Vodka and Gin Guide
What is Vodka?
Vodka is made by fermenting and then distilling the simple sugars from a mash of pale grain or vegetal matter. Vodka is produced from grain, potatoes, molasses, beets, and a variety of other plants. Rye and wheat are the classic grains for Vodka, with most of the best Russian Vodkas being made from wheat while in Poland they are mostly made from a rye mash. Swedish and Baltic distillers are partial to wheat mashes. Potatoes are looked down on by Russian distillers, but are held in high esteem by some of their Polish counterparts. Molasses, a sticky, sweet residue from sugar production, is widely used for inexpensive, mass-produced brands of Vodka. American distillers use the full range of base ingredients.
How do you distill Vodka?
The choice of pot or column still has a fundamental effect on the final character of Vodka. All Vodka comes out of the still as a clear, colorless spirit, but Vodka from a pot still (the same sort used for Cognac and Scotch whisky) will contain some of the delicate aromatics, congeners, and flavor elements of the crop from which it was produced. Pot stills are relatively "inefficient," and the resulting spirit from the first distillation is usually redistilled (rectified) to increase the proof of the spirit. Vodka from a more "efficient" column still is usually a neutral, characterless spirit.
Except for a few minor styles, Vodka is not put in wooden casks or aged for an extensive period of time. It can, however, be flavored or colored with a wide variety of fruits, herbs, and spices.
Classifications of Vodka
There are no uniform classifications of Vodka. In Poland, Vodkas are graded according to their degree of purity: standard (zwykly), premium (wyborowy) and deluxe (luksusowy). In Russia Vodka that is labeled osobaya (special) usually is a superior-quality product that can be exported, while krepkaya (strong) denotes an overproof Vodka of at least 56% ABV.
In the United States, domestic Vodkas are defined by U.S. government regulation as "neutral spirits, so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color." Because American Vodka is, by law, neutral in taste, there are only very subtle distinctions between brands. Many drinkers feel that the only real way of differentiating between them is by alcohol content and price.
Types of Vodka
Since Vodka tends to be a neutral spirit, it lends itself to blending with flavors and fortifying other beverages. In the 19th century, high-proof "Russian spirit" was held in high esteem by Sherry producers in Spain, who imported it to fortify their wines.
Neutral spirits are still used to fortify Port, Sherry, and other types of fortified wines, although the source of alcohol for such purposes these days tends to be the vast "wine lake" that has been created by European Union agricultural practices.
Flavored Vodkas have been produced from the start, originally to mask the flavor of the first primitive Vodkas, but later as a mark of the distiller’s skill. The Russians and Poles in particular still market dozens of flavors.
Eastern Europe is the homeland of Vodka production. Every country produces Vodka, and most also have local flavored specialties.
Russia, Ukraine and Belarus produce the full range of Vodka types, and are generally acknowledged to be the leaders in Vodka production. Only the better brands, all of which are distilled from rye and wheat, are exported to the West.
Poland produces and exports both grain- and potato-based Vodkas. Most of the high- quality brands are produced in pot stills.
Finland, along with the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, produce primarily grain-based Vodkas, mostly from wheat.
Sweden has, in recent decades, developed a substantial export market for its straight and flavored wheat-based Vodkas.
Western Europe has local brands of Vodka wherever there are distilleries. The base for these Vodkas can vary from grains in northern countries such as the United Kingdom, Holland, and Germany, to grapes and other fruits in the winemaking regions of France and Italy.
The United States and Canada produce non flavored Vodkas, both from various grains (including corn) and from molasses. American Vodkas are, by law, neutral spirits, so the distinction between brands is more a matter of price and perception than taste.
The Caribbean produces a surprising amount of Vodka, all of it from molasses. Most of it is exported for blending and bottling in other countries.
Australia produces molasses-based Vodkas, but few are exported.
Asia has a smattering of local Vodkas, with the best coming from Japan.
