Beyond the Wine Aisle

America's Top Spirit

Did you know?
■■The name vodka comes from the Russian word for water: voda.
■■Vodka's popularity in Poland and Russia is due to the fact that highly purified spirit would not freeze as easily as other spirits during transport in the long freezing winters.
■■The first popular vodka based cocktail in the United States was called the "Moscow Mule" and was a combination of vodka and ginger ale.
- Source: Beverage Testing Institute

■■Question: Why is vodka the most popular white spirit in the u.s.?
■■Answer: Vodka's versatility allows it to be a great mixer, or a refreshment served on the rocks. Whether straight up or mixed into a classic cocktail like the Moscow Mule, vodka has been a favorite of sippers around the globe for centuries.

A " neat" start
While its true country of origin is disputed, vodka production can be traced back to the 14th century throughout Eastern Europe and Russia. Ingredients like lemon peel, sugar, clove and pepper created the first flavored vodkas. According to the Beverage Testing Institute, the process of distilling was introduced in the 15th century, leading the way for the vodka consumers know today. Traditionally, vodka is consumed 'neat' - served ice cold, on its own.

Traditional vodka production
According to the BTI, vodka begins with a mash, typically of grains like rye or wheat. Vegetables such as potatoes as well as molasses have also been used. The simple sugars within the mash are fermented and distilled. Repeated distillation can increase the proof. Ryan Lang, head distiller at Ohio-based Middle West Spirits, says, depending on the size of the batch desired, vodka can be produced in eight to ten days, allowing one day for the mash period, three to seven for fermentation, one for distillation and one for filtering.

The final product - a clear, tasteless and odorless liquid - is classified by the United States government as a neutral spirit. Vodka is then classified as well or standard, premium and ultra premium, which can effect the pricing.

Heading west
Originally brought over by immigrants, vodka gained popularity in the U.S. after World War II, with its importation from Europe and Russia, Lang says. "Production in the states until that point was primarily for dark spirits and remained that way for a while, " he says. "What drove the migration to vodka sales taking over dark spirit sales in the 70s was the popularity factor and the ability of vodka to be used in so many applications or cocktails."

According to the BTI, the Heublein Company purchased the rights to the Smirnoff brand following the repeal of National Prohibition in 1933. The company emphasized vodka "neutrality" in its marketing campaigns, saying Smirnoff vodka "leaves you breathless."

Vodka today
The spirit's versatility has led to its dominance of the market, Lang says. Vodkas infused with flavorings as diverse as bubblegum and cucumber can be found on store shelves, while microdistillers are creating boutique varieties using traditional production methods, to preserve the taste of the grain and move away from the neutral flavor profile.

Over the decades since the war, vodka quickly rose to prominence as the most widely sold spirit in the U.S., he says. "And that trend will continue for a very long time."

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