Guide to Vodka
Vodka, that crystal clear spirit of Eastern European origin, has a bit of a mixed reputation – from one of the college hangovers and quick mixers to the sophisticated style of a James Bond martini (shaken, not stirred). But what cannot be denied about this simple, smooth spirit is its versatility, which makes it one of the most popular drinks served in bars around the world today.
So popular in fact, that an estimated 400 million cases (the equivalent of 90 billion single measure drinks) of vodka are consumed every year. As a drink it is hard to pin down, drunk alone it can seem virtually tasteless (or throat burningly rough, depending on the quality!) but pair it with a companion to get different vodka cocktails and the humble vodka suddenly comes into its own.
We think it is high time that vodka gets the recognition it deserves. So, if you’re looking for a tipple that both reassures and surprises, then get ready to channel the spirit of 007 with Gear Hungry’s ‘Gentleman’s Guide to Vodka’.
A little bit of history – the Vodka tale
Vodka has long been considered the ultimate tipple for gentlemen, with its old-school reputation adding a masculine twist to any cocktail. And, when it comes to a long, cool drink, you can’t go wrong with a glass of the clear stuff, and the beauty is you can style it up your own way.
But the origins of vodka are a long way from the rooftop bar of a slick city hotel, it actually started off as a rough distilled alcohol with medicinal properties, thought to date back to the 9th Century.
Most commonly associated with Russia – it is their national drink after all – vodka is also strongly associated with Poland, so while historians argue over its true origins, it’s fair to say vodka is of eastern European descent. In fact, the word ‘vodka’ can be translated as ‘little water’ in both Polish and Russian.
Traditionally made by distilling water with potatoes or cereal grain, the original dark colored brew was a tad rough and drunk neat (it was also known as the ‘burning wine’!). At first it was made as a medicinal drink – its antibacterial properties were recognized early on and was used as a tincture to cure a host of ills. Vodka was also thought to ‘awaken lust’ and increase fertility – no wonder it was popular.
With improvements in the distilling process, vodka eventually evolved into the clear and pure alcohol liquid we recognize today. One key impact of this improved distilling was to send vodka’s alcohol content soaring – early vodka was relatively weak, whereas today’s modern incarnation boasts a 40% ABV.
Vodka didn’t gain popularity on the global drink scene until the 1930s, thanks to the emergence of a new generation of bartenders, whose creativity brought us a whole host of new ways to drink alcohol, including the manly cocktails. So many of those iconic vodka cocktails we love to sip –the Martini, the Cosmopolitan and the Bloody Mary to namecheck a few – had started to arrive on the urban drinks’ menu.
Many of today’s vodkas are now made from pure grain and there are also some ingenious alternative products coming on the market. Two popular vodkas from Poland are the honey-based Krupnik and Żubrówka, or bison grass. Totally delicious. You can also get vodka distilled from milk (yes really!)
What to look for in vodka
While there are many flavored vodkas on the market – honey, chocolate, vanilla, and even grass have been used to elevate the drink – traditional vodka is clear and pretty much tasteless and scentless. Or is it? Pure vodka has the ability to surprise, so here’s the lowdown on what to look for in your vodka to know you have a good vintage in your ice-cold glass:
Look – Pure vodka is clear – it is ‘little water’ after all so should be crystal and not cloudy. Some connoisseurs say it should almost have a glow – we like the sound of that. Good quality vodka is also viscose in that it should run smoothly down the glass after a sip. This means it will also feel good in the mouth, rather than just disappear.
Smell – Reassuringly understated, vodka will have a very subtle aroma, but you can learn a lot about the quality of your tipple just from taking a sniff. The very gentle scent will be influenced by exactly what the vodka was distilled from and can also indicate poor quality.
To release the aroma in your vodka, swirl the clear liquid in your glass to agitate and then gently inhale. If you get a nasty hit of sharp, pungent alcohol, then your vodka is not the best.
Taste – Contrary to popular belief, vodka is not a totally tasteless spirit designed to add a super-charged hit of alcohol to your drink. Beyond the warmth you get as you drink pure vodka, there are also some beautiful subtle flavors if you pay real attention, from sweet to salty, depending on the brand.
To help bring these shy flavors to the fore, try adding a drop of water to the neat vodka in your glass, which should bring any hidden taste notes to the surface. Finding the taste in vodka can be a little more challenging than more obvious spirits such as gin or rum but sometimes, when it comes to a simple taste that’s pure quality, less is more.
How to drink it
Traditionally vodka has been drunk neat although there are no real rules as to how you must drink vodka and some brands can actually be a bit of a challenge to drink straight. But for a quality vodka or a vodka that has been skillfully distilled, neat and simple can be a totally satisfying way to go.
To drink vodka as nature intended, then you need to be cool. Chill your neat vodka – between 0-4c is ideal – and sip slowly from an ice-cold glass. Then savor the taste as the vodka’s chill morphs into that delicious alcohol-warmth.
Neat vodka is also a fantastic accompaniment to food – it’s how the Eastern Europeans really enjoy their favorite tipple. Match your vodka with anything that is smoked, pickled or cured and your taste buds will go into overdrive.
Shake it up – the vodka classics
While it is good to make like a purist when it comes to drinking vodka, this is also a drink that has its fun and playful side, which makes it a total natural for the cocktail menu board.
And for a cool man about town, you can’t go wrong with a vodka cocktail as the sun goes down. With delicious, simple drinking in mind, we think the following cocktails are the way to be the modern, vodka drinking gentleman:
Stirred, never shaken, this is the classic martini for the gentleman vodka drinker. Take 50ml vodka, 10ml dry vermouth, a dash of orange bitters, some lemon zest and add to your mixing glass. Top with ice and stir well. Then strain into a chilled cocktail glass, garnish with lemon zest and enjoy.
Get your quality caffeine hit with this delicious martini twist that’s the perfect vodka pick-me-up. Add 50ml vodka, 30ml single espresso, 20ml coffee liquor and a dash of sugar syrup to your cocktail shaker and mix vigorously. Strain into a chilled glass and top with three coffee beans for impact.
If sweet and sour is your thing, then this is the vodka cocktail for you. Take 45ml vodka (lemon flavored also works well), 15ml triple sec, 30ml cranberry juice and 10ml lime juice and shake together with crushed ice. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with orange zest.
The Moscow Mule
Simple and oh so delicious, this will refresh in seconds! Pour 50ml vodka into a large tumbler and add three quarters’ full with crushed ice. Fill to the top with ginger beer and stir to combine. Add a couple of dashes of ginger bitters, a slice of lime and top with a sprig of mint, then serve.
And finally, if you are to drink vodka like a gentleman, then it helps to be in the know when it comes to ordering your next tipple. Here’s our quick guide to the vodka drinking buzz words so you can get your perfect drink:
On the rocks – served with ice, simple! (We prepared an amazing selection of ice cube trays to spice up your drinks, so check it out!)
Straight up – on the rocks, but after shaking or stirring the ice is then strained out and the drink poured into a chilled glass.
Dry – a vodka cocktail that is more of the spirit and less of the sweet additions. So, for a dry martini, you will get more vodka and a little less of the vermouth. (Reverse this, and you will need to ask for ‘wet’.)
Dirty – ah, the dirty cocktail! Ask for something dirty and you will get some brine mixed in with your cocktail. Normally a martini with olive brine, this adds a savory taste to your drink and can add a little cloudiness. Try it, absolutely delicious.
So, there you have it – Gear Hungry’s gentleman’s guide to Vodka. Cheers!