If gin is the extrovert at the party, then vodka is the quiet one that hangs back a bit, preferring one on one conversations, and requiring just a bit of coaxing to get her to come out of her shell. Go ahead and call her an introvert; she won’t mind, because she knows that making others shine is her greatest strength. She’s the ultimate administrative assistant or chief of staff, providing the backbone, but remaining behind the scenes. I’m happy to say that vodka was my first love; I never took her for granted, I never underestimated her importance, and never overlooked her contribution to the cocktail world.
Vodka has been around since the 15th century, its origin being the subject of great debate between Russia and Poland. It is first mentioned in a Polish text in 1405, but the Russians follow right behind with their own written references as early as 1429. Over the years it has been made from many different ingredients, including grains, corn, sugar beets, grapes, and potatoes. For a long time vodka consumption was mainly limited to Eastern Europe and Russia, but when the 20th century arrived both global trade and interest began to rise. In the 1950s and 60s, vodka became a very appealing addition to so-called boardroom backbars because it was a spirit which was virtually odorless. If you watched the show Mad Men that makes perfect sense to you! By the 80s, vodka had become the darling child of many mixologists, working well with a multitude of other ingredients, and allowing their flavor to remain true. In other words, vodka had the ability to boost the alcoholic content of drinks, without the worry of the spirit changing the taste. Ironically, the characteristics that made vodka so appealing at the close of the 20th century, became the very things that led to its fall from grace in the beginning of the 21st. Suddenly vodka was labeled as bland, drab, and characterless, and it even disappeared from many cocktail lists, or made only a minimal appearance at best.
At present, I’m pleased to report that vodka is experiencing something of a resurgence. Production methods have improved drastically and there are many high-end vodkas available on the market today that have achieved an almost cult-like status (think of Belvedere and Grey Goose). There are also quite a number of micro-distilleries that have emerged that are producing small batch hand-crafted vodkas of artisanal quality. Many vodkas are being infused with flavors, or paired with infused simple syrups containing multiple ingredients. Vodka still works well with other spirits such as St. Germain or Cointreau, and will easily blend with most fresh juices (where something like whiskey will not). These factors have helped to elevate the way in which vodka is currently perceived by the mixology community. Vodka is once again being appreciated for its versatility and universal appeal, and being seen as a blank canvas upon which some truly inventive cocktails can be created.
So what should you look for in a vodka? When you open the bottle it should smell clean with no off odors or overwhelming alcohol aroma. The taste should be the same. If you are sensitive to gluten you can choose a vodka made from potatoes (like Chopin or Luksusowa), corn (like Tito’s), or grapes (like Ciroc). If you are concerned about genetically modified ingredients, there are also some good organic choices available. One of my favorites in this category is CROP. If you are going for a flavored vodka, be sure that it is infused with real fruit rather than just natural fruit flavor. One of the best choices comes from a small artisanal distillery in Napa Valley called Charbay. They use only ripe, locally grown fruit and no additional additives. CROP also makes some very good flavored vodkas. The drink pictured above is a Pomegranate Elderflower Martini (check back on Friday for the recipe when I talk about batching drinks). The vodka that I used to make it is from an excellent new micro distillery right here in Philadelphia called Stateside Urbancraft Vodka. I’m featuring them and their adjacent bar, Federal Distilling Room, on this Thursday’s Barlogue.
Tomorrow I’ll be sharing my version of a drink called the Caravaggio from a restaurant in Napa Valley that uses Charbay blood orange vodka!