Lesson Four: White Spirits
Chapter One: Vodka
Don’t Believe the Hype
We’re not trying to dis all the Vodkas in the world, but there is more hype and marketing nonsense associated with Vodka than there is sense and truth. Let’s start with one of the tired ol’ shibboleths you hear all the time: that some particular vodka is better than the others because it’s been distilled, I dunno, twenty-eight hundred times. Lemme put it this way: that is a major barrel of poo.
Remember what we told you about distillation in Lesson Three? Remember those rocketship-sized stills with eighty or ninety or a hundred chambers in each still? Each of those chambers is like a little still; distillation is happening in each of those tall stills therefore dozens of times. Most vodka distilleries will run their spirit through those rocketships two or three or four times. Start by doing the actual math: let’s see…four times through a ninety chamber still…hmm…carry the two. Well, hmm. A lot. A lot of distillations. More than six. Or a hundred.
Who Done It?
Vodka is the most modern of spirits; indeed, the term “vodka” is only a few centuries old. Russian vodka producers would love you to believe that they originated the name and the concept, but the term from which the word “vodka” derives appears first in Polish literature as zhiznennia voda or “water of life”. Remember that term? It runs through our story like a John Williams theme on a Spielberg movie soundtrack: distilled alcohol represents purity, indeed, purer than water itself. Russian distillers called it “vodka” as a diminutive, as in, that cute water stuff, and an itty-bitty version to boot.
Whether Russian or Polish, the nobility (not that there was anything noble about the way they acted back then) converted imported wine into spirit; the vassals, serfs and merchants were welcome to use grain, as long as it was surplus (you know, after onerous taxation). Let’s face it, distilling local grain was far cheaper than firing up some imported wine, and some grains are cheaper than others. While there are no a priori qualitative differences between grains, there are price differences. Potatoes were usually cheaper than wheat, so wheat was preferred if you had money; potatoes might be preferred if you didn’t. Even today, some people believe that wheat makes a cleaner vodka, but that too is a pail of poo. What makes a better distillate? Clean raw ingredients and skillful distillation.
The First Order of Business
Who knows what Poland’s distillers were working with when distilling was first noted in 1405, or for several centuries thereafter? What we can be sure about is that there was a lot of distilling going on: in 1580 there are about 500 distillers noted in the Polish town of Posnon alone.
We don’t know how savvy these distillers were; it’s reasonable to believe that quality distillation is a relatively modern invention. It’s not that people didn’t know what they were doing; don’t disrespect your ancestors like that. But their customers were probably not particularly discerning; we can assume that distillers’ primary goals were economic.
Let’s face it: the first order of business is to stay in business. Aesthetics come later. In Russia, what we know about vodka’s history is economic too: Ivan the Great declares the right of vodka production to be a Russian monopoly. Ivan the Terrible goes one better for the people (and ultimately for the economy): he licenses and regulates taverns, enforcing the sales of government-produced vodka. Peter the Great must have been focused upon quality: his regime implements three distillations, the addition of flavoring elements such as anise, and vodka’s now penultimate process of filtration.
Unfiltered Straight Talk
Filtration is not bullshit, no matter what we might have suggested above; no, filtration is real. We can’t explain it; we can’t justify it. But we’ve seen it. The same distillate tastes differently when it’s filtered through charcoal, or sand, or quartz, or diamonds, silver, gold, even platinum. Those precious metals are new developments in filtration; minerals as well as gunny sacks, fabric and even other grains such as rice, wheat or used grains do something to a neutral spirit that is hard to explain, but consider that flavors can be altered by ionic charge, or imagine that volatile agents such as oxygen act differently in differing environments. It’s complicated but easy to accept: every time you add something to an alcohol beverage (alcohol is a remarkably efficient solvent) you get flavor. Like we say, it ain’t bullshit.
But the U.S. government has its own rules about the stuff: it’s supposed to be “flavorless…aromaless…colorless”. That’s a bit misguided even if the idea of a neutral spirit is in keeping with vodka’s past and present: that it should be clean, smooth and without faults. Neutral is the key; the U.S. rule that vodka must be distilled at 190 proof or higher reflects the goal of smoothness and neutrality (as noted in the distillation section): distilling something to the highest percentage doesn’t guarantee a good product, but it gives a clever distiller the greatest opportunity to make the most neutral distillate.
Sweet or Smooth (Cuz You Can’t Have Both)
If you’re confused, don’t be angry. Clearly the U.S. government is struggling with the issue as much as you are. Today’s science is capable of measuring imperfections in a spirit. So rather than insisting that 190 proof is an adequate minimum to guarantee quality in vodka, other metrics might have been considered in the TTB’s rule-making. For instance, some successful brands add sugar or glycerin to their vodkas to “smooth” them out. Never mind that these spirits throw any standard cocktail recipe completely out of balance. The larger question is: why do they need to add these softeners? What are they covering up? If they focused upon good raw ingredients and clean distillation they could achieve the same result. But perhaps that’s asking too much; it always comes back to economics.
