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A Restauranteur's Eye View of Vodka

Aug 17, 2007
To get one thing straight off the top, there should be two ingredients in vodka: water and alcohol. Barring any flavoring ingredients, of course. And the two kinds of ingredients you can get the alcohol from are either potatoes or grain. Potatoes were used first, in part because potatoes are almost the only crop they can get to grow in the far northern end of Russia. But using potatoes led to cases of alcohol poisoning, so grains were introduced. These days, potatoes can be used about as safely.

And to make no doubt about it, vodka is best served as cold as humanly possible. One of the best ways you can keep vodka is to take a 2-liter soda bottle (after pouring its contents down the drain - you wouldn't actually drink that stuff, would you?) and cut the top off, fill it with water, dunk the whole vodka bottle in there, and store the whole thing in the freezer. You now have a vodka bottle embedded in a block of ice, which will be clumsier to pour from but ideal for taste. In the winter time, you may do as the Russians do and simply keep the vodka bottle outside, up to its neck in snow.

Vodka is actually the junior cousin of Everclear, since they are both grain alcohols with the distinct advantage of leaving little traces on the breath. Rowdy high school students, seeking a sneaky nip on the clock, will inject an orange with either, using a hypodermic needle to imbue the orange with unnatural potency. Said orange may then be innocently consumed on the school premises, even right in front of the principal, and no one will be the wiser. Alcoholic office workers also favor vodka for its ability to mix inconspicuously with everything from water to coffee. Vodka has gotten quite a reputation this way.

Served cold enough, vodka is nearly undetectable in a mixed drink, and lends itself to being easily masked in concoctions such as the Long Island Iced Tea. It is the basis of the simplest of mixed drinks: adding orange juice, grapefruit juice, or any of a variety of other fruit juices automatically makes a no-brainer cocktail. It is also how the first "jello shot" was made; Tom Lehrer, the famous satirical mathematician-musician favored by Doctor Demento and Weird Al Yankovic, first substituted vodka for water when making jello in little cups, in order to circumvent the US Army's restriction on alcohol on base. Yes, vodka does get around!

We have no clear trace of where vodka originated. Locals of each country proclaim that it is believed to have originated in the grain-growing regions of one or some of Poland, Belarus, Lithuania, Ukraine, or western Russia, with citizens of Scandinavia loudly clearing their throats in the back and claiming that they beat all contenders to the punch. It is easy to see where a bottle of the stuff made one place may have been transported to another place via sled dog and shared abroad, with the recipe passing everywhere at once without too much fuss being made about who started it.

Since vodka is a distilled spirit, it has roots in that maddest of mad sciences, alchemy. It is one thing to ferment the juice of just about anything, but you get a maximum of 16% alcohol that way. To get purer alcohol by content, you need to distill it. In distilling, at its base form and the method first used by alchemists, you simply heat a vessel of the liquid in a glass container with a nozzle going off to the side which will catch the vapor and condense it into another chamber.

The more times you repeat this process, the more distilled the spirits get. Thus, classic illustrations of alchemists you may find in any textbook on the subject usually show complicated arrays of glass containers with bizarre, Rube-Goldberg-like tubes all poking inti each other. There was obviously quite a bit of distilling going on. And an alchemist, Arnaud de Villeneuve of the 12th century, has the distinction of being the first to write about vodka, where he expressed a belief that it "strengthens the body and diminishes life's little hardships".

The spirit-distilling still was first invented in about the 8th century, but its methods and properties were kept highly secret for centuries, until it was formally described in a text found in the 13th century; here it was described by a university professor in his treatise about wine. The distillation process for vodka was found to require several repeated steps before approaching the purity of 60% alcohol.

The general knowledge of distilling methods pressed ponderously forward until about 1800, when Edward Adam invented the process of rectification and applied it to distilling. About in 1817, Johannes Pistorius, a German brewer, constructed another machine which could produce a beverage containing 85% of alcohol in a single distillation. The practical use of this device was for the first time used in 1852 in a brewery by Pierre Savalle of Saint Denis. The present-day distillation methods we use are largely unchanged from this process.

There is a widespread myth, doubtless passed on through generations of college students, that by buying cheap vodka and filtering it, you can get expensive vodka. The difference is not the filtering, but the distillation, and the myth was finally busted by none other than the popular "Mythbusters" TV show.

In the kitchen, vodka is a valuable ingredient for creating a flambe, since it's nature allows it to be easily set afire, and yet it leaves little taste behind after being extinguished. But it is even better in its original purpose, being mixed with an almost limitless list of other ingredients to produce mixed drinks. It is also handy as a cooking ingredient in any number of vodka-infused dishes, such as desserts, for it is as easily masked with any number of sweet ingredients for a delightfully tipsy treat.

To consider the ubiquity of vodka's character, one need only consider its place in popular media. Being the chief ingredient of both a White Russian, the drink favored by the lead character of "The Big Lebowski", and the best kind of martini, the favored drink of fictional spy James Bond. Somewhere between "Shaken, not stirred." and "The Dude abides."... the truth must lie.
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Freelance writer for over eleven years.

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