How to Drink Vodka

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I think I understand vodka quite differently than most people. I get vodka. I actually feel vodka.

Maybe it’s because I was born in the former Yugoslavia and my genes just have their say. Or maybe it’s because I tended bar at Pravda in New York during the height of vodka’s heyday in the ‘90s and worked with 100 brands of the liquor.

But I’m in the minority. Vodka is nowadays largely misunderstood by both the public and the trade. Consumers see it as a low-calorie, zero-carbohydrate spirit that’s easy to drink and blends with virtually anything, while bartenders find it an uninspiring ingredient, like tofu for a chef.

However, the liquor was never created for mixing—it was intended to be a food spirit. Just as wine in southern Europe was developed to be enjoyed with meals, so were the vodkas of northern Europe, where grapes didn’t grow easily. It’s no wonder vodka accompanies the smörgåsbord in Sweden, koldtbord in Norway, kolde bord in Denmark, seisova pöytä in Finland and zakuski in Russia.

And if you wish to taste the true essence, the soul, of a vodka, you should have it with the food from its home country. Then it will make sense, and you’ll discover that not every bottling is the same. I find that these differences come out when you sip the spirit cold and neat. A near-frozen temperature is particularly important when you’re serving the alcohol with raw seafood, caviar, smoked fish, lobster and pickled vegetables. If it cuts through all that and cleanses your palate, then the vodka is good, very good.

But each vodka will behave uniquely, since they’re made from all kinds of things. Winter wheat gives you a crisp, fresh palate presence, while potato provides a more creamy and lush mouthfeel. Rye, on the other hand, will be a touch sour, with a recognizable “needle” on the side of the tongue.

To help you choose the perfect vodka for any occasion, check out my short guide. Cheers!

For fruity cocktails:

Use vodka made from 100 percent wheat or potatoes, like Absolut, Ketel One, Luksusowa and Russian Standard.

For savory cocktails:

Go with corn- or rye-based vodkas like Belvedere, Tito’s or Potocki

For Martinis:

I like to make Vodka Martinis with spirits produced from winter wheat like Stolichnaya Gold or those that are produced from a blend of grains like the rye-, wheat- and barley-based U’luvka.

Flavored vodkas:

My favorites are made by Charbay, Hangar One and Zubrowka.

Dushan Zaric is the co-owner of popular New York City bars Employees Only and Macao Trading Co., and the co-author of Speakeasy. He is also a advisory board member.

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  • Slowianin posted 5 years ago

    Wodka was born in poland and must to be ice cold and no anything else.

  • Rafal posted 5 years ago

    Take it easy. Wodka was born in Poland!

  • Dia posted 5 years ago

    You've said what I've been saying for years, spirits fit the food of the culture they come from.

  • Johnnie posted 5 years ago

    People just like what they like . I like a good vodka cocktail every now and then but I don't like drinking much of it because I get one hell of a hangover .

  • scotti posted 5 years ago

    Sorry but VODKA was born in Russia. ;-)

  • hakan posted 5 years ago

    Ciroc is a great tasting spirit, but I do not put it in the vodka category, it is too distinctive being made from grapes. I have tasted stoli elite, absolute, grey goose, svedka, and Smirnoff red. They are listed from best too worst

  • Dominik MJ • the opinionated alchemist posted 5 years ago

    Look - you started so well, you almost convinced me [yeah - not really] - yeah vodka is different - but overall b.s.
    I really liked your comparison with tofu - made perfectly sense!

    But then, you are putting it again aligned to cocktails. Which is the "original epic fail" of vodka.
    And this is a pity; with that you just again invalidated your credibility....

  • John h posted 5 years ago

    I enjoyed your article very much. I have been drinking shots of different brands directly from my freezer into frozen shot glasses for years, and there really is quite a range of tastes from the various higher end, unflavored vodkas. The one that I have found that I like the most, is a Swedish brand named Purity. It is not available in many places yet. It is packaged in a beautiful bottle with an unusually heavy stopper. Of course beauty and taste is in the eye of the beholder. Prosit

  • Mike posted 5 years ago

    Sure you would get funny looks. Vodka is meant to be drunk ice cold, usually out of freezer. You drink it neat (warm) which deserves a negative reaction from your friends.

  • Mike posted 5 years ago

    Extra vodka was produced in Soviet Union and was one of the nastiest vodkas ever produced. It was similar to Russian Vodka in taste and smell. But it was cheap and was mainly consumed by drunks and students.

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