The ultimate vodka guide that will teach you all the basics about this spirit.
If you're a beginner wanting to learn about vodka, this guide will teach you the best types of vodka including flavored and unflavored vodka. Plus, you'll learn the basics of how vodka is made, and what makes it a unique spirit. You'll be able to confidently walk into a liquor store and pick out a bottle of vodka you'll love.
Vodka, although touted as the liquor choice of college students, is actually a more complex spirit than you might think! This vodka guide for beginners is an overview of the important pieces of vodka you need to know.
You'll learn how vodka is made, the different types of vodkas, plus popular vodka cocktails to try. My goal in this post is to help you feel confident when you walk into a liquor store to pick out a bottle of vodka to try.
For more on this liquor 101 series, be sure to check out the full YouTube playlist.
Vodka is a great liquor option for mixed drinks as it's known for the neutral flavor without distinct color, taste, aroma, or character (although recently the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau lifted this requirement). Vodka is typically made with a base of grain or potatoes. Small amounts of sugar and citric acid are also sometimes added.
Many countries around the world produce vodka (U.S., Poland, Russia, France, etc.), and there are slightly different regulations depending on where the spirit is produced. One thing that's always the same - vodka is not an aged spirit. It's ready to drink immediately!
How Vodka Is Made
Vodka is fermented from grain (wheat, rye, corn, barley), potato, grape, or really almost any raw material. It's then distilled multiple times, traditionally in a column still. It's really up to the distiller to decide the exact number of times to distill the vodka, but it needs to be at least 95% ABV.
Water is then added to dilute the mixture. The type of water that's added will affect the final product. Different water sources, their purity level, and if they have been filtered all help determine the taste and mouthfeel.
From there, the vodka is filtered, usually through activated charcoal. This process helps to remove any impurities or unwanted flavor. In this process, the type of filter and the number of times it's filtered can vary slightly depending on the brand of vodka.
Some experts argue that the extra filtration step seems useless. However, just know that more filtration does not necessarily equal a better quality of vodka.
As for flavored vodkas, they are either steeped with the flavor enhancements after distillation, or artificial flavor/extracts are added to the finished vodka.
Types of Vodka
Many different spirits, like whiskey, have a wide variety. Vodka is unique in the fact that there's really only two types - unflavored and flavored. Let's learn a little bit more about each of these.
Unflavored vodka is exactly what it sounds like. No additional flavors have been added after the distillation process. While vodka at its core really doesn't have much distinct flavor, smell, or color, there are slight differences in the ingredients and distillation process the affect the final taste.
Here are some of the ingredients used in vodka, and how they can a change the flavor of it:
- Wheat: These types of vodka tend to have a spicier bite (like pepper). Wheat based vodka brands include Grey Goose, Absolut, and Ketel One.
- Rye: This also tends to have a spicy bite, but with a bit of nutty sweetness as well. There are many popular Polish rye vodkas including Belvedere and Sobieski.
- Corn: Typically this has a lighter, almost buttery flavor. Corn based vodka brands include Tito's and Smithworks.
- Barley: Believe it or not, barley tends to taste slightly nutty. Finlandia (yep, it's made in Finland) is a common brand.
- Potato: Potato based vodka tends to have a fuller, earthy flavor. Popular brands include Luksusowa, Zodiac, and Woody Creek.
- Grape: It may be hard to believe there is a grape vodka that tastes like lemon. Cîroc is probably the most popular brand, but there are others available as well.
Flavored vodka uses unflavored vodka, and adds in a flavor enhancement. There are so many flavors of vodka ranging from citrus to summer fruits to spicy. There are some cocktails, like a Cosmopolitan, that call for flavored vodka in the recipe.
Many brands of vodka make flavored options. Citrus flavored vodka is a good option to keep on hand for a variety of cocktails.
How to Pick A Bottle of Vodka
If you're looking to make cocktails or mixed drinks with other flavor profiles (like a bloody Mary or Moscow mule), then you'll want to grab a bottle of unflavored vodka. Since most vodka has a neutral flavor, you probably won't taste too much of a difference from brand to brand if you're making a mixed drink. That being said, it's fun to try new brands and see if you prefer a certain base of vodka.
You'll likely use flavored vodkas if you want to use a neutral mixer (like soda water) or you want to amp up the flavor of a drink (like citrus vodka in a Cosmopolitan). Be careful, when purchasing flavored vodka. Some brands and flavors can taste very artificial.
Vodka isn't often sipped, but if you're looking to get into higher quality vodkas meant for that, do some research on distillers making sipping vodka. In general, vodka is meant to be a very neutral flavor. So you'll want to find distillers who are creating vodka with some body and mouthfeel that is meant to be drunk by itself.
Common Vodka Drinks
Surprisingly, there are many popular cocktails that have vodka as the base spirit including:
- Black/White Russian
- Bloody Mary
- Moscow Mule
- Sex on the Beach
- Vodka Martini
Plus, don't forget to try my orange blackberry cocktail refresher.
For a list of other vodka-based cocktail recipes and many more, grab a free copy of my bartender's cheat sheet. Over 45 cocktails in one guide.
Want To Learn More?
If you're interested in learning even more about vodka, check out these resources:
- What's really inside your vodka? Check out this WIRED video to learn more!
- Filtration is a hot topic with vodka. This article from Liquor.com will help teach you more!
- Vodka no longer needs to be completely plain. Find out why vodka can finally have a distinctive character in this Food & Wine article.
- A great (in-depth) article on how vodka is made.
If you liked this post, be sure to check out other liquor 101 videos on this YouTube playlist.
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