Originally associated with Russia, Slavonic, Baltic and Scandinavian countries, vodka has become one of the world’s favourite spirits, largely based on its supposed lack of flavour and it being undetectable on the breath. Both of these suppositions are incorrect, although both can be lesser than from other spirituous drinks.
In its purest form, vodka is distilled ethanol, an intoxicating liquid used recreationally for millennia, that has then been diluted with water. The most usual origins are grains (wheat and rye are thought superior), potatoes and sugar-beet molasses, but there are many other sources of the basic spirit. It is distilled as many as three times to purify and strengthen it and micro-filtering is also an important manufacturing procedure. These techniques remove ever more of the injurious ingredients that cause hangovers and so vodka is often claimed to be a safer, purer drink. Yet, it is just as alcoholic as other spirit drinks and that brings its own problems. Those who make vodka illegally rarely bother to refine as well as commercial producers and often add other ghastly ingredients, commonly causing major health problems and death, particularly in Russia.
The blandness of vodkas lend themselves to further flavouring, some of which reach the outer limits of chemistry and creativity – bacon vodka for example!
Widely available in many forms and flavours.
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The more it is distilled and the finer and more pure the diluting water, the less vodka will taste of much, however the alcoholic content will react with your palate as though there is flavour present.
Each country in which vodka is a traditional drink makes their own added-flavoured versions, some herbal, medicinal and challenging, others fruity and celebratory. Russians especially like pertsovka, which is flavoured with honey and black pepper and one of the most popular Polish vodkas is zubrowka, flavoured with bison grass to give a warm, vanilla-like flavour. Sweden alone has more than 40 vodkas based on herbs, berries and fruits.
Vodka does not mature or change further in a tightly sealed bottle. It will last for years but once a bottle is opened the alcohol will very slowly evaporate. Therefore, it’s never a good idea to keep a bottle with a dispenser inserted for more than a few weeks or to leave a bottle half empty. It’s a good idea to decant a bottle into smaller ones, which can be tightly sealed until needed. Cool storage is best, whatever the size of your bottle.
Plain vodka can’t make a contribution to anything cooked. But vodka of all kinds can add a mysterious zing to cold dishes, added for instance to a mayonnaise for a prawn cocktail. Flavoured ones can enhance creams and cool custards to go with fruity puddings of all kinds. But generally there are better ways to play with vodka.
Almost anything can be macerated in vodka and then strained out to make delicious and original spirits to serve as shots to sip over ice.
Or, you can go the savoury way and make a cucumber, tarragon or a startling beetroot vodka. You might even make an ultimate, core-warming Christmas welcome of vodka to which you have added garlic, black peppercorns, bay leaves, lemon or orange peel and a chilli or two. A small bottle makes a memorable gift.