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How Is Vodka Different From Other Clear Spirits?

If you're ordering a Martini or Bloody Mary anytime soon, you should know what sets vodka apart from other spirits on the bar.

<p>Getty Images</p>

Getty Images

Vodka is the Superman of spirits: No matter what other trends may come and go, it remains undefeatable in terms of popularity.  According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), almost 75 million cases of vodka were sold in the US, which resulted in over $7 billion worth of revenue for distillers of the spirit. And while its reputation has been somewhat eclipsed in recent years by craft whiskey and gin, its sales numbers remain beyond impressive.

But aside from its ubiquity on back bars and in-home cocktail cabinets, there is a lot about vodka that tends to confuse people. Unlike Bourbon, which must be at least 51% corn, or single malt Scotch which is required to be made from malted barley, or gin, where the presence of juniper and other botanicals are defining characteristics, vodka is harder to pin down.

According to the TTB, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau that taxes regulates tobacco, alcohol, and guns, vodka is a “neutral spirit which may be treated with up to two grams per liter of sugar and up to one gram per liter of citric acid.” In addition, vodka is not allowed to be “aged or stored in wood barrels at any time except when stored in paraffin-lined wood barrels and labeled as bottled in bond,” which is something you rarely see, anyway.

Related: Why We're Falling (Back) in Love With Vodka

As for the rest of that definition, the feds are saying that vodka is supposed to be based on a spirit that has been distilled to the point where no perceptible flavor or aroma is present. The law states that the distillate must hit a minimum of 190 proof, or 95% alcohol.

Of course, the vast majority of bottles on the shelf are nowhere near 190 proof. That’s because after distillation, vodka is typically brought down to a more approachable strength — generally between 80 and 100 proof. Several vodkas on the market are far stronger than that, but they are less popular than more conventionally proofed expressions.

The raw materials that vodka is made from cover a broad swath of territory. Potatoes and cereal grains have historically been the most popular given their high levels of carbohydrates, but plenty of vodkas are made from other base materials, too, like sugar beets, grapes, and quinoa. It’s important to note, however, that since vodka is a neutral spirit, it doesn’t taste like the materials it’s distilled from – the process of distilling to such high levels of alcohol essentially strips the vast majority of flavor from it.

Vodka’s inherently neutral character makes it an excellent partner for a wide range of other ingredients, from vermouth in a Martini to spiced-up tomato juice in a Bloody Mary to ginger beer in a Moscow Mule. Just be careful how you choose those other components: Since vodka doesn’t typically have the same assertive character as, say, gin does in a cocktail, poorly produced mixers will have nothing to hide behind.

Related: 15 Exceptional Vodka Cocktails, From a Vesper to Martini Variations

As for that vodka Martini, it’s important to consider how very different it will taste when shaken as opposed to being stirred. The former will smash the ice and melt more of it into the liquid, resulting in a weaker drink. It will also almost certainly leave a fine layer of tiny ice shards or crystals on top. Stirring, on the other hand, will allow your chosen vodka and vermouth to shine with a clarity and purity that shaking prevents, and there will be no ice crystals to detract from its tactile pleasures. Again, it’s all a matter of preference, but the differences in preparation method, even with a neutral spirit like vodka, are huge.

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