Our Bartender’s Perspective on Vodka
By Dappered Drinks Correspondent and Official Bartender Michael Bowers
Vodka stirs up strong feelings. From fierce brand loyalty among consumers to anti-vodka screeds spat out by mustachioed bartenders behind the dimly lit mahogany of big city speakeasies—all of the attention hardly seems worth it for something legally defined in the US as flavorless and odorless. Regardless, there are differences between vodkas. Here are some points to consider next time you’re in the market for a bottle:
A good vodka is a vodka that is distinctive, and not only for the flashiness of its bottle. Despite the legal definition, vodka does have flavor and odor, though they are generally too subtle to remain noticeable once mixed.
The best vodkas come from potatoes. Since vodka is so subtle in the flavor department, secondary attributes of the spirit are particularly important. Potatoes lend vodka a unique, creamy texture that isn’t present in grain-based vodkas.
Virtually all vodkas are produced in industrial column stills. A few small producers are putting out vodkas made in hybrid pot stills that combine attributes of column stills and true pot stills. They are profoundly more interesting than column still vodkas and you should seek them out. Some options include Cold River from Maine, Koenig from Idaho, and Adnams from the UK.
Vodka brands often seek to distinguish themselves by running their vodkas through obscene numbers of distillations. In truth, after the third distillation (and some would say after the second), additional distillations have virtually no impact on the final product— except to make it more expensive.
Vodka is the cheapest product behind the bar to produce—pennies on the dollar compared to whiskeys, brandies, and aged rum—yet it is sold at prices comparable to those other spirits. All that extra money vodka companies are pulling in is spent on gimmicks and advertising to make you think there are much bigger differences between products than there really are.
Despite the hype, there is nothing intrinsically stylish or otherwise about vodka. But if it’s all you ever drink, you’ll probably look boring.
About our Bartender – Michael Bowers is the Head Bartender at the Modern Hotel and Bar in Boise, Idaho. His patrons know him for the uncanny precision with which he tends his bar. Michael’s cocktails have been noted by, among others, Food and Wine, Sunset Magazine, and the New York Times. See more in The Drink archive.
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