By Beth Clark • October 04, 2018
For centuries, vodka has been the elixir of millions all over the world. The first official mention of both the drink and the word was in court documents in 1405 Poland, but it originated in the 8th century following the invention of the still. Its subsequent popularity with rich and poor alike has held strong, even in the face of pesky little things like wars, famines, Prohibition, and Perestroika. In Russia, vodka remains king, and in the United States, vodka out-sells gin, rum, tequila, whiskey, and Scotch…combined.
Why is vodka so popular? Its versatility, for one. Eastern Europeans tend to drink it "neat" (room temp without ice) in one swig, while imbibers in other countries prefer sophisticated cocktails like Vodka Martinis, Moscow Mules, Cosmopolitans, Bloody Marys, and White Russians. Even the classic Vodka Soda can take on new dimensions with infused vodka¹ flavors like vanilla, lemon, chocolate, bubble gum, and (yes!) bacon. (Thank Stoli for the spark of creative genius that started it all in the 1960s.) Oh, and vodkas made with corn or potatoes are gluten free, so there's that.
Vodka has a magical ability to fuse with and transform the flavor(s) of whatever it's combined with, including…Jell-O. Popularly (but incorrectly) attributed to Tom Lehrer in 1955, Jell-O shots were actually invented almost a hundred years earlier by 'American Father of Mixology' Jerry Thomas in his 1862 guide How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon Vivant's Companion. Alternatively titled The Bar-Tender's Guide, it was the first drink book ever published in the US.
The name Jell-O wasn't patented until 1897, so Thomas called his 27th recipe 'Punch Jelly' and included a warning on its effects:
"This preparation is a very agreeable refreshment on a cold night, but should be used in moderation; the strength of the punch is so artfully concealed by its admixture with the gelatin, that many persons, particularly of the softer sex, have been tempted to partake so plentifully of it as to render them somewhat unfit for waltzing or quadrilling after supper."
Vodka is a spirit¹ created by distilling fermented grains (sorghum, corn, wheat, or rye), potatoes, or fruit. To be sold in the US, vodka has to be 80 proof, or 40% ABV (alcohol by volume), making it the de facto global standard (the EU minimum is 37.5% ABV). The alcohol in vodka is ethanol, which is a natural byproduct of fermentation derived from plants. Also called ethyl alcohol, grain alcohol, or drinking alcohol, it's the same alcohol that's in wine, beer, and other liquors.
Distillation is the process of separating the liquid of a fermented mixture from the other components by way of selective boiling and condensation in a still. In the US and Europe, filtration is part of the process, but in traditional countries like Poland, the focus is on more accurate distillation that preserves the unique characteristics of the grain.
To achieve vodka's clear color and clean taste, the distillation process is repeated, and the number of cycles varies from distiller to distiller. On its own, it's not an indicator of quality, in spite of some claims…crappy raw materials make crappy vodka, no matter how many times they're distilled. Conversely, quality materials distilled an appropriate number of times tends to result in exceptional vodka². Depending on the stillmaster, the final filtered and distilled vodka can have almost 95% ethanol, so most are diluted with water prior to bottling. (Translation: Do your homework, aspiring connoisseurs.)
¹Spirit (n): the essence of a substance as extracted in liquid form, especially by distillation. Spirit = liquor = booze = call it what you like, just don't drink it in excess or face the hangover's wrath.
²The first indicator is that your palate doesn't recoil when it passes through your lips. The second is texture, or how it feels when the vodka swirls across your tongue. Is it thick, weighty, and viscous? Or is it thin and astringent, like something prickly crawled into your mouth?
The Vodka Cocktail Bible by Edward M. Sorensen
Vodka Distilled: The Modern Mixologist on Vodka and Vodka Cocktails by Tony Abou Ganim
The Vodka Cookbook by John Rose
But Mama Always Put Vodka in Her Sangria! By Julia Reed
Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea by Chelsea Handler
Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka by Edwin Trommelen
Sasha, Pour One More! With Love and Vodka Through 25 Years in th Ukraine by Brigitte Schulze
A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir by Lev Golinkin
Savior: A Random Interruption: Surviving Breast Cancer with Laugher, Vodka, Smoothies, and an Attitude by Suzanne Zaccone
Supermodel: Absolut Book: The Absolut Vodka Advertising Story by Richard W. Lewis
Bit Player: Milk, Eggs, Vodka by Bill Keaggy
Villain: Black Vodka: Ten Stories by Deborah Levy
Cheers, and as always, happy reading! Also, please drink responsibly (every day, not just #NationalVodkaDay) and if you feel like you may have a problem with alcohol or know someone who does, Project Know is one place you can start in finding help.