Vodka: Its History and Significance
The story is told that in A.D. 988 the Grand Prince of Kiev in what is now Ukraine decided that it was time for his people to convert from their pagan ways to one of the monotheistic religions that held sway in the civilized countries to the south. First came the Jewish rabbis. He listened to their arguments, was impressed, but ultimately sent them away after remarking that the followers of Judaism did not control any land. Next came the Moslem mullahs. Again he was impressed, both with their intellectual arguments and the success of Islam as a political and military force, but when he was told that Islam proscribed alcohol he was dismayed and sent them away. Finally came the Christian priests who informed him that not only could good Christians drink alcohol, but that wine was actually required for church rituals such as communion. That was good enough for the Grand Prince, and on his command his subjects converted en masse to Christianity.
The point of this historical anecdote is that the Slavic peoples of the north and their Scandinavian neighbors took alcoholic drinks very seriously. The extreme cold temperatures of winter inhibited the shipment of wines and beers, as these relatively low- proof beverages could freeze during transit. Until the introduction of distilling into Eastern Europe in the 1400s, strong drink was made by fermenting strong wines, meads, and beers, freezing them, and then drawing off the alcoholic slush from the frozen water. The earliest distilled spirit in Eastern Europe was distilled from mead (honey wine) or beer and was called perevara. Vodka (from the Russian word voda, meaning water) was originally used to describe grain distillates that were used for medicinal purposes. As distilling techniques improved Vodka (Wodka in Polish) gradually came to be the accepted term for beverage spirit, regardless of its origin.
Vodka in Russia
Russians firmly believe that Vodka was created in their land. Commercial production was established by the 14th century. In 1540 Czar Ivan the Terrible took a break from beheading his enemies and established the first government Vodka monopoly. Distilling licenses were handled out to the boyars (the nobility) and all other distilleries were banned. Needless to say, moonshining became endemic.
Vodka production became an integral part of Russian society. Aristocratic landowners operated stills on their estates and produced high-quality Vodkas which were frequently flavored with everything from acorns to horseradish to mint. The Czars maintained test distilleries at their country palaces where the first experiments in multiple redistillations were made. In 1780 a scientist at one such distillery invented the use of charcoal filtration to purify Vodka.
By the 18th and well into the 19th century the Russian Vodka industry was probably the most technologically advanced industry in the nation. New types of stills and production techniques from Western Europe were eagerly imported and utilized. State funding and control of Vodka research continued. Under a 1902 law, "Moscow Vodka," a clear 40% ABV rye Vodka made with soft "living" (undistilled) water and without added flavorings was established as the benchmark for Russian Vodka.
The Soviet Union continued government control of Vodka production. All distilleries became government-owned, and while the Communist Party apparatchiks continued to enjoy high-quality rye Vodka, the proletariat masses had to make do with cheap spirits. The societal attitude toward such products could be best summed up by the curious fact that mass-produced Vodka was sold in liter bottles with a non-screw cap. Once you opened the bottle it couldn’t be resealed. You had to drink it all in one session.
Vodka production in the current Russian Federation has returned to the pre-Revolutionary pattern. High-quality brands are once again being produced for the new social elite and export, while the popularly priced brands are still being consumed, well, like vodka.
Vodka in Poland
The earliest written records of Vodka production in Poland date from the 1400s, though some Polish historians claim that it was being produced around the southern city of Krakow at least a century earlier. Originally known as okowita (from the Latin aqua vita —water of life), it was used for a variety of purposes besides beverages. A 1534 medical text defined an aftershave lotion as being "Vodka for washing the chin after shaving." Herbal-infused Vodkas were particularly popular as liniments for the aches and pains of life.
In 1546 King Jan Olbracht of Poland granted the right to distill and sell spirits to every adult citizen. The Polish aristocracy, taking a cue from their Russian peers, soon lobbied to have this privilege revoked and replaced by a royal decree that reserved the right to make Vodka exclusively to them.
Commercial Vodka distilleries were well established by the 18th century. By the mid-19th century a thriving export trade had developed, with Polish Vodkas, particularly those infused with small quantities of fruit spirit, being shipped throughout northern Europe and even into Russia.
With the fall of Communism in the late 1980s, the Vodka distilleries soon returned to private ownership. Nowadays high-quality Polish Vodkas are exported throughout the world.
Vodka in Sweden
Vodka production in Sweden, which dates from the 15th century, has its origins in the local gunpowder industry where high-proof spirit (originally called brännvin) was used as a component of black powder for muskets. When distilleries were licensed to produce beverage alcohol (primarily spice-flavored Aquavit, but also Vodka), it was with the understanding that gunpowder makers had first priority over beverage consumers.
