(n.) A close relative to neutral grain spirit, vodka is made by distilling almost anything—potatoes, grains, fruits, sugar—to above 190 proof, filtering the distillate and then bottling at more than 80 proof. Flavored vodkas are usually made by adding extracts. Though by legal definition vodka must be odorless and colorless, champions of the spirit insist that small distinctions may be made between the best labels.
Details on its birth are muddied—most believe it originated somewhere in Eastern Europe or Russia in the 12th century. Americans originally had little taste for vodka, but clever marketing in the mid-20th century rebranded the product first as “white whiskey,” then as the backbone to the Moscow Mule cocktail, which got a high-profile boost from heavyweight Hollywood endorsements such as Woody Allen. It surpassed gin in total sales in 1967, then whiskey in 1976, and has held onto its rank as the most popular spirit in the United States since, accounting for 32 percent of the total amount of alcohol sold in 2012.
The success of the super-premium market is the stuff that business school studies are made of. With few regulations on production, some producers simply rebottle filtered neutral grain spirit and affix a brand label, pouring funds instead into high-budget marketing programs. Recently, craft distillers have found success by trying an opposite tack, making a selling point from distilling local potatoes, grains or sugar.
Long shunned by the craft cocktail movement for its lack of flavor and popularity among the masses, vodka is getting a new lease from some bartenders for its ability to amplify delicate fruit, herb and vegetable flavors that might be outgunned by a more robust spirit.