Cocktail Chatter - Vodka 101: The Spirit of Choice

What better way to start out my assignment as the host of “Cocktail Chatter” than to write about my favorite liquor, Vodka. And I am not alone. Vodka is the best-selling liquor in America, accounting for over 26% of all spirit sales. A glance around any gay bar tells you that in the U.S. gay market that number is probably higher.

It was not always so. Until the late 1950’s vodka was considered an exotic Russian import. As always, marketing drove the expansion. Vodka was advertised as “White Whiskey — no taste, no smell.” Its popularity skyrocketed as imbibers believed that there would be no alcohol on their breath and they would avoid hangovers. It quickly replaced other spirits in highballs and cocktails. Most famously it usurped gin as the spirit of choice in a martini.

Vodka can be made from many base ingredients: rye, wheat, potatoes, beets, grapes or grapeseed, molasses, and more. The ingredients are first fermented, then distilled. In most western vodkas the distillation process produces something fairly close to pure alcohol, and water is added back in. Most high-end vodkas also filter the spirit as well. All of this distilling and filtering is the source of the clean taste that makes vodka so mixable and popular.

Rye and wheat are the most common sources in well-known brands, with a smattering of potato vodkas. Molasses is largely used for mass-producing vodka for mass market brands. Though all vodka is highly distilled, each vodka has a unique flavor profile as a result of the residual components of the original distillation, as well as the various methods and materials used for filtering.

The super premium brands such as Grey Goose, Belvedere, or Chopin each have subtle flavors best appreciated in the cocktail which features vodka in a starring role, the martini. (Martini preparation is another column!) My personal favorite is Absolut’s entry in the super premium line, Level by Absolut. Not only do I like the flavor, I choose it for political reasons. I support the vodka that supports me. Absolut has been a leading supporter of many gay organizations and events for 30 years.

While martinis feature vodka in a starring role, the overwhelming popularity of the beverage is its ability to act in a supporting role. No other spirit plays so well with others. Vodka and tonic, vodka and cranberry, vodka and coke, vodka and diet coke (dubbed the “skinny bitch” by the drag queens of Key West), and the cocktail that helped popularize vodka in the U.S., the Moscow Mule (vodka and ginger ale).

Flavored vodkas are nothing new. Polish distillers were commercially producing lemon and pepper vodkas at least 200 years ago. Russian and Scandinavian vodkas used herbs and nuts for flavoring even earlier. Today vodkas are infused with dozens of flavors: lemon, lime, cranberry, pomegranate, acai berry, chocolate, grapefruit, peach, and even bacon. I like sipping infused or flavored vodkas on the rocks. They also can create new variations to martinis, cosmos, and a variety of shots.

The beauty of vodka lies in versatility. Whether you are enjoying the refined and subtle flavors in a classic martini, or partying hard with an alcohol that plays well with your favorite mixer, vodka is the spirit of choice.

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