Home distilling was long a part of Swedish society. In 1830 there were over 175,000 registered stills in a country of less than three million people. This tradition, in a much diminished and illegal form, still continues to this day. Modern Swedish Vodka is produced by the Vin & Sprit state monopoly.
Vodka in the United States
Vodka was first imported into the United States in commercial quantities around the turn of the 20th century. Its primary market was immigrants from Eastern Europe. After the repeal of National Prohibition in 1933, the Heublein Company bought the rights to the Smirnoff brand of Vodka from its White Russian owners and relaunched Vodka into the U.S. market. Sales languished until an enterprising liquor salesman in South Carolina started promoting it as "Smirnoff White Whisky — No taste. No smell." Sales started to increase and American Vodka, after marking time during World War II, was on its way to marketing success. The first popular Vodka-based cocktail was a combination of Vodka and ginger ale called the Moscow Mule. It was marketed with its own special copper mug, examples of which can still be found in the back shelves of liquor cabinets and flea markets of America.
Today Vodka is the dominant white spirit in the United States, helped along by its versatility as a mixer and some very clever advertising campaigns from the various producers.
What is Gin?
Gin and its Lowlands cousin Genever (Jenever in Belgium) are white spirits that are flavored with juniper berries and so-called botanicals (a varied assortment of herbs and spices). The spirit base of Gin is primarily grain (usually wheat or rye), which results in a light-bodied spirit.
Genever is made primarily from "malt wine" (a mixture of malted barley, wheat, corn, and rye), which produces a fuller-bodied spirit similar to raw malt whisky. A small number of genevers in Holland and Belgium are distilled directly from fermented juniper berries, producing a particularly intensely flavored spirit.
The chief flavoring agent in both Gin and Genever is the highly aromatic blue-green berry of the juniper, a low-slung evergreen bush (genus Juniperus) that is commercially grown in northern Italy, Croatia, the United States and Canada. Additional botanicals can include anise, angelica root, cinnamon, orange peel, coriander, and cassia bark. All Gin and Genever makers have their own secret combination of botanicals, the number of which can range from as few as four to as many as 15.
Distillation of Gin
Most Gin is initially distilled in efficient column stills. The resulting spirit is high-proof, light-bodied, and clean with a minimal amount of congeners (flavor compounds) and flavoring agents. Genever is distilled in less-efficient pot stills, which results in a lower-proof, more flavorful spirit.
Low-quality "compound" gins are made by simply mixing the base spirit with juniper and botanical extracts. Mass-market gins are produced by soaking juniper berries and botanicals in the base spirit and then redistilling the mixture.
Top-quality gins and genevers are flavored in a unique manner. After one or more distillations the base spirit is redistilled one last time. During this final distillation the alcohol vapor wafts through a chamber in which the dried juniper berries and botanicals are suspended. The vapor gently extracts aromatic and flavoring oils and compounds from the berries and spices as it travels through the chamber on its way to the condenser. The resulting flavored spirit has a noticeable degree of complexity.
Classifications of Gin
London Dry Gin is the dominant English style of Gin. As a style it lends itself particularly well to mixing. London Dry Gin is the dominant Gin style in the United Kingdom, former British colonies, the United States, and Spain.
Plymouth Gin is relatively full-bodied (when compared to London Dry Gin). It is clear, slightly fruity, and very aromatic. Originally the local Gin style of the English Channel port of Plymouth, modern Plymouth Gin is nowadays made only by one distillery in Plymouth, Coates & Co., which also controls the right to the term Plymouth Gin.
Old Tom Gin is the last remaining example of the original lightly sweetened gins that were so popular in 18th-century England. The name comes from what may be the first example of a beverage vending machine. In the 1700s some pubs in England would have a wooden plaque shaped like a black cat (an "Old Tom") mounted on the outside wall. Thirsty passersby would deposit a penny in the cat’s mouth and place their lips around a small tube between the cat’s paws. The bartender inside would then pour a shot of Gin through the tube and into the customer’s waiting mouth. Until fairly recently limited quantities of Old Tom-style Gin were still being made by a few British distillers, but they were, at best, curiosity items.
