It may surprise some to discover that vodka is the most recent arrival to the global drinking scene. It has enjoyed a giddy rise to being the world’s top-selling spirit in only 60 years, leaving in its wake such stalwarts as gin, rum, whiskey, brandy and even tequila. And what’s remarkable is that this spirit, which is ordered with such consistency, is an inherently characterless entity... Or so it may seem. Vodka can be a cunning and stealthy vixen when it comes to flavour, but taken in the right circumstances, the right vodkas can reveal subtle, delicate and tasty nuances. It’s the way in which we consume it that’s responsible for the common acceptance that vodka doesn’t taste like much.
Vodka is an ancient beast, enjoying its first written recognition in a 1405 Polish paper. Its ancestor was a rough and ready offering, poorly made and often compounded with sweeteners and spices. It typically had practical medical applications and was seldom consumed recreationally. When it made its way from Russia to the USA via Paris in the late 1930s, vodka resembled what we know and love today, and soon became a global star.
Nowadays, we’re smothered with glossy advertising campaigns, mega marketing budgets and brand placement. Super-premium offerings arrive in elaborate packaging boasting fancy water sources, filtration techniques and price tags; one Italian fashion label even has its own brand filtered through diamonds – which is cute but rather neglects the fact that the cheaper materials do a far superior job!
What seems to be readily overlooked in the glitzy world of vodka marketing is the difference made by the country of production, the materials used, and the fierce pride with which they ply their trade. The variation in flavour can be remarkable!
The Poles are famous for making vodka from rye and potatoes (potato vodka accounts for about 5–7% of consumption worldwide, contrary to the belief that vodka’s generally made from spuds), and the Russians are die-hard wheat vodka producers, as are the Nordic countries. But vodka can be made from anything with a natural sugar or starch content. One massive brand from America uses corn, and of course the French are responsible for the very tasty grape vodka, Ciroc.
As a drinking community here in Australia, we won’t pick up on flavour signatures if we continue to smother vodka in soft drinks or juice! All western nations consume inordinate amounts of vodka. For those who just want to get loaded with no consideration of the journey – carry on as you were! For those who actually enjoy vodka’s flavour, we need to develop a better understanding of how to bring out the character of the spirit. The Russians take their vodka neat and chilled, which is a delicious, sweet and viscous experience – albeit a little intense if you’re not in the mood for drinking neat spirit. What is unmistakable though, and lost when vodka is diluted too heavily, is texture. Enjoying a vodka’s buttery or oily texture slowly caressing your palate is one of life’s secret joys. Decent bars will be harbouring at least one bottle of chilled vodka for this very reason – try Mink, in St Kilda or Borsch, Vodka and Tears on Chapel Street.
Polish expressions, typically being made from rye (think of the taste of rye bread here) have more spice, and sometimes a slight bitterness to them which stand out well if mixed lightly – enter the martini with a twist! It’s a great platform for trying all vodkas – the dilution from ice and vermouth provide a counterpoint for your chosen vodka to show off its feathers. Be sure to track down a bar that’s passionate about martinis and classic cocktails, which isn’t too hard in Melbourne – we’re well provisioned!
Vodka is delicious in cocktails and mixed drinks, but must be delivered with care, and in the right drink for it to shine. The world’s vodkas will all happily take some ice and a slice of citrus, then sit back and wait for you to discover them. But like all things in life, sometimes you just need to be pointed in the right direction. Ask your barkeep about his or her vodkas, what they taste like, and how each one should be served. If they don’t know, leave, and visit Black Pearl, 1806, Seamstress, or The Toff in Town et al instead.
Happy hunting true believers!