The earliest record of vodka production dates back to 1430, when a monk named Isidore codified the first recipe at the Moscow Kremlin. Bread wine, as he called it, clocked in at much lower potency than the stuff we drink today—about 40% alcohol by volume—and for many years it was made exclusively in Moscow and served only among the elite.
Fast forward to the 1990s: fur-clad club-goers lined the leather couches at New York hot spots like Pravda and Limelight, downing Cosmos and glugging Absolut. There was no spirit sexier than vodka.
But as the more recent craft-cocktail boom took hold, vodka came under attack from the booze cognoscenti. Many bartenders abandoned it to make a point, distancing their craft from the Cosmo-swilling masses; others simply cast it aside as flavorless and far less interesting than more in-your-face products like bourbon and mezcal. In short, vodka became a bad word at cocktail bars.
Finally, though, bartenders and consumers are returning to the bedraggled spirit and realizing that vodka is more than just party fuel. For one, in its native countries—Russia, Poland, and Sweden—vodka is paired with food as one might pair wine and is a staple at meals. And in cocktails, its neutrality makes it a blank canvas for all sorts of creative applications.
To clear up some common vodka myths, we chatted with spirits pro Dushan Zaric and asked him to break down the most common misconceptions he hears in the line of duty.
The Expert: Dushan Zaric. Born in the former Yugoslavia, Zaric developed a love of the spirit early on, leading him to work at the vodka-focused New York club Pravda in the ’90s. Tending bar, he worked with 100 brands of vodka during the spirit’s heyday. He has since opened his own cocktail bars (Employees Only and Macao Trading Co.) and has been called a cocktail revolutionary—in spite of, or perhaps because of, his affinity for vodka.
Myth: Vodka is meant to be served in mixed drinks.
Zaric says: “In Northeastern Europe and in Russia, where the land and climate favor potatoes and grains over grapes, vodka is served neat and accompanies food. Just as wine develops in character when paired with food, vodka can cleanse the palate and enhance the brininess of smoked fish or caviar and shellfish. Vodka made from rye has acidity and spiciness that cuts the fat of salmon or crème fraiche, and potato vodka is creamy and pairs well with vegetables.”
Myth: It is not possible to make a good, complex cocktail with vodka.
Zaric says: “Many bartenders today dislike using vodka in cocktails because it is transparent, but its subtlety is what makes it complex. Mixing cocktails with vodka is comparable to cooking with tofu: It has no dominant flavor, which makes it harder to turn into a good cocktail than any other spirit. Like a story, a complex cocktail should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In order to achieve that complexity in a vodka cocktail, you have to create those three dimensions by playing off the flavors of other ingredients.”
Myth: Good vodka has no flavor.
Zaric says: “When the spirit comes out of still, it is 90-96% alcohol—so strong that the flavor left over depends on the artistry of the master distiller. The taste varies depending on whether the distiller uses grains (winter wheat, wheat, rye, barley, or a combo of those) or potato. In addition, the water used is important. Wheat vodka, for instance, requires water with a higher mineral content to draw out its complexity. You may achieve purity with every additional distillation and filtration, but you are removing the character and the flavor of vodka. Producing a good sipping vodka lies in the balance between the mash used for the initial distillation, and the number of times it has been filtered and distilled afterward.”
Myth: A vodka is good if the label says that it has been triple-distilled.
Zaric says: “Unfortunately, 85%of consumer brands have very little to do with making vodka in its original style. What is on labels is mostly marketing. There is no rule of thumb for the number of times that vodka should be distilled to be at its best. Some types taste good after two distillations, some after three. After that, you lose the malt and start entering the smooth territory—that’s more of cold water with a kick. These vodkas don’t work well with food; they only work in cocktails. Additionally, many vodka producers in Eastern Europe add sugar to make the product more palatable—a process called rounding—and unfortunately a lot of other consumer brands are employing that same method. Traditional brands will not do that. I can’t name which those are, but look to the bartender wearing the bowtie with the mustache. Chances are he is using a good vodka.”
Myth: The best place to store vodka is in the freezer.
Zaric says: “You won’t taste much at that temperature. At best, it can help you get drunk with no pain. If using for cocktails, keep on shelf. When you’re using vodka to accompany food—raw or smoked fish, caviar, lobster, or pickled vegetables—keep it in the refrigerator; sip it cold and the body of the vodka will begin to develop as the temperature rises. The cooler temperature prepares your palate to taste, and as you drink it, warms up and flavors will come out. With every bite of food and every sip of vodka, you will find a new discovery.”