a few key ingredients.
The clamato and tabasco Caesar, the true Caesar, was officially invented in 1969 by a restaurant manager named Walter Chell working at the Calgary Inn in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. It caught quicker ‘n prairie fire and has since become a standard across the country. This drink is very well-known in Canada for its spiciness and unique flavor in the realm of Bloody Mary-adjacent savory cocktails.
It’s well-known as a hangover cure, which may or may not be true, but I like to believe the saltiness and the spice can serve to wake you up a little while providing some hair of the dog. I personally swear by one during post-party brunch.
Interestingly, Mott’s, the creators of clamato and tomato juice giant, was in the process of developing their clamato recipe around the same time Calgarian Chell created the Caesar. While clamato wasn’t a huge hit at the beginning, sales began to steadily grow as Caesar gained traction and popularity in Canada and the US. Supposedly by the mid-90s over 70% of clamato sales in Canada were being used to mix with Caesars.
Forget the stereotypes about Tim Horton’s and hockey – Canadians like Caesars (even without alcohol it’s just as good). People love this drink up here. It’s really a Canadian point of pride – there was even a municipal ‘Caesar Day’ in Calgary (May 13, 2009) to celebrate the drink’s 40th anniversary.
At its base, the Caesar is about seasoning the clamato, adding heat, and adding acidity to the mix of the drink. As long as there’s Tabasco, tomato juice, clam juice, vodka, and Worcestershire sauce, you’re in business. Now the fun part – what’s the mix for you?
For me, the Bloody Caesar is extremely open-ended. It’s not just about having the specific seasonings and the fixings – Caesar mix is a relative science to each drinker, and it is a personal journey to find out what you specifically like about your mix. Once you have the 5 main ingredients previously listed, I recommend incorporating a few more in order to really make your mix ‘pop’.
While Tabasco and Worcestershire are standards, let’s give it a bit more structure. I personally recommend adding some lemon juice for acidity – this can help cut through some of the intensity of the clam and balance out the drink. Next, I’d use some grated horseradish: the canned stuff works great, and get a little of the preserved juice in there too.
That stuff rules and gives a good level of heat and bite. Season with plenty of spicy sauces – tabasco is a must but also a little bit of sriracha can up the heat and add sweetness to your mix. Crack some fresh pepper into the mix and maybe a splash of pickle juice.
Next, you want to rim your glass before building the cocktail. Take a lime or lemon wedge and run it around the edge of a Collins glass. Pour a small amount of seasoning salt, steak spice, or celery salt onto a plate and dip the glass in the salt, rotating it as you go.
Next, we want to think about our fixin’s. The traditional garnish is a celery stick, maybe a pickle, and an olive or two. The garnishes are where you’ll see a lot of the boozy brunch places do semi-gimmicky stuff, but even the gimmicky can work well.
For instance, I’ve seen places offer mini sliders as a side on their Caesars. When your pint of clam juice and vodka arrives, it has two tiny burgers perched overtop of the drink. Seriously. It’s weird, and sometimes it isn’t very good, but it reflects part of the culture of taking Caesars ‘over the top’.
I’ve personally made a Caesar at home for friends and then cut up a grilled cheese to have as garnish. A little heavy, but everything in moderation – including moderation.
Now that all our separate ingredients are ready, we can begin to build. First, we’ll add our 1.5 oz of vodka directly into the glass. It can literally be any kind – the clamato/Caesar mix will completely overpower the alcohol flavor.
Hit it with a few dashes of tabasco for good measure and then add fresh ice. Top with your homemade and delicious Caesar mix (or build it directly in the glass on top of the clamato) and incorporate the ingredients with a barspoon. You may now add your garnishes.
If you don’t go for a celery stick, try to stack a couple of garnishes. Take a large toothpick and get some pickled vegetables on there or maybe an olive or two. This is also the point you’d try and balance a precarious mini slider or tiny grilled cheese on top to complete the whole debaucherous look.
The Bloody Caesar, while strange and an acquired taste is also one of the best cocktails to highlight the beauty and adaptability of a spirit like a vodka. A whole new world of mixed drinks is opened up with these neutral, chameleon spirits. Balance is more possible with the flexibility of the ‘little water’, well-suited to both a sweet acidic cocktail and a heavy, savory drink.