All About Vodka

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By Tony Bell

Bars blogger

This installment begins our tour of what I call "The Big Six", the half-a-dozen main liquors that make up the vast majority of the cocktails and mixed drinks that many of us enjoy at home or at our favorite bar. I'll start with one of the most popular spirits today, vodka.

The word 'Vodka' came from the Polish 'woda' or the Russian 'voda', both meaning 'water'. Both countries claim to be the inventor of the spirit even before the pot still was invented in Eastern Europe in the 1400's. Early vodka was crude, low in alcohol and high in impurities. However, it became so popular that by 1540, Ivan the Terrible had established a government monopoly, which led to aristocrats using private stills to produce flavored vodka (to mask the rough taste). Some of the flavors used were acorn and horseradish, not exactly like the flavored vodkas we have today. By 1780, a Russian chemist developed charcoal filtration, which aided greatly in the purification process. Meanwhile, Sweden had discovered home distilling, and that became another source for vodka. These three areas remain the heart of vodka production, though France and the United States boast very popular brands.

Vodka is made from more than just potatoes. Most popular brands today come from grains: wheat, rye and corn, each of which provides their own distinctive body to the spirit. Corn will yield a neutral flavor, rye is more robust and wheat produces a clean, yeasty flavor. Vodka is usually triple distilled and filtered through materials such as charcoal, quartz sand, limestone and marble. Flavoring, such as citrus or spices, are added afterwards.

Some of the most popular brands today are Stolichnaya (Stoli) from Russia, Grey Goose from France, Belvedere from Poland, Absolut from Sweden, Ketel One from Holland and our own Seagrams and Skyy. In addition, there is much in the way of small batch spirits being produced these days, and a great deal of it comes from this region. These are small, independent distillers, often using organic and family farm grown ingredients in production. Some of these include Grand Traverse from Traverse City, Michigan, Death's Door, which is produced in Wisconsin and North Shore, which makes a number of spirits besides vodka, in their small plant in Lake Bluff, IL. A number of bars in Forest Park carry the small batch products, as well as the national brands, so you have a lot to choose from when you want your next vodka drink.

Until next time, 'Do dna!', which is Polish for 'Bottoms up!'

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