Other countries are demanding that producers note upon the label any additions such as sugar or glycerin; the TTB hasn’t wised up yet. It will probably be a while before those additives are visible on the vodka labels, but until then, taste the stuff yourself. If it tastes sweet, it probably is, and you may want to alter any cocktail recipes that you’re working from.
Speaking of cocktails, let us be honest about another ugly little vodka secret: really stuck-up bartenders hate vodka. Why? Because people like you like vodka. Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh but, really, it’s just weird. Vodka is the most popular spirit category in America (and most of the world), accounting for about 28% of all the spirit purchased here. It’s been number one since 1976. And yet, some bartenders resent it because it’s what, so clean, so neutral, so ideal for catching the buzz without tasting the booze? I guess some mixologists find that threatening. If you run into one of those kinda snobs (and, really, shouldn’t they be in the wine business, heheh), here’s my advice. Order Vodka and Red Bull. Order Lemon Drops. Order Cosmos. Smile at said bartender. And when he or she grumbles, buy them a vodka and red bull or something like that. They’re clearly having a bad day.
How Vodka Got its Groove
Vodka’s rise to prominence is far more recent than you might expect. Vodka was pretty much local fare up until the late 19th century and then experienced the usual marketing mode of all “ethnic” products: create a small crisis at home, generate a few hundred thousand thirsty refugees, and boom, you got a trend. Or at least people start asking what those empty bottles are doing in the gutter and where can I get some of that.
Make no mistake; vodka didn’t happen in the US until after World War Two. Europe, on the other hand, starts buying vodka following the October Revolution in 1916. The Bloody Mary, for instance, shows up in 1920 in Paris; the Screwdriver in Istanbul about the same time. Vodka’s entry into the U.S. takes a while longer; I guess we weren’t welcoming enough to those Russian or Polish emigres. Post World War II, there’s some exotic interest in things Russian: what could make a man – say Premier Krushchev – bang his shoe on a presidential negotiating table. I’ll have a shot of whatever he’s drinking. But in truth vodka’s success in the U.S. is the victory of marketing over tradition in microcosm, with a little immigrant drama thrown in for a subplot. Vladimir Smirnov has a family recipe for vodka (yeah, who doesn’t?) but a decent brand as well as some family money; he flees the revolution to Constantinople (Istanbul), then Lvov, then Paris and at some point he meets Rudolph Kukhesh Kanett, who works for Helena Rubenstein (whole ‘nother immigrant story) and loves to market stuff. He buys said brand and then sells it for a slim profit to John Martin of Heublein Corporation who has some pretty good ideas of marketing himself. The first push is for a drink called the Moscow Mule (ginger beer, dedicated mug, yeah, whatever). The next push is a campaign called “Smirnoff: it will leave you breathless.” Now, you’re talking.
Vodka Leaves You Breathless
You see, the idea is that lots of working men (maybe even a lot of madvertising men) drink three martini lunches. Gin? Stinky breath. Vodka? The boss will never know. Whether it works or not is immaterial; the concept is so seductive because it’s so naughty: I’m three sheets and no one knows.
Pretty great story except there’s an even bigger marketing story to come: Absolut Vodka. It’s irrelevant that Absolut’s originator Lars Olson-Smith is a crazy story on his own (virtually invents his own continuous still; dodges snipers from government distilleries while building his brand, all before he reaches a legal age). Nope, the success of Absolut represents a watershed moment among all spirits, not just Absolut and not just vodka. With artist involvement (Warhol, Rauschenberg, Johns, Howard Finster and many more) a bottle shape was imbued with temporary but effective icon status. More importantly, a bottle of neutral spirit (albeit, excellent spirit, not hating here) was puffed up into a price range more easily justified in Single Malt Scotch or Cognac, with their requisite long aging in barrel and consequent evaporation.
Believe the Hype
From that moment onward, well, you know as well as we do what has happened. Brands come and they go. Prices rise and they fall. But the hype, it remains.
One last postscript: while vodka continues its dominance over all other spirits categories, the truth is that flavored vodka and moreover brand extension (just how many flavors are there out there – I don’t even want to know) are the reason the category remains robust.
The Flavor of Success
Please click on the videos below to see BAR Master Ryan Maybee make some vodka cocktails for you.
Ryan Demonstrates How To Make a Moscow Mule.
Ryan Demonstrates How To Make a Cape Codder.
In ice filled collins glass add;
2 oz Vodka
Fill with Cranberry Juice
Garnish with lime wedge, then yell at Doug for making you make one of these for the DrinkSkool website.
Ryan Demonstrates How To Make a Cosmopolitan.
In mixing glass add;
1.5 oz Citrus Vodka
3/4 oz Cointreau
1 oz Cranberry Juice
Splash of lime juice
Add ice and shake
Strain into martini glass
Garnish with lemon zest