Vodka: An Opus of Confused Neutrality

Not surprisingly, vodka is the world’s fastest selling spirit. There are many reasons for this, the first being that it is the spirit most easily approached by both the regular and non-regular drinker alike. Vodka’s distinct lack of flavor allows it to blend easily with any ingredients you desire, disappearing seamlessly into the background, laying the base for the smoothest of cocktails.

Definition and Origins

Vodka by definition is a neutral and rectified spirit obtained from grain, potato, sugar beet, or essentially any fermentable product, distilled to around 190 proof, filtered, and usually brought to around 80 proof with purified water.

It’s origins are relatively obscure and most accounts put it sometime during the 12th century with a more convincing account of it’s beginning’s in Poland and Russia in the 14th and 15th century respectively. Vodka’s American beginnings are more clearly identifiable with the introduction of the Smirnoff brand in the 1930’s.

Russian émigré Rudolf Kunnet purchased the rights to the Smirnoff brand in 1934 from the Smirnoff family (recently exiled from Russia on account of the Bolshevik Revolution. Unable to do much with the stuff, he sold it to a sharp entrepreneur named John Martin (Hueblein Corp.) in 1939 who was determined to make something of it. He, too, found it hard to sell a spirit that had “no flavor”, but in a marketing coup of great significance he teamed with his LA bar owner friend, Jack Morgan, to create a drink called the Moscow Mule (vodka, fresh lime, and ginger beer), which many see as the Trojan Horse that helped vodka break onto the scene.

Does vodka have flavor?

Simply stated, since vodka is pure alcohol that has been diluted, well, it tastes like diluted alcohol and it can be hard to make an argument that they all have different flavors.

Where the differences do lie, though, is in the character and it is important to understand the several factors that affect this…

• the type and quality of the ingredients
• the water
• the method of distillation
• the number of times it is distilled
• the filtration process
• and, of course, the skill of the master distiller.

Styles of Vodka: A Deeper Understanding...

Even though neutrality is the supposed benchmark of a great vodka, today’s large number of vodkas are all quite different from one another in small, but easily detectable ways and regional approaches and difference play into this.

Eastern-Style Vodkas:

These are vodkas coming mainly from Russia, Poland, and the Baltic region. The pot still, in at least one level of distillation, remains a widely used method to create this spirit, which leads to a clearly discernable palate, mouth feel, and rich character. The careful inclusion of some esters (favored impurities) by master distillers can lend a rich and viscous palate to many Eastern vodkas. The real trick is to include just the right amount, as these things have been known to leave a nasty hangover.

Western-Style Vodkas:

Western-style vodkas are usually found to be cleaner and more neutral than their Eastern counterparts. In the U.S., all vodka falls under strict guidelines from the ATF (which state that vodka should be free of any flavor, color, or odor). These vodkas tend to be to closer to the idea of vodka as a completely neutral spirit. Highly advanced methods of column distillation are common practice in making these vodkas and many are distilled several times and carefully filtered to achieve the cleanest, most neutral spirit.

So is one really better than the other?

Enjoying vodka is truly a subjective experience. Many Eastern experts would argue that vodka shouldn’t be completely devoid of character but rather “full of life” with light and pleasing flavor components (esters, etc.). Of course, the Western idea is that the cleaner and more neutral the vodka, the better. The choice is yours!!!


(Poland) Popular vodka made with 100% Polish rye grain and distilled 4 times. At its best chilled and up, or with soda. The rye imparts a firm character and viscosity that do not compete well with large fruit flavors. A great vodka enjoyed best alone to appreciate the craftsmanship.
Tasting Notes: A smooth entry leads to a medium body and oily palate with notes of lemon peel, salt, marshmallow, and sugar. Finishes exceptionally clean.


(Poland) Belvedere’s sister vodka made with Strobowa Potatoes organically grown in the Podlasie region is the leading luxury potato vodka in the world. At room temperature, its potato base is easily detectable. Musky. Recommended neat with a splash of water. Note that it takes seven pounds of potatoes to make one bottle of Chopin.
Tasting Notes: A round entry leads to a plush medium-bodied palate with sweet bread dough, powdered sugar, and mint flavors. Finishes with a smooth, slightly peppery fade.


(Russia) The number one exported Russian vodka. Stolichnaya is made with winter wheat and filtered through quartz sand and activated charcoal. Well balanced, a great mixer.

Tasting Notes: Clean, marshmallow, mineral, and mild fruit peel aromas. A soft, supple entry leads to a smooth, oily, dryish medium-bodied palate with pastry frosting, talc, and citrus rind flavors. Finishes with a clean, lightly sweet, sugar dust, wet straw, and balancing white pepper fade. Classically-styled and very smooth Russian vodka.


(U.S.A.) This vodka from California contains the lowest amount of fusel oils of any vodka in the world. It is quadruple-distilled and made with several different grains. This can be considered one of the world’s purest vodkas.
Tasting Notes: Smooth and creamy with slight heat. A very neutral vodka; perfect for cocktails.


(Sweden) Made with 100% winter wheat, Absolut “wrote the book” on column distillation and hangs in there in this oversaturated, premium-vodka market. Unmistakable wheat character.
Tasting Notes: Distinctive wheat, citrus, and wet concrete notes. Rich and velvety with full wheat flavor across the palate.

Grey Goose
(France) America’s leading ultra-premium brand. Grey Goose is made with a grain combination of rye, wheat, and barley and distilled four times. Grey Goose uses Champagne limestone for its filtration.
Tasting Notes: Lightly sweet with a gentle aroma and a citrusy palate.
(Finland) Distilled from Finnish six-row barley using seven state-of-the-art steel distillation columns. The water used is drawn from nearby glacial springs that are so pure that the water does not require any filtration.
Tasting Notes: Clear, soft Grappa-like aromas of pomace, flowers and white pepper.


