Vodka. It’s the Russian national beverage, and today many Americans would gladly claim it to be theirs just as well. Though virtually tasteless by design, this most neutral of all neutral spirits is not only a beverage worthy of drinking by itself neat (straight) or on the rocks, but is widely becoming the spirit of choice to use as a mixer in its infinite flavored varieties available at your local liquor store (though many would admit that the best flavored vodkas are actually made at home using peppers, vanilla beans, or anything else you’d like to use to add a hint of flavor to your vodka).
In 60′s it was cited by Patrick Gavin Duffy as a spirit which “was quickly gaining popularity” in America, andin the few decades that have lapsed between then and now, vodka is arguably the most popular drink in the country. Cocktails once calling for gin default instead to use the watery stuff, and amazingly it has won its following off of what the government officially describes as “neutral spirits, so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.”
So how is it, exactly, that a spirit lacking such definitive characteristics manages to elevate itself to what may be the world’s most popular liquor?
Though it may seem strange, the fact that good vodka is intended to have as little flavor as possible is exactly what most people find so appealing about it. Granted, though it may be no shock to readers of this blog (especially with the sophisticated tastes for great spirits we share), some may find it hard to relate to people who dislike the flavor of alcohol altogether, even to the point that the slightest hint of its flavor tarnishes what they would consider to be “a good mixed drink”. Still, many people, Americans in particular, seem to share this sentiment, and thus the value of a liquor that will blend almost unnoticed with any fruit juice, soda, or other liquid becomes all-the-more appealing.
However, I’d be willing to wager that, in all likelihood, you may have noticed that vodka isn’t truly flavorless at all. If anything, vodka has its own a unique flavor just as gin, brandy, bourbon, or rum do… only with less bite. The New York Times, who recently helped place Smirnoff back on the map by selecting it as their favorite brand among a taste-test of 21 vodkas, describes it as eloquently as I have found to-date: “Delving into the world of vodka reveals a spirit unlike almost any other, with standards that make judging it substantially different from evaluating wine, beer, whiskey or even root beer… Vodka is measured by its purity, by an almost Platonic neutrality that makes tasting it more akin to tasting bottled waters, or snowflakes.”
Along the lines of “tasting bottled waters”, what truly seems to define the flavor of vodka brands, especially expensive imports like Ketel One, Grey Goose, or Pravda is the lingering textures in the flavor left behind by the water from which the stuff was distilled. Indeed, these flavors do exist; in a recent taste test by the folks at the We Are Never Full blog using the three aforementioned brands and one American organic variety, they also tended to favor the higher-end imported vodkas which bore subtle flavorings. “We strongly preferred the Grey Goose and Pravda… The latter pair had noticeable aromatic flavors, in both cases not unlike a mildly scented gin, with the Prairie organic being more neutral-tasting and slightly sweet.”
So maybe you drink your vodka to try and decipher what the mineral content of the snow melted to distill the stuff was; on the other hand, maybe you drink it just to hide the fact that you’re drinking alcohol altogether! Whatever it may be that gives us our initiative, one thing remains consistent: vodka’s popularity is well spoken for by either extreme of the mixed-drink elite, and its ability to grow in personal preference among drinkers of fine spirits is a trend that will no doubt continue, no matter what our individual reasons for drinking may be. Raise your glass, comrades.