Genever or Hollands is the Dutch style of Gin. Genever is distilled from a malted grain mash similar to that used for whisky. Oude ("old") Genever is the original style. It is straw-hued, relatively sweet and aromatic. Jonge ("young") Genever has a drier palate and lighter body. Some genevers are aged for one to three years in oak casks. Genevers tend to be lower proof than English gins (72-80 proof or 36-40% ABV is typical). They are usually served straight up and chilled. The classic accompaniment to a shot of Genever is a dried green herring. Genever is traditionally sold in a cylindrical stoneware crock. Genever-style gins are produced in Holland, Belgium, and Germany.
The United Kingdom produces mostly dry Gin, primarily from column stills. British gins tend to be high proof (90° or 45% ABV) and citrus-accented from the use of dried lemon and Seville orange peels in the mix of botanicals. British gins are usually combined into mixed drinks.
Holland and Belgium produce Genever, mostly from pot stills. Genevers are distilled at lower proof levels than English gins and are generally fuller in body. Many of these gins are aged for one to three years in oak casks. Some Genever producers now market fruit-flavored genevers, the best known being black currant. Dutch and Belgian genevers are usually chilled and served neat.
Germany produces a Genever-style Gin called Dornkaat in the North Sea coast region of Frisia. This spirit is lighter in body and more delicate in flavor than both Dutch Genever and English dry Gin. German Gin is usually served straight up and cold.
Spain produces a substantial amount of Gin, all of it in the London Dry style from column stills. Most of it is sold for mixing with cola.
The United States is the world’s largest Gin market. London Dry Gin accounts for the bulk of domestic Gin production, with most of it being produced in column stills. American Dry gins (often termed "soft" gins) tend to be lower proof (80° or 40% ABV) and less flavorful than their English counterparts ("hard" gins). Three months of aging in charred oak barrels gives the Gin a pale straw color and a smooth palate.
The Martini and the Meaning of Life
The best known of hundreds of Gin-based mixed drinks is the Gin and white vermouth combination called the Martini. As is usually the case with most popular mixed drinks, the origins of the martini are disputed. One school of thought holds that it evolved from the late-19th-century Martinez cocktail, a rather cloying mixture of Old Tom-style Gin and sweet vermouth. A dissenting sect holds that it was created in the bar of the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York City in the early 20th century. The ratio of Gin to vermouth started out at about 2 to 1, and it has been getting drier ever since. The great British statesman Winston Churchill, who devoted a great deal of thought and time to drinking, was of the opinion that passing the cork from the vermouth bottle over the glass of Gin was sufficient.
The martini has frequently served as a metaphor for some of the great social and political issues of our times. President Jimmy Carter denounced the "three martini lunch" in a thinly-veiled attempt at class warfare during his election campaign. He was not reelected.
Gin - Origins and History
Gin is a juniper berry-flavored grain spirit . The word is an English shortening of Genever, the Dutch word for juniper. The origins of Gin are rather murky. In the late 1580s a juniper-flavored spirit of some sort was found in Holland by British troops who were fighting against the Spanish in the Dutch War of Independence. They gratefully drank it to give them what they soon came to call "Dutch courage" in battle. The Dutch themselves were encouraged by their government to favor such grain spirits over imported wine and brandy by lack of excise taxes on such local drinks. A clearer beginning was a few decades later in the 1600s when a Dr. Franciscus de la Boë in the university town of Leiden created a juniper and spice-flavored medicinal spirit that he promoted as a diuretic. Genever soon found favor across the English Channel; first as a medicine (Samuel Pepys wrote in 1660 of curing a case of "colic" with a dose of "strong water made with juniper") and then as a beverage.
When the Dutch Protestant William of Orange and his English wife Mary became co-rulers of England after the "Glorious Revolution" drove James II from the throne, he moved to discourage the importation of brandy from the Catholic wine-making countries by setting high tariffs. As a replacement he promoted the production of grain spirits ("corn brandy" as it was known at the time) by abolishing taxes and licensing fees for the manufacture of such local products as Gin. History has shown that prohibition never works, but unfettered production of alcohol has its problems too. By the 1720s it was estimated that a quarter of the households in London were used for the production or sale of Gin. Mass drunkenness became a serious problem. Panicky attempts by the government to prohibit Gin production, such as the Gin Act of 1736, resulted in massive illicit distilling and the cynical marketing of "medicinal" spirits with such fanciful names as Cuckold’s Comfort and My Lady’s Eye Water.
