Vodka is a typically colourless liquor, usually distilled from fermented grain or potatoes.
Except for insignificant amounts of flavorings, vodka consists of water and alcohol (ethanol). Vodka usually has an alcohol content ranging from 35% to 70% by volume ("Vodka Rassputin"). The classic Russian vodka is 40% (80 degrees proof), the number being attributed to the famous Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev. According to the Vodka Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, Mendeleev thought the perfect percentage to be 38, but since spirits in his time were taxed on their strength the percentage was rounded up to 40 to simplify the tax computation.
See: List of vodkas
The origins of vodka (and of its name) cannot be traced definitively, but it is believed to have originated in the grain-growing region that now embraces Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and western Russia. It also has a long tradition in Scandinavia.
Little is known about the early history of the drink in Europe. The first written record of vodka in Poland dates from 1405 in the Sandomierz Court Registry. In Russia, the first written usage of the word vodka in an official document in its modern meaning is dated by the decree of Empress Catherine I of June 8, 1751 that regulated the ownership of vodka distilleries.
Another possible origin of the word can be found in the Novgorod chronicle in records dated 1533, where the term "vodka" is used in the context of herbal alcoholic tinctures. A number of pharmaceutical lists contain the terms "vodka of bread wine" (водка хлебного вина) and "vodka in half of bread wine" (водка вполу хлебного вина). As alcohol had long been used as a basis for medicines, this implies that the term vodka is a noun derived from the verb "vodit,'" "razvodit'" ("водить", "разводить"), "to dilute with water." Hence "vodka of bread wine" would be a water dilution of a distilled spirit .
While the word could be found in manuscripts and in lubok (лубок, pictures with text explaining the plot, a Russian predecessor of the comic), it began to appear in Russian dictionaries in the mid-19th century.
Vodka is now one of the world's most popular spirits. It was rarely drunk outside Europe before the 1950s, but its popularity spread to the New World by way of post-war France. (Pablo Picasso once defined the most notable features of post-war France as "Brigitte Bardot, modern jazz, Polish vodka.") By 1975 vodka sales in the United States overtook those of bourbon whiskey, previously the most popular hard liquor. In the second half of the 20th century, vodka owed its popularity in part to its reputation as an alcoholic beverage that "leaves you breathless," as one ad put it — no smell of liquor remaining detectable on the breath.
According to The Penguin Book of Spirits and Liqueurs, "Its low level of fusel oils and congenerics — impurities that flavor spirits but that can contribute to the after-effects of heavy consumption — led to its being considered among the 'safer' spirits, though not in terms of its powers of intoxication, which, depending on strength, may be considerable." (Pamela Vandyke Price, [Harmondsworth & New York: Penguin Books, 1980], pp. 196ff.)
Interestingly, other peoples in the area of vodka's probable origin have names for vodka with roots meaning "to burn": (Polish: gorzałka; Ukrainian: горілка, horilka; Belarusian: гарэлка, harelka; Lithuanian: degtinė).
The second half of the 1970s witnessed two massive attacks on the priority and rights of the Soviet Union to market liquors named "vodka". The first assault was along the lines that the Russian Revolution "discontinued" Russia's trademark for vodka, which was "naturally" transferred to emigrated manufacturers of vodka, Smirnoff in particular, because of prohibition by Soviets, so that officially the Soviet Union started manufacturing vodka in 1923. This was refuted fairly easily. The second assault, around 1977, by Poland, was more serious, and the Soviet Union undertook the historical research to substantiate Russia's priority, which was completed by 1979, and in 1982 the international arbitrage considered it convincing enough to grant the USSR the priority in vodka as Russian original alcoholic beverage and recognised the Soviet trademark motto "Only vodka from Russia is genuine Russian vodka". The author of the research published his findings under the alias William Pokhlebkin in the book A History of Vodka (see references below). Despite the clear bias of the exposition in the book towards the goal (to prove the Russian priority), it is a serious, substantiated research and reveals quite a few facts, as well as debunks a number of myths, on the origins of vodka, both as product and as name.
Vodka may be distilled from any starch/sugar-rich plant matter; most vodka today is produced from grains such as sorghum, corn, rye or wheat. Among grain vodkas, rye and wheat vodkas are generally considered superior. Some vodka is made from potatoes, molasses, soybeans, grapes and sometimes even byproducts of oil refining or wood pulp processing. In some Central European countries like Poland some vodka is produced by just fermenting a solution of crystal sugar and some salts for the yeast and distilling this after a few weeks. Today vodka is produced throughout the world, see List of vodkas.
A common property of all vodkas, compared to other spirits, is that before any flavouring is added, they are neutralized as far as possible. This is often done by filtering it in a column still during distillation, and by filtering through charcoal and other media after distillation. The idea is to remove everything except pure water and pure alcohol from the liquid. As a result, vodka has a very neutral taste.
Apart from the alcoholic content, vodkas may be classified into two main groups: clear vodkas and flavored vodkas. From the latter ones, one can separate bitter tinctures, such as Russian Yubileynaya (jubilee vodka) and Pertsovka (pepper vodka).
