5 Things I’ve Learned About…American Vodka

The July 2011 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is out, and it includes (among other things) my review column on American Vodkajust in time for Independence Day.  You can pick up a copy at the newsstand, or view it in digital format on Zinio.  Here’s what I learned:

1. To be perfectly honest, I’d been dreading this category. Unflavored vodkas with no scent, color, or flavor? What the heck was I going to say?  As it turns out….plenty. However, in the end, reviewing vodka (at least, this particular batch) was a little like evaluating shades of gray. I didn’t realize until I saw the print column, side by side with the wide-ranging wine reviews, how unusually homogeneous the scores were.

2. All those states produce vodka?  It was exciting to see the broad cross-section of states represented in the samples, spanning up the Northwest coastline, across the Midwest, and over the Eastern seaboard.   I think I sampled from NY, IL, CA, WA, VA, OR, MN, NJ, VT, AR, ID, PA, WI, OH, CO. It’s like armchair travel.

3. All the different stuff from which vodka is made. Of course, grain was expected, and came in the form of wheat, rye, and corn. We don’t see many potato-based vodkas outside of eastern Europe, but at least one arrived. However, enticing vodkas made from grapes, honey, maple sap, and milk sugar were particularly pleasant surprises.  A pricey Napa Valley vodka made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes was especially memorable.

4. I need to learn more about the distillation process. Since it seems to be a particular bragging point among vodka makers, I’d like to understand better how (and frankly, if) it truly matters how many times a spirit is distilled. Or whether it’s filtered through charcoal, volcanic matter, diamond dust, etc.

Maybe vodka distillation is subject to the rule of diminishing returns:  Frankly, from my semi-layman’s view, extreme distillation seemed to yield minimal impact. (I’m going to get hate mail over that last statement. So be it.)

5. It’s surprisingly hard to think of distinctive vodka cocktails to illustrate how specific vodkas might be used. “Vodka soda” and “vodka martini” seem pale, don’t you think?

Unlike whiskey or tequila, vodka never seems to be the centerpiece of cocktails these days. In fact, vodka gets so much disrespect in the cocktailian community, one mixology chat room I know has set up a gleeful macro: every time a member types the word “vodka,” it’s auto-replaced with the word “poserfluid.” Now there’s a word that might generate some fireworks among vodka distillers.

Do you have a favorite vodka or vodka cocktail? I’d love to hear about it.

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4 thoughts on “5 Things I’ve Learned About…American Vodka

  1. Every once in a while I’ll get the itch for a glass of chilled-to-being-syrupy vodka. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find a vodka that consistently delivers the goods well enough to make me a raving fan. I tend to prefer potato vodkas, and Chopin is my pick among the widely-available options. But my favorites have been non-obtainable in the US.

    My sister brought me back a half-liter of vodka from Russia a few years ago. Chilled, it’s delicious. Dimensions of flavor and very smooth. I can’t tell you the name or anything further about it because it appears to very much be a local, domestic brand. The entire bottle is in Cyrillic. It does have a distinctive copper-red color to it though.

    My all-time favorite was some moonshine smuggled from Serbia. I was dating a Serbian girl at the time and was invited to a family party one winter. Her mother brought out a 1-liter plastic water bottle with the stuff… clear as water. They told me it was distilled from plums… we had it slightly below room temperature and it was the smoothest drink I’ve ever had. Very crisp. I’ll never be able to find that vodka again, but will definitely keep an eye out for ‘shine should I ever find myself in Belgrade.

  2. Cirrus from Virginia is potato based and artisan made. Also, try Boyd&Blair. It is also made from potatoes and truly artisan. They’re based in Pennsylvania. You’ll never go back to grain-based vodka (except for Bloody Marys :)

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