With vodka still hovering at the top of America’s preferred spirit (and whiskey close by), it’s time to examine what it’s made of. No, not the fermented grains, but the liquid. A bottle of vodka is made of approximately 60 percent H20 and from start to finish—from the water used in production to the ice it’s shaken with or dropped in a glass, as well as any soda water added to a cocktail—there’s a lot of weight in such a seemingly innocuous substance.
“You don’t hear a lot of distillers talk enough about the importance of the water that goes into the bottle [of vodka],” says Tony Abou-Ganim. Having recently set up the bar program at the brand new Libertine Social at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Abou-Ganim authored the book Vodka Distilled, which shed light on the oft-neglected but undeniably popular spirit. He is all too familiar with the limitations of Las Vegas’ tap water and notes the parallel to producing good vodka.
“A lot of producers use almost dead water, meaning distilled or treated in such a way that you remove all the impurities, and you lose a lot of character of the water itself,” he says. “But I think it begins with the mashing of the grains and what’s used there. Water has a great effect on the overall character of the final distillate and contributes to texture and mouthfeel.”
Professional water sommelier Martin Riese agrees. “Water has a huge impact on vodka production,” he says, adding that water is “way more important than people think.”
Still, what we can control, according to Abou-Gamin, is the way we enjoy the vodka once it’s in the bottle. Some drink it like the Russians. “I prefer it right out of the freezer,” says Brent Lamberti, the global brand ambassador for Stoli elit, on his preferred method of drinking vodka.
Abou-Ganim agrees: “My favorite way [to drink vodka] is straight out of the freezer in a small frozen glass—that’s the best for me. If you’re going to serve it in a drink over ice, you’re going to make sure you’re using the best ice—well-treated, not exposed to off-flavors.”
Freezing water seems simple enough, but not so says the pro. “It’s almost impossible to make good ice at home,” says Abou-Gamin. “Great ice starts with great water—how you’re making that ice, how you’re storing that ice.” The aforementioned off-flavors in ice result from whatever lingers in the freezer.
“Ice is almost like a sponge,” says Abou-Gamin. “It absorbs the flavors of the things around it, so if you have leftover salmon fillets in your freezer.... It’s kind of like buying a bottle of Fiji and serving it over ice cubes made from city water. When we talk about vodka, which is so subtle, it’s easier to detect flaws from tainted ice or funky water. It intensifies and showcases those flaws.... You’re at the mercy of what bars choose to serve, but we’re fortunate because of the craft cocktail resurgence throughout the country,” says Abou-Ganim. “Ice is an element that bars and bartenders are much more committed to and are taking much more seriously—the type and quality of their ice.”
At-home drinkers may want to step up their game too. “When you think you can produce a great cocktail with shitty ice, I’m sorry, you’re lost,” says Riese, who, aside from his sommelier duties, is a water educator, certified by the German Water Trade Association. “You’re already starting with the wrong product. You can buy very good ice in grocery stores these days,” he adds, noting that it’s getting easier to find high-quality ice. Riese himself uses Fiji water to make ice (and coffee) at home.
Sure, vodka is suitable for sipping neat, but isn’t the point of vodka to be a good mixer, given that the spirit is colorless, flavorless and odorless? “Vodka works as a beautiful platform to push other flavors forward,” says Abou-Gamin. “But I encourage people to taste vodka on its own.”
Sipped neat or in a cocktail, grudgingly vodka is earning the respect of bartenders. “Vodka is popping up on cocktails menus, and bartenders are being more open to, or friendly with, the category,” says Trevor Schneider, the national ambassador for Reyka vodka. “There were only a few bars that were that way; now there are bars like Suffolk Arms in New York City where Giuseppe [González] has a whole section of vodka cocktails on his menu. Years ago, that wasn’t the case.”
Schneider adds that it’s crazy to him how so many bars ignored the customer demand up until recently. “It’s huge because [vodka] is either the No. 1 or No. 2 most consumed spirit in the country. When I was still bartending, I was baffled by that fact. Some bars weren’t even carrying it!” he says. “It’s nice to see the trend is slowly turning around; it’s becoming hip again and coming back around.”
With a mini resurgence happening, and a growing number of brand options, it’s worth paying attention to water quality: the ice in the glass, the water mixed with the spirit. “Soda water is not one of those things that we’ve paid attention to the way we have with tonic waters and ginger beers,” says Abou-Gamin, adding that it’s a little more forgiving compared to other mixers. “But coming off a gun, it’s not the same experience of a nice cold bottle of soda water.”
“I ask bartenders what kind of water and ice they’re using,” says Riese, adding that he avoids soda guns. “I don’t drink anything that comes from a fountain, like Coca-Cola, for example. If they’re using soda water from a bottle, like Fever-Tree, that’s way superior than the soda fountain water, in my opinion.
You’ll see it in the price,” he adds. “When you’re ordering a cocktail for $14 or $15 rather than $8 or $9, the bar might be including a better ice cube or may be using a better water program in their cocktails.”
When it comes to water, Lamberti likes to mix Perrier with elit, noting that he finds the salinity found in that particular water pairs well with the vodka. “The taste of the vodka changes based on the complexity of the water,” he says, stressing the importance of water and how little it’s linked to other spirits. “No one ever mentions water with tequila.”
In the case of vodka, where water has many purposes, from lowering the ABV to cooling the vodka when in a shaker with ice, using the best water possible is ideal. So what water is best? Ideally, says Riese, you would match the water used to make the vodka with the water and ice in the cocktail (such as using Icelandic glacier water when mixing with Reyka). Since that’s not really possible, he suggests choosing water with a low mineral content, likely spring water, since high minerality can affect taste. Riese opts for spring and mineral waters, avoids distilled water and looks for stats on the label (water source, silica, magnesium, alkaline and pH levels, minerality content).
Finding the right balance between the water and the cocktail in question is key. “Is it sweet? Sour? Bitter?” asks Riese. “The balance between the spirit and the water can waver depending on the water source. You want to help the vodka and not overpower it with a high minerality content.”
Abou-Gamin agrees, saying you’d never pour a top-rate scotch over tap water ice cubes. “It’s not as quite as obvious with vodka; the nuances are so subtle. But attention to details always impacts the final cocktail,” he says. Water, it seems, is the crucial detail.