While most vodkas are unflavored, a wide variety of flavored vodkas has long been produced in traditional vodka-drinking areas, often as homemade recipes to improve vodka's taste, or for medicinal purposes. Flavorings include red pepper, ginger, various fruit flavors, vanilla, chocolate (without sweetener), and cinnamon. Ukrainian produce a commercial vodka that includes St John's Wort. Poles and Belarusians add the leaves of the local bison grass to produce Żubrówka vodka, with slightly sweet flavor and light amber color. In Ukraine and Russia, vodka flavoured with honey and pepper (Pertsovka, in Russian, Pertsivka, in Ukrainian) is also very popular.
This tradition of flavoring is also prevalent in the Nordic countries, where vodka seasoned with various herbs, fruits and spices is the appropriate strong drink for all traditional seasonal festivities, midsummer in particular. In Sweden alone there are some forty-odd common varieties of herb-flavored vodka (kryddat brännvin). In Poland there is a separate category, nalewka, for vodka-based spirits with fruit, root, flower, or herb extracts, which are often homemade or produced commercially by small distilleries. Its alcohol content may vary from 15 to 75%.
The Poles also make a very pure (95%, 190 proof) rectified spirit (Polish language: spirytus rektyfikowany), which is used in a variety of ways. Technically a form of vodka, it is sold in liquor stores, not pharmacies. Similarly, the German market often carries German-/Hungarian-/Polish-/Ukrainian- made varieties of vodka of 90 to 95% alcohol content (as well as straw rum of the same potency).
Due to the high alcohol content of certain brands of vodka, it can be stored in ice or a freezer without any crystalization of water. In countries where alcohol levels are generally low (the USA for example, due to alcohol taxation levels varying directly with alcohol content), individuals sometimes increase the alcohol percentage by a form of freeze distillation. This is done by placing the vodka in an open vessel (bowl, etc) in the freezer, and then after it has reached a temperature below the freezing point of water, adding one or more ice cubes, to which the free water within the vodka will crystalize, leaving a higher alcohol concentration behind.
In some countries, black market or "bathtub" vodka is widespread, as it can be produced easily to avoid taxation. However, severe poisoning, blindness, or death have been said to happen as a result of impurities, notably methanol. This pervasive poisoning belief is due to moonshine lore, which abounds with myths of blindness, but few actual documented cases. The concern is due to the presence of methanol (wood alcohol), an optic nerve poison, which can be present in small amounts when fermenting grains or fruits high in pectin. Another danger stems from aromatic rings present in mashes (e.g. ethyl acetate). These aromatics boil off first and as a result are called "fore-shots" or "heads."
Distillation is the process of separating liquids with different boiling points. Distillation does not actually make anything- nothing is formed that is not already part of the liquid in the boiling chamber. For example, methanol, which can be poisonous in larger amounts, cannot be formed during distillation; it is formed when cellulose is fermented. While there is over 1% methanol in whisky, when sugar is fermented with a high quality Turbo Yeast, so little methanol is formed that it is nearly impossible to measure. A fermentation of sugar, water, and Turbo Yeast will typically produce 1 ppm (one millionth) in the mash. This is much less methanol than found in ordinary orange juice, and about one hundred thousandth of that found in commercial whisky and cognac.
Interestingly, one of vodka’s first popular family or domestic labels traces its history back to Sydnayaka Krueger of Russia, which has since evolved into the currently popular Smirnoff, according to Alcohol Aficionado's History of Vodka.
Differences in taste between brands
Many vodka consumers claim they can tell a difference in taste between different brands. To test this ability, the ABC News program 20/20  conducted a non-scientific survey of 6 individuals aged 21-40 who sampled 6 different brands of vodka. There were 5 different super premium vodkas ($30-$60, 750 ml, 2005) and a mid-priced vodka, Smirnoff ($13, 750 ml, 2005). At the beginning of the survey the participants were asked to name their favorite vodka brand; four individuals chose Grey Goose ($30, 750 ml, 2005). After sampling each of unmarked, neat vodka samples, five of the six testers chose the same vodka as their least favorite sample. They were all surprised to discover that they had selected Grey Goose. When the 6 brands were mixed into a Cosmopolitan they were mostly unable to differentiate between the brands. The suggestion was made to select the 'house' or inexpensive vodka next time one orders a vodka based drink. In another recent blind tasting done by New York Times food and drinks critics, classic Smirnoff topped the list; second and third were vodkas from Poland.
Obviously, this experiment is not scientific. Specifically, it is based on vodkas available in the US and includes tasting with strong flavourings. It cannot claim to be definitive or even representative with respect to all vodkas. Moreover, a taste test does not bear upon a rationale frequently provided for drinking more expensive Vodkas -- the perception that more expensive Vodkas often produce less severe hangovers than "cheap" Vodkas, a claim that has no evidence to support it.
Drinks made with Vodka