A combination of reimposed government controls, the growth of high-quality commercial Gin distillers, the increasing popularity of imported rum, and a general feeling of public exhaustion gradually brought this mass hysteria under control, although the problems caused by the combination of cheap Gin and extreme poverty extended well into the 19th century. Fagin’s irritable comment to a child in the film Oliver —"Shut up and drink your Gin!"—had a basis in historical fact.
Starting in the 18th century the British Empire began its worldwide growth; and wherever the Union Jack went, English-style gins followed. In British North American colonies such celebrated Americans as Paul Revere and George Washington were notably fond of Gin, and the Quakers were well-known for their habit of drinking Gin toddies after funerals. The arrival of the Victorian era in England in the mid-19th century ushered in a low-key rehabilitation of Gin’s reputation. The harsh, sweetened "Old Tom" styles of Gin of the early 1700s slowly gave way to a new cleaner style called Dry Gin. This style of Gin became identified with the city of London to the extent that the term "London Dry" Gin became a generic term for the style, regardless of where it was actually produced.
Genteel middle-class ladies sipped their sloe Gin (Gin flavored with sloe berries) while consulting Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (a wildly popular Victorian cross between the Joy of Cooking and Martha Stewart lifestyle books) for Gin-based mixed drink recipes. The British military, particularly the officer corps, became a hotbed of Gin consumption. Hundreds of Gin-based mixed drinks were invented and the mastery of their making was considered part of a young officer’s training. The best known of these cocktails, the Gin and Tonic, was created as a way for Englishmen in tropical colonies to take their daily dose of quinine, a very bitter medicine used to ward off malaria. Modern tonic water still contains quinine, though as a flavoring rather than a medicine.
In Holland the production of Genever was quickly integrated into the vast Dutch trading system. The port of Rotterdam became the center of Genever distilling, as distilleries opened there to take advantage of the abundance of needed spices that were arriving from the Dutch colonies in the East Indies (present-day Indonesia). Many of today’s leading Dutch Genever distillers can trace their origins back to the 16th and 17th centuries. Examples include such firms as Bols (founded 1575) and de Kuyper (1695). Belgium developed its own juniper-flavored spirit, called Jenever (with a "j"), in a manner similar to that in Holland (which controlled Belgium for a time in the early 19th century). The two German invasions of Belgium in World Wars I and II had a particularly hard effect on Jenever producers, as the occupying Germans stripped the distilleries of their copper stills and piping for use in the production of shell casings. The remaining handful of present-day Belgian Jenever distillers produce Jenever primarily for the local domestic market.
Gin may have originated in Holland and developed into its most popular style in England, but its most enthusiastic modern-day consumers are to be found in Spain, which has the highest per capita consumption in the world. Production of London Dry-style Gin began in the 1930s, but serious consumption did not begin until the mix of Gin and Cola became inexplicably popular in the 1960s. Gin production in the United States dates back to colonial times, but the great boost to Gin production was the advent of National Prohibition in 1920. Moonshining quickly moved in to fill the gap left by the shutdown of commercial distilleries, but the furtive nature of illicit distilling worked against the production of the then-dominant whiskies, all of which required some aging in oak casks. Bootleggers were not in a position to store and age illegal whisky, and the caramel-colored, prune-juice-dosed grain alcohol substitutes were generally considered to be vile.
Gin, on the other hand, did not require any aging, and was relatively easy to make by mixing raw alcohol with juniper berry extract and other flavorings and spices in a large container such as a bathtub (thus the origin of the term "Bathtub Gin"). These gins were generally of poor quality and taste, a fact that gave rise to the popularity of cocktails in which the mixers served to disguise the taste of the base Gin. Repeal of Prohibition at the end of 1933 ended the production of bootleg Gin, but Gin remained a part of the American beverage scene. It was the dominant white spirit in the United States until the rise of Vodka in the 1960s. It still remains popular, helped along recently by the revived popularity of the Martini.