Vodka to me, as a child of the Eastern Block, is a common bit of booze to kick down neat in a shot. I really cannot perceive it as posh, no matter how Russian Standard advertising tries to convince me of its class. But I must admit that it can be a very subtle and enjoyable drink, and I do favour the pricier kinds (if you think supermarket own-brand vodka is all there is to the drink, there is a surprise in store for you if you get your hands on the real thing). But even so, I can’t help but think “it’s just vodka!” when I see the sea of stock specialist shops carry.
‘Just vodka’ = mostly water and ethanol, made by distilling the results of fermenting grain, potatoes, or occasionally fruit. Yeast is used to break these down, and produce alcohol. The initial product will not be pure, however, and this is why it requires distilling. The end result is actually very simple. To be classed as vodka, it should be around 40% alcohol, or more.
And that really is the beauty of the drink; its simplicity and purity. This is one of the reasons it makes such a wonderful basis for cocktails, because in itself vodka has an uncomplicated taste. You can mix it with just about everything, and it will work. It is also the purity of the vodka which makes for differing price tags and brands. Each producer may have a slightly different filtration process involved in distilling the drink, removing the impurities which may alter the taste. The general rule is that the purer the vodka, the more expensive.
But then there are the infused vodkas. This is vodka which has had a flavouring added into it, after the purifying process is complete. It is worth noting here that there is no added sugar – add sugar, and what you get will be classed as a liqueur, no longer a vodka. To infuse any spirit, the producer will simply stick a flavouring agent in it and leave it to steep for some time (this can be hours, or even months), and just about anything can be the flavouring. Fruit is of course a common choice, but herbs work too, and so do spices. It does need to be a strong flavour, or the alcohol taste of the vodka itself will over power it.
Here are some strange flavours I’ve spotted:
Bacon. Yes, bacon. Someone stuck strips of bacon in a barrel of vodka, and let it absorb the meaty taste. And now it’s out there, for sale to the already semi-drunk lads who want to prove they’re man enough.
Bison Grass. Now when I first heard of this, I thought ok, why not. I don’t especially like the flavour of lawn, but someone might. Then I learned that Bison Grass contains a poison known to attack the liver…1
Dead-Things. Beyond bacon, you can enjoy vodka that tastes of scorpion, snake, caterpillar, beetle… just about anything that looks a bit weird and icky, and can be killed and popped into a bottle to make the tourists go ‘ew!’ and then test their bravery.
But not all vodka infusions are a gimmick, and not all of them are bizarre and foul. Some are really rather lovely. But almost all come with an exhale-provoking price tag. Premium manufacturers have cottoned on to the fact that people will pay a lot for anything which has been labelled as unusual, and rolled out a spectacular array of infused vodkas at often nearly double the price of the pure kind. But actually all they’ve done is take the basic drink, and leave a bit of something in it for a while, before taking it out and marking up the price. The other issue with this is the fact that premium vodka is premium precisely because of its purity. You pay for the fact that there are no residual flavours left in it from the fermenting stage of the process. But once it has been infused with another flavour, the initial purity of the vodka is lost, and there is no longer such a difference between it and the less well distilled kind.
I would advocate infusing your own. For this, the supermarket brand of vodka will be fine, because any trace flavours it has in it will be cancelled out through the infusion. Here is what you do:
Buy a bottle of cheap vodka (making sure it is around 40% alcohol).
Pick a flavouring item.
Stick the flavouring in the bottle, and screw it tight.
Leave to infuse.
Taste a little bit each day till you think the flavour is strong enough.
Serve and impress your friends.
Some flavours are obvious, and very simple to achieve. The best place to start is probably fruit, as you can’t go wrong with it. A few lemon slices will work wonders very quickly. Some chopped orange bits are great too. Remember that you will need to expose the flavour inside the fruit, so if it has a skin it may be best to peel it, or at least chop it up so that plenty of inner surface area is exposed. Some fruits such as strawberries can go in whole, as their skins are very thin.
For other flavourings, you may need to strain your vodka before serving so that you don’t get bits in the drinks, this is especially advisable when using spices. Peppercorns can be added to really heat up your drink, but overdoing it can be lethal (the same goes for chillies). Herbs should be used fresh, not dried. A sprig of pretty much anything will work wonders.
My personal favourites are:
Coffee. You can buy espresso flavoured vodka, but popping some whole coffee beans into a bottle for about a week produces a subtler, smoother result.
Mint. I adore the stuff, but if you want something a bit different to a mojito, cram a bottle of vodka full of freshly picked mint stems and leaves. It infuses fast too, and looks great.
Coconut. Buy a coconut, and smash up to little chunks. Then you can pop the flesh into your vodka, and leave to infuse. This is a slower infuser, but well worthwhile.
Infusing your own is cheaper, and also allows you to achieve precisely the taste you are looking for. It’s also very trendy to DIY, and so bound to score you some coolness points.
- Editorial note: The chemical in question is called Coumerin – it’s controversial, but is widely accepted to be absolutely no danger at all in reasonable quantities. The FDA don’t like it, so Zubrowka sold in the US has a different formulation, but bison grass vodka available in the rest of the world does contain it. ↩