Thursday, June 17, 2010

On Vodka

Walk into your local liquor store, State Liquor Agency here in Ohio, and you’ll be greeted by row upon row of bottles in all manner of shape, size, and color. Each one contains a liquid that was, hopefully, crafted with love by their distillers and sold to the public not just as an intoxicant, but as a delicious, interesting, unique foodstuff (drink-stuff?). I know every time I go into one I’m slightly overcome by the possibilities that lie within. A huge ingredient list waiting to be mixed, shaken, or stirred together in almost endless combinations to create an entire universe of delicious cocktails and beverages; I often feel like the proverbial kid-in-the-candy-store.

But I must admit there is one aisle in the liquor store that I generally avoid: the vodka aisle. While I’ve yet to meet a drink I can’t stand, standing there looking at bottle after bottle of clear liquid I can’t help but feel bored knowing that what’s inside varies little from brand to brand. Sure there are flavored vodkas offering up nearly as many options as Jelly-Belly, but coarse chemical flavorings seem bland and gross, to say little of the fact that flavored vodkas can easily be made at home with real, natural ingredients.

No, I think the real problem is the lack of any sort of identity in the vodka industry. It has no home, no ingredients, some history but that’s about it. To better understand let’s look at some other spirits.

In the wild world of whiskey there are a variety of factors that contribute to its gorgeous color and rich complex favors. Bourbon, for example, must follow certain production standards in order to attain the name “bourbon.” There are ingredient parameters, at least 51% of the mash must be corn; ageing and containment guidelines, at least two years in new charred oak barrels; and although “bourbons” can be produced in any state that permits the distillation of sprits, purists will tell you that bourbon only really comes from Kentucky, anything else is American whiskey. There are distinct parameters the come in to play during the distillation process that ensures bourbon its ruddy-brown color and rich, velvety taste. Similarly the drier, spicier flavor or rye whiskey is due to the fact that it must be made from at least 51% rye malt. Over seas Scotland takes the production of its eponymous whiskey even more seriously, with a laundry list of rules and regulations that must be followed in order to actually be scotch whiskey. Ireland, too, has its own rules and regulations regarding the production of the crisper, more astringent Irish family of whiskeys.

Regionalism, production guides, and ingredients aren’t just important to whiskey. South of the border distillers have an even stricter set of guidelines to follow in order to produce tequila. For example real actual tequila, produced from blue agave plants can only be made in Jalisco and Guanajuato, liquors produced from agave outside of these regions is either mescal—the bottles with the worm—or sotol. Further, true tequilas are made from 100% blue agave as opposed to mixtos which must be at least 51% agave. To further protect the product they make Mexico has claimed the exclusive international right to the word "tequila", threatening legal actions against manufacturers in other countries.

But vodka, oh vodka, requires nothing more than a few ingredients to be made. At its most basic vodka is nothing more than water and ethanol. It can be distilled from any grain that can be converted to ethanol. And it can be made by anyone anywhere. All this means that vodka, despite being first denoted in Poland as long ago as 1405, has become a homeless transient in the liquor store to the point that there is a brand called Tito’s which is distilled in Texas. That’s right, everything’s bigger, remember the Alamo, Governor George W. Bush electing Texas manufactures a so-called “premium” vodka. So that’s the first complaint I’m lodging with vodka: no home and no set parts list. My second problem is that, as near as I can tell, the quality of vodka is based on its lack of taste, not presence. This is a somewhat ludicrous concept considering the $20-$30 dollars, minimum, you might drop on a decent bottle. For that kind of coin I want something that’ll dance on my palate, not just clean my mouth and burn my throat. I’d much rather plunk that down on some cozy brown liquor or a crisp clean bottle of gin (essentially spicy vodka, but, hey, at least it’s got some bite).

Now that I’ve aired my grievances with vodka let me say that I’m in no way trying to dissuade anyone from buying it, just to be more dollar conscious when it comes to this whitest of liquors. That said I’d also advise against the bargain brands that come in shatter proof plastic bottles and amounts to paint thinner. Is there a difference between a bottle that costs $8 a pop and something in the $20-25 range? Absolutely (pun only marginally intended). The more expensive bottles will taste cleaner and fresher and less like a hangover of headpocalypsian proportions as they’re likely using better ingredients and multi-stage filtering and distilling processes. Think of the difference between slurping up a palm full of pond water and tall cool glass of water a la Britta pitcher. But are you going to find any real discernable difference between what’s in the $20-30 bottles and what’s in the $30+ bottles? Not really, and if you do I’d love for you to judge a taste test between a Britta pitcher a Pur filter, tell me which nothing tastes more like nothing.


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