Sunday, June 14, 2015

Know Your Poisons: Vodka

Quite simply, vodka is a distilled beverage composed primarily of water and ethanol.  The name "vodka" is a diminutive form of the Slavic word voda (water), interpreted as “little water.”  This isn’t an uncommon theme, as the word “whisky” is derived from the Gaelic “uisge beatha” or water of life.
Vodka may be distilled from any starch- or sugar-rich plant matter; most vodka today is produced from grains such as sorghum, corn, rye or wheat. Among grain vodkas, rye and wheat vodkas are generally considered superior. Some vodkas are made from potatoes, molasses, soybeans, grapes, rice, sugar beets and sometimes even byproducts of oil refining or wood pulp processing. That sounds appealing, no?

 In some Central European countries, such as Poland, vodka is sometimes even produced by just fermenting a solution of crystal sugar and yeast. In the European Union there are talks about the standardization of vodka, and the Vodka Belt countries insist that only spirits produced from grains, potato and sugar beet molasses be allowed to be branded as "vodka", following the traditional methods of production.

In the United States, many vodkas are surprisingly made from 95% ethanol produced in large quantities by agricultural-industrial giants Archer Daniels Midland and Midwest Grain Processors. Bottlers purchase the base spirits in bulk, then filter, dilute, distribute and market the end product under a variety of vodka brand names. Think about that a minute. The stuff you’re paying top-dollar for because some rapper held up a bottle of it in a video might have started off as the same stuff they make that crappy gasoline from that’s 30 cents a gallon cheaper but destroys your engine over time. Buyer beware.

I like how the 85% ethanol is at a minimum 70% ethanol. WTF?
Vodka is the chameleon of spirits and blends seamlessly with just about anything. This is no accident, friends. While there are no universal rules for producing the spirit, the final product is supposed to be colorless, odorless and tasteless. With that said, vodka isn’t completely neutral, and a number of distillers actually leave in a good amount of flavor. (The best way to taste these subtle differences is to drink vodka neat at room temperature.) Unlike Scotches and cognacs, which are made in pot stills, vodka is usually produced in a high-volume, continuous column still. After distillation, the spirit is filtered to remove any remaining impurities and congeners. Coal is a traditional filter, but brands today use a range of materials, even including diamonds. Vodka isn’t aged and can be bottled and sold immediately after production. What’s also helping to drive sales in America is the wide range of flavored vodkas now on the market, because God knows we Yanks can’t drink anything without added flavors and sugars in it.

A common property of the vodkas produced in the United States and Europe is the extensive use of filtration prior to any additional processing like the addition of flavorants. Filtering is sometimes done in the still during distillation, as well as afterwards where the distillate is filtered through activated charcoal and other media to absorb trace amounts of congeners that alter or impart off-flavors to the vodka. However, this is not the case in the traditional vodka-producing nations, so many distillers from these countries prefer to use very accurate distillation but minimal filtering, thus preserving the unique flavors and characteristics of their products.

The master distiller is in charge of production and directing the filtration, which includes the removal of the "fore-shots", "heads" and "tails". These components of the distillate contain flavor compounds such as ethyl acetate and ethyl lactate (heads) as well as the fusel oils (tails) that impact the usually desired clean taste of vodka. Through numerous rounds of distillation, or the use of a fractioning still, the taste is modified and clarity is increased. In contrast, distillery process for liquors such as whiskies and rum allow portions of the "heads" and "tails" to remain, giving them their unique flavors.

Repeated distillation of vodka will make its ethanol level much higher than is acceptable to most end users, whether legislation determines strength limits or not. Depending on the distillation method and the technique of the stillmaster, the final filtered and distilled vodka may have as much as 95–96% ethanol. (Hey, kinda like that stuff I mentioned above.) As such, most vodka is diluted with water prior to bottling.

So yeah, like with any liquors, some of it is lesser-grade and some is considered ultra-premium. If you can get it for ten bucks for a 750ml plastic bottle, it probably isn’t really ready to be drunk neat and is better off as a mixer ingredient. However, I hasten to add that mid-range reasonably-priced vodkas are readily available and those over-the top super-premiums distilled half a dozen times and filtered through diamonds are just a way to part you from your money as you attempt vainly to look like a high-roller at the club.

Whattaya’ mean, Wingman? The more times it’s done, the better, right? I mean, it’s purer and they used diamonds, bro…

Seriously, guys, read between the lines.

