Vodka is a strong, clear, typically colorless liquor, usually distilled from fermented grain. It is commonly thought that the term is a diminutive of the Slavic word "voda" for "water."
Except for insignificant amounts of flavorings, vodka consists of water and alcohol (ethanol). Vodka usually has an alcohol content ranging from 35 percent to 60 percent by volume. The classic Russian vodka is 40 percent (80 degrees proof), the number being attributed to the famous Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev. According to the Vodka Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, Mendeleev thought the perfect percentage to be 38, but since spirits in his time were taxed on their strength the percentage was rounded up to 40 to simplify the tax computation.
Vodka is the basis of a number of popular drinks, including the Bloody Mary, the Bullshot, and the Vodka Martini (also known as a Vodkatini), a dry martini made with vodka instead of gin.
The origins of vodka (and of its name) cannot be traced definitively, but it is believed to have originated in the grain-growing region that now embraces Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and western Russia. It also has a long tradition in Scandinavia.
Little is known about the early history of the drink in Europe. The first written record of vodka in Poland dates from 1405 in the Sandomierz Court Registry, although it is uncertain whether this refers to the drink of today. In Russia, the first written usage of the word vodka in an official document in its modern meaning is dated by the decree of Empress Catherine I of June 8, 1751 that regulated the ownership of vodka distilleries.
Another possible origin of the word can be found in the Novgorod chronicle in records dated 1533, where the term "vodka" is used in the context of herbal alcoholic tinctures. A number of pharmaceutical lists contain the terms "vodka of bread wine" and "vodka in half of bread wine". As alcohol had long been used as a basis for medicines, this implies that the term vodka is a noun derived from the verb "vodit,'" "razvodit'", "to dilute with water." Hence "vodka of bread wine" would be a water dilution of a distilled spirit.
While the word could be found in manuscripts and in lubok (лубок, pictures with text explaining the plot, a Russian predecessor of the comic), it began to appear in Russian dictionaries in the mid-19th century.
Vodka is now one of the world's most popular spirits. It was rarely drunk outside Europe before the 1950s, but its popularity spread to the New World by way of post-war France. (Pablo Picasso once defined the most notable features of post-war France as "Brigitte Bardot, modern jazz, Polish vodka.") By 1975 vodka sales in the United States overtook those of bourbon whiskey, previously the most popular hard liquor. In the second half of the 20th century, vodka owed its popularity in part to its reputation as an alcoholic beverage that "leaves you breathless," as one ad put it — no smell of liquor remaining detectable on the breath.
According to The Penguin Book of Spirits and Liqueurs, "Its low level of fusel oils and congenerics — impurities that flavor spirits but that can contribute to the after-effects of heavy consumption — led to its being considered among the 'safer' spirits, though not in terms of its powers of intoxication, which, depending on strength, may be considerable." (Pamela Vandyke Price, [Harmondsworth & New York: Penguin Books, 1980], pp. 196ff.)
Interestingly, other peoples in the area of vodka's probable origin have names for vodka with roots meaning "to burn".
There are many popular brands and styles of vodka. Vodka may be distilled from any starch/sugar-rich plant matter; most vodka today is produced from grains such as rye (rye vodka is generally considered superior to other types) or wheat. Some vodka is made from potatoes, molasses, and sometimes even byproducts of oil refining or wood pulp processing. In some Central European countries like Poland some vodka is produced by just fermenting a solution of crystal sugar and some salts for the yeast and distilling this after a few weeks. Today vodka is produced throughout the world, see List of vodkas.
A common property of all vodkas, compared to other spirits, is that before any flavouring is added, they are neutralized as far as possible. This is often done by filtering it through charcoal. The idea is to remove everything except pure water and pure alcohol from the liquid. As a result, vodka has a very neutral taste.
Apart from the alcoholic content, vodkas may be classified into two main groups: clear vodkas and flavoured vodkas. From the latter ones, one can separate bitter tinctures, such as Russian Yubileynaya (jubilee vodka) and Pertsovka (pepper vodka).
While most vodkas are unflavored, a wide variety of flavored vodkas has long been produced in traditional vodka-drinking areas, often as homemade recipes to improve vodka's taste, or for medicinal purposes. Flavorings include red pepper, ginger, various fruit flavors, vanilla, chocolate (without sweetener), and cinnamon. Ukrainians produce a commercial vodka that includes St John's Wort. Poles and Belarusians add the leaves of the local bison grass to produce Żubrówka or Zubrovka vodka, with slightly sweet flavor and light amber color. In Ukraine and Russia, vodka flavored with honey and pepper (Pertsovka, in Russian, Pertsivka, in Ukrainian) is also very popular.
This tradition of flavoring is also prevalent in the Nordic countries, where vodka seasoned with various herbs, fruits and spices is the appropriate strong drink for all traditional seasonal festivities, midsummer in particular. In Sweden alone there are some forty-odd common varieties of herb-flavored vodka.
The Poles also make a very pure (95%, 190 proof) rectified spirit, which is used in a variety of ways. Technically a form of vodka, it is sold in liquor stores, not pharmacies.
Due to vodka's high alcohol content it can be stored in ice or a freezer.
In some countries, black market or "bathtub" vodka is widespread, as it can be produced easily to avoid taxation. However, severe poisoning, blindness, or death have been recorded as a result of impurities, notably methanol.
Filtering vodka is a practice familiar to many college students with a lack of funds with which to purchase alcohol costing over $10.99 per handle (1.75L). The process involves buying a large amount of very cheap vodka and then running it through some sort of home water filter, usually a Brita, a number of times. It is widely believed that when this process is finished a type of vodka such as Skol or McCormick can be mistaken for Ketel One or Grey Goose. It takes a number of cycles of filtration for this change to be noticeable. There is also evidence that filtering cheap vodka can decrease the risk of a hangover.
Filtering is not limited to vodka, and can also be used on almost any other kind of alcohol to remove impurities. However, the cost of availability of vodka have made it the most popular choice for most people.
Differences in taste between brands
Many vodka consumers claim they can tell a difference in taste between different brands. To test this ability the ABC News program 20/20  conducted a non-scientific survey of 6 individuals aged 21-40 who sampled 6 different brands of vodka. There were 5 different super premium vodkas ($30-$60, 750ml, 2005) and an economy priced vodka, Smirnoff ($13, 750ml, 2005). At the beginning of the survey the participants were asked to name their favorite vodka brand; four individuals chose Grey Goose ($30, 750ml, 2005). After sampling each of unmarked vodka samples "straight up", five of the six testers choose the same vodka as their least favorite sample. They were all surprised to discover that they had selected Grey Goose. When the 6 brands were mixed into a cosmopolitan mixed drink (3 parts vodka, 1 part triple sec, 1 part lime juice, & 1 part cranberry juice) they were mostly unable to differentiate between the brands. The suggestion was made to select the 'house' or inexpensive vodka next time one orders a vodka based drink. In another recent blind tasting done by New York Times food and drinks critics, classic Smirnoff topped the list; second and third were vodkas from Poland.
In the United States federal regulations require that domestically produced vodka be produced with a neutral taste and cannot contain any type of flavoring. This does not apply to imported vodkas.
Click here for a list of vodkas.
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