Welcome to Alcohol Geography, Playboy.com’s monthly attempt to educate you, our loyal readers, on the finer points of where your favorite poisons originate and the natural topography that inspires a distinct adventure for your seasoned tastes. From Skye and Speyside malts in Scotland to the vodkas of Russia, get ready to be the ultimate drink connoisseur.
A well-known and widely disseminated rumor about Russians pegs the pseudo-Slavic people as mass and reckless consumers of a common intoxicant known as vodka, an alcohol that, if we are to take the preceding rumors to be true, is “cheaper than water” in those parts of the world.
It is perhaps happy coincidence, then, that the word itself, “vodka,” is derived from the Slavic voda meaning “water.” When it first found its way into common parlance it referred to chemical compounds like cosmetic cleansers (read: modern-day bleach); the oft-enjoyed beverage was known as something else, Gorzalka, from the Old Polish gorzec, “to burn.”
Neither seemed very marketable, but the former at least, if you sidestepped the whole paint stripper part, showed promise. It was “vodka,” then, that became the world’s most popular spirit.
The Penguin Book of Spirits and Liqueurs really sums vodka up nicely: "Its low level of fusel oils and congeners—impurities that flavor spirits but that can contribute to the after-effects of heavy consumption—led to its being considered among the 'safer' spirits, though not in terms of its powers of intoxication, which, depending on strength, may be considerable." Considerable indeed: in parts of Europe known as the vodka belt—Poland, Georgia, Ukraine, Slovakia, Lithuania and of course Russia—the translucent ferment is enjoyed neat…and in abundance. Primarily distilled today from rye or wheat, it has, in the past, been put together using potatoes, molasses, soybeans, grapes or sugar beets (though several European purist countries are campaigning to get any so-called vodka not distilled from either grain or potatoes reclassified). In Europe, for an alcohol to be considered vodka it must have a minimum ABV (alcohol by volume) of 37.5 percent (most are 40-plus); in America, anything over 30 percent will do.
But what gives vodka its mass appeal is its filtration process, the conscious removal of what the industry refers to as “heads” and “tails.” Heads—organic compounds or acids that can in some cases (such as with whiskey) flavor the mash—and tails—fusel oils, a byproduct of fermentation, known in German as “bad liquor”—are removed, giving vodka the desired clean taste (and reducing the aftereffects of overconsumption, i.e. the hangover).
So that’s how it’s made. But what makes are best? Well…
Claiming to be the only vodka with a vintage, Kauffman can be tricky to come by in the colonies; it is only produced in limited quantities stemming from the fact that the wheat used in the production process must come from a single harvest (thereby giving the vodka a vintage). It is distilled an absurd 14 times, filtered twice (once through birch coal and once through quartz sand), and in years when the wheat crop is deemed substandard, Kauffman will halt production.
Introduced to North America a mere 16 years ago, Chopin Vodka (yes, the name is in tribute to the eponymous Polish composer) is quadruple distilled from potatoes (traditionally, though they’ve branched out into wheat and rye in recent years). Since its Western arrival it has garnered the respect and attention of enthusiasts, earning one double gold, three gold and two silver medals from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and compiling an aggregate rating in the top 90th percentile from proof66.com. Fun fact: each bottle of Chopin is distilled from seven pounds of potatoes.
Stolen from the French “château,” Shato Mukhrani in Georgia (the uppity country of Stalin, not the state) is famous for its vineyards but has recently taken the vodka scene by storm, much to the dismay of the potato/grain purist ferment faction. Made from the husks of the same grapes they use to produce their wine, Shato Mukhrani’s vodka has a distinct, perhaps unfamiliar, but certainly not unlikeable taste.
Notable Selections: Chacha Vintage
One of the most recognizable names in vodka, Stolichnaya (or Stoli) has not let its fame and fortune dilute its purity. Made from wheat and rye grains, it is distilled four times to 96.4 percent and brought to bottling levels (40 percent) using artisanal water, then filtered thrice: through quartz sand, activated charcoal and woven cloth. Its branding, the red and white block lettering, a throwback to the Soviet era, is known the world over.
Though distilled in Slovakia, U’Luvka claims Polish roots and is said by those who know the alcohol best to be among the finest available, despite only being distilled three times to the usual four. Garnering international acclaim with over 40 awards, many who’ve tried it say it is the best recreation of the legendary royal vodka from the 16th century.
Notable Selections: U’Luvka Signature