The more you distill it the purer it gets. At a certain point is it 95% ethanol….just like the ethanol made in the giant factories and turned into the crap ruining your car engines at 85%. Either way, they have to water it down to make drinkable vodka. And really? Wasting diamonds on filtering alcohol? That’s the vodka equivalent of a tequila worm or a scorpion in the bottle. A marketing gimmick. Diamonds are better served as part of a saw blade or in jewelry. And you know what a diamond started off as? A hunk of coal. Squeezed by tectonic plates for a few million years, it becomes a diamond. Stick to the stuff filtered through charcoal.

If you drink something because a dude who wears sunglasses indoors says so, stop reading and kill yourself now
However, if you’re truly one of those concerned about status symbols and looking like a baller (But why the hell are you even reading my advice site if you’re like that?) there’s stuff like Kors Vodka. I’m paraphrasing this from their website because their sentence structure & syntax leads me to believe it wasn’t originally written in English:  “A top-guarded recipe (from a Czar and his brother) that was once considered lost, water from the Italian Alps, diamond-filtered distillation, hand selected grains from 12 countries, and gold distillation tubes make Kors like nothing you have ever tasted. No wonder it is one of the most sought after Vodka drinks on the Planet.”

 Kors is quite simply the most expensive vodka on the market. Pundits say the taste is superb and like nothing you’ve ever tried before (something tells me it tastes like vodka) but it’s the shape of the crystal bottle that makes people turn their heads when you have it on the table. And after all, that’s why you spend half a year’s salary on a bottle of booze; to be looked at like you’re special. 

Half a year’s salary, Wingman?

Well, the Silver Edition, of which only 1250 bottles were made, runs you $12,500. The Gold Edition of 750 bottles goes for $16,500 a bottle. And if you’re really so rich you can wipe your ass with hundreds, the 24K George V Limited Edition of just 250 bottles runs you a mere $24,500 a bottle. Digest THAT morsel a minute...For something that will be urine a couple hours after it passes your lips. 

Less expensive and only slightly less pretentious is elit, the super high-end from Stolichnaya. Ordinarily, Stoli is a reasonably-priced and quality vodka, but this is catering to that Hey Look At Me crowd. The newest elit offering is the Himalayan Edition.  It’s distilled from untainted water collected from a tank over 10,000 feet in the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal’s Langtang National Park, originating from snowmelt and naturally filtered through layers of stone during its journey down the hill. The water is then combined with the purest winter wheat from the Tambov Region of Russia. Limited to just 300 bottles, it comes in hand-blown Bohemian Czech bottles, each sealed with an attractive golden ice pick and supplied in a numbered, hand-carved walnut case. And at just $3,000 a bottle it’s a steal. 

Still too steep? Try Crystal Head vodka, the brain child of none other than Dan Ackroyd, who wanted to drink a vodka made without any additives like sugar, glycerol, or citrus oils.  A product of Newfoundland, Canada, Crystal Head is made with a variety of corn called Peaches & Cream grown in Ontario and after distillation is diluted with Newfoundland glacier water before being filtered seven times. Of course, three of those times is through (of course) diamonds. Because why? Because diamonds, that’s why. Actually, in Ackroyd’s case, the Herkimer diamonds are supposed to impart magical healing qualities. The vodka gets its name from the impressive skull bottle made in Milan by Bruni Glass. A 750 ml bottle is a little more expensive than most of the decent brands but at about 45 bucks, it’s a hell of a lot better than 4 and 5 digits.

Back down here amongst the commoners, you can get outstanding vodkas without breaking the bank. One can never go wrong with the products of Absolut, Smirnoff, and the aforementioned Stoli. One of the finest vodkas I’ve ever tried is from, of all places, Ireland, distilled five times and filtered through ten feet of Irish oak charcoal. I highly recommend Boru vodka; I normally eschew sipping vodka neat and prefer mixers, but this was smoother than smooth, without that characteristic burn of straight alcohol. 

If flavored vodka is to your liking, there are a myriad of flavors to choose from, almost an embarrassment of riches in the number of varieties.  You name the fruit and somebody has added it to vodka. Birthday cake? Yup. Whipped Cream? Cinnamon? Vanilla? Chocolate? Yes, indeed. Chili Pepper? Why not. 

Between Stoli and Absolut they cover damn near every flavor
Seriously, cucumber vodka is quite the rage these days.

Locally here in South Carolina, Firefly has made a name for itself with Sweet Tea vodka featuring tea from the Charleston Tea Plantation, and has started making a vodka from native muscadine grapes at their distillery on Wadamalaw Island.

Need something more exotic? There’s a rye-based vodka very popular in Poland and Belarus flavored with bison grass, with a piece of the grass in the bottle. Of course there’s bacon vodka. Why? I dunno; it’s bacon. Does there ever really have to be a reason for bacon?

