Sometimes I just can't resist poking the bear. In that spirit, I offer some thoughts about vodka.
Kevin Erskine is a writer who I know as a scotch guy. He recently published an ebook about vodka. I churlishly commented that a proper book about vodka would be all blank pages.
Even vodka enthusiasts will admit that vodka is a tabula rasa. By itself, there is very little to it. It is an ideal platform for cocktails because it doesn't get in the way of other ingredients.
The Russian/Polish word 'vodka' was introduced into the American distilled spirits lexicon because its legal synonyms, 'neutral spirits' and 'alcohol,' sounded more like ingredients than beverages. Indeed, 'vodka' is an ingredient in gin, liqueurs, and American blended whiskey, not to mention products like vanilla extract and mouthwash, and medicines such as NyQuil.
U.S. rules define vodka 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." Vodka is not defined by a particular character, aroma, taste or color, but by their absence.
Some vodkas are better made than others. There are differences. But even vodka enthusiasts generally agree that the poorest ones taste like alcohol while the best ones taste like water.
Although virtually all vodka available for sale in the United States is made from grain, U.S. rules allow vodka to be made from any raw material. The raw material used must be disclosed on the label. Circoc is the best known grape vodka. Chopin is the best known potato vodka.
Most people think all vodka is made from potatoes. Funny that, because even historically, in the vodka heartland of Poland and Russia, potatoes were used only when grain was scarce. Potatoes are native to the Americas so they are relatively recent arrivals in Europe, not an ancient and fundamental part of the culture like barley, wheat and rye.
Periodically, Poland and Russia try to get the EU to declare that vodka must be made from either grain or potatoes, nothing else. Grape-growing Europeans typically object.
In addition to grain, potatoes, and grapes, vodka is sometimes made from sugar cane or sugar beets.