(France) The world’s first ultra-premium vodka distilled from snap frost Mauzac Blanc and Ugni Blanc grapes (the same used for cognac). Lightly sweet on the palate, Cîroc is an exciting new addition to the vodka market. Many consider it more of an eau de vie although it does not fit the definition. Eau de vies are distilled to 86% abv while vodka must reach 96%.
Tasting Notes: Light grape undertones are fully detectable along with citrus peel.

Ketel One

(Holland) A hand-crafted vodka made for generations by the Nolet family. This vodka’s characteristics include charcoal filtration as well as a unique resting period in tile-lined tanks until the master distiller feels it is ready to drink.
Tasting Notes: Citrus peel aromas. A round, smooth entry leads to a dryish medium body with dried fruitiness/seediness. Sweet dough, citrus peel, and white pepper fade becomes drying and powdery on the finish. A little hot and vapory.


Grapefruit A true value in today’s saturated vodka market. Danzka uses 6-column continuous distillation and 100% whole wheat.Double Gold Medal winner at the SFWSC 2003. All natural flavors of fresh grapefruit.

Hangar One

Fraser River Raspberry Made at the St. George Distillery in Alameda, CA. Hangar One is a unique vodka expression that combines eau-de-vie-making methods (pot distillation) with winter wheat (for smoothness of palate) and Viognier grapes for a richer floral flavor.
Infused with fresh and ripe Meeker raspberries from the Fraser River Valley. This vodka is raspberry-colored because St. George re-introduces raspberry juice following distillation.


(Poland) Distilled from rye grain, this is a dry-herb-flavored vodka due to the addition of bison grass. Noted as a natural complement to vanilla and apple flavors.
Tasting Notes: Complex, enigmatic, and said to have aphrodisiac properties. Floral, citrus, and vanilla notes dance across the palate.

42 Below

(New Zealand) Made in New Zealand at exactly 42 degrees below the equator, this vodka is made with wheat and distilled four times. The makers employ a proprietary “high saturation” process in which the spirit is thinned with spring water to easily remove any impurity before its fourth and final distillation. The folks who make this stuff are absolutely nuts, which—along with a super-high-quality product and a great story—makes for an easy sell. 42 Below uses water from a volcanic spring that achieves the highest purity rating possible, AA. 42 Below is distilled near a world benchmark for air purity, 42 degrees below the equator.
Tasting Notes: Cream and faintly plastic-like magic marker-like aromas. A supple entry leads to a glycerous light- to medium-bodied palate with milk, cereal, and fondant flavors. Finishes with a delicate, sweet, creamy fade.

Crater Lake

(U.S.A.) This 80-proof vodka from Oregon is filtered 10 times through charcoal and crushed volcanic rock and aged slightly in new oak. One of the only “slight-aged” vodkas in the world.
Tasting Notes: A very clean, pure nose with a hint of citrus and vanilla bean. A round, smooth entry leads to an oily, medium- to full-bodied palate with sweet pastry frosting and spicy pepper flavors. Finishes with a long, smooth, sweet yet dry, flinty fade. Very nicely balanced with a lot of character.


(U.S.A.) The brand that started it all on our side of the pond. Its rights were bought in 1934 by Russian émigré Rudolph Kunnett. When he was unable to turn a profit, he then sold it to businessman John Martin, who in a marketing coup, used a cocktail (the Moscow Mule) to successfully introduce vodka to the West Coast and beyond. Currently Smirnoff reigns as the world’s number one selling vodka at 150 million cases a year.


(Austria) An award winning (Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirit’s Competition in 2000) potato vodka from Austria.
Tasting Notes: Clear, subtle, ripe stone fruit and vanilla aromas. A very supple entry leads to an oily, medium- to-full bodied palate with subtle, pure vanilla and cream-like essences. Finishes long and smooth with a creamy sweetness, and subtle pepper notes. Very clean, plush, and elegant.


(Denmark) An ultra smooth and particularly well-priced Danish vodka made from winter wheat and distilled 6 times. Employs a unique “Freeze Distillation” step which works to remove even the smallest impurities.
Tasting Notes: Sweet estery, fruity nose with a touch of vanilla extract. A lively entry leads to a crisp, light- to medium-bodied palate with sweet vanilla cake and pepper flavors. Finishes with a mineral, anise, and white pepper fade.


(Holland) An ultra premium vodka from Holland; probably best known for its unique bottle. This product is distilled five times and made exclusively from winter wheat.
Tasting Notes: With a medium texture, this vodka had a definite tang without being overpowering.

The Mixologist’s Perspective: Once again, you are generally using a neutral spirit in a cocktail to highlight the cocktail modifiers and flavoring agents themselves, not the spirit. If you were looking for flavor in the spirit, most would agree, you should look elsewhere. The vodka in a cocktail is more a feeling than a flavor; a strong clean backdrop against which to paint your “flavor portrait.” It should be noted: using highly viscous Eastern-style vodka can lend a slightly heavier mouth feel to your cocktail than you may desire. Deciding which vodka is best is truly in the “palate” of the beholder. It is a wise move to get to know your vodkas by tasting them neat (at room temperature) before beginning to mix with them. Eastern vodkas work especially well on their own or with a light flavoring agent or modifier that doesn’t overpower the delicate esters (flavorings).

Training Guide For Beverage Dept. On Zuiderdam 2008, It was from on of head bartenders on Damship..