Of course, with so many vodkas being virtually equal, some distillers go out of their way with unsusual packaging to make theirs stand out even from the ones previously discussed.

The flat rectangle approach
Why not use a cylinder?

The bottle itself is artwork

The clever vodka log

The cap unscrews to become a shotglass in this Scottish vodka

Ed Hardy will fucking put a tattoo drawing on anything.

The artillery shell in an ammo box, with shotglasses

But Wingman, whatever shall we do with all this great and grand supply of vodka out there?
Oh, young tadpoles, the number of cocktails made with vodka rivals the number of dollars in the federal defecit. Here are but a few to get you started.

The Classic Vodka Martini
2 ounces vodka
3/4 ounce dry vermouth
2 dashes bitters (optional)
Lemon twist or 3 olives for garnish
Pour the ingredients into a cocktail shaker filled with ice.  Shake well.
Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist or olives.

Now, there are umpteen million variations on the martini. Most of these start with a sweet flavor and end with –tini, like the appletini, pomtini, or chocolatini. Not all of these are “chick drinks”, mind you, and many serve as a nice dessert cocktail. Mostly though, they work as a great refresher on a hot summer night.

The Ultimate Pear Martini
1 ounce vodka
1 ounce pear vodka
1 ounce pear nectar
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
 1/4 ounce agave nectar
Pour all ingredients into a mixing glass. Add ice and shake for 10 seconds. Strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with a Chilean baby Pear.

This is my buddy Peter, who will be adding some articles here in the future, rocking a pear martini in NYC.

Another classic vodka cocktail is the Screwdriver, along with its cousins the Greyhound/Salty Dog, and Cape Codder. Vodka and orange juice, grapefruit juice, and cranberry juice. Your Wingman is quite partial to vodka and cran. 

Main Squeeze Cocktail (based on the classic Screwdriver)
2 ounces Orange Vodka
1/2 ounce Triple sec
2 ounces Fresh orange juice
Club soda
Add all the ingredients except the club soda to a tall glass and fill with ice.  Fill with club soda and stir. Garnish with an orange wheel

Since your Wingman operates out of the state of South Carolina, I feel the need to add a couple recipes from my local distillery. 

Blueberry Firefly 
1 ounce Firefly Sweet Tea vodka
2 ounces blueberry simple syrup (recipe below)
Freshly-brewed sweet tea, and not that powdered shit, either. Keep it real.
2-4 fresh mint leaves
Make blueberry simple syrup by bringing one cup of water and one cup of sugar to a boil over medium high heat. Add a 1/2 cup of blueberries (fresh or frozen) until they are soft. Use a spoon to mash them a bit. Strain out the blueberries and discard. Or save them for a smoothie.
Once the simple syrup is cool, mix the syrup and vodka over ice in a highball glass.  Fill the rest of the glass with sweet tea and garnish with mint leaves.

Firefly Cider
2 1/2 ounces Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka
2 ½ ounces Fireball Cinnamon Whisky
1 ounce Apple liqueur (I highly recommend Berentzen Apfelkorn)
Splash of soda
Mix over ice in a highball glass and stir. Garnish with an apple slice if desired.

Harvest Highball
1 ½ ounces lemon vodka
½ ounce lime juice
½ ounce simple syrup
2 ounces ginger beer
Add all the ingredients except the ginger beer to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake well and strain into a highball glass filled with fresh ice. Top with the ginger beer and garnish with a lime wedge.

Cucumber Mojito
2 ounces cucumber vodka
1 ounce fresh lime juice
2 tsp sugar
6 mint leaves
Muddle mint leaves, sugar, and lime juice in a Collins glass. Fill with ice and add vodka. Top off with soda water. Stir lightly and garnish with a cucumber wedge.

The Cosmopolitan
1/2 ounce lemon vodka
1 ounce triple sec
½ ounce fresh lime juice
1 dash cranberry juice
Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Garnish with a lime wedge.

And since everything in the universe seems to revolve around bacon…

The Shrimp and Bacon Bloody Mary
1½ oz. Bacon Vodka in a pint glass filled with ice.
Fill glass with tomato juice
1 dash each of celery salt and ground black pepper
2-4 dashes each of Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco
Shake and pour into an Old Bay-rimmed (optional) glass. Garnish with a celery stalk, a slice of thick-cut crispy bacon, and a chilled shrimp.

 So there you go, my legions. Now you're all vodka experts. Go forth and experience the Little Water, and do it responsibly. Who's got your back? I do.