While the word “vodka” technically does mean water and the liquor is low in calories, gluten-free, and actually less heavy than those wellness drinks sold at the gym, you’d be hard pressed to convince your trainer that vodka is a hydrating health drink.
But it’s worth a shot.
For many years, vodka was thought of as a body-beneficial, medicinal beverage used for everything: easing the effects of a cold, treating wounds, even soothing teething pain in small children — which was actually done by rubbing vodka on the gums and not by filling baby bottles with firewater and then watching the wee ones toddle. Today, because of its neutral flavor and powerful 80 to 100 proof punch, vodka is one of the most popular, and easily disguisable, base alcohols for many innocent looking cocktails that frequently cause toddling in adults who consume too much.
Vodka’s origin is a source of debate, with both Russia and Poland claiming birthright. Distilled from cereal grains — like wheat or rye, potatoes, or anything that ferments — this Slavic sensation is thought to have been invented in the eighth century. It started rising in popularity in the 1300s before spreading more widely throughout Europe during the Napoleonic Wars.
Vodka did not gain a foothold in the United States until after the end of Prohibition in 1934, and it only really took off in the 1970s when the bars, wanting to attract more female customers, offered fruity cocktails they thought had more “girl appeal.” Because it has very little flavor of its own, vodka made the perfect base for these sweet, colorful concoctions. Now Americans consume more than 157 million gallons of vodka per year, in mixers or straight up, surpassing the sale of all the varieties of whiskey combined.
Vodka isn’t left to age as part of the distilling process, and it really shouldn’t be aged on the shelf either, with most experts recommending the consumption of the bottle within a year of manufacturing. And if you aren’t going to drink it, you can always use it as a disinfectant, which is a creative choice made by many people during the current shortage of over-the-counter cleaning supplies. It is said to be effective at treating the sting of a jellyfish bite and, if your pet ever ingests antifreeze then supposedly vodka can be used as the antidote.
Hundreds of vodka brands are available, the most popular of which is Smirnoff, but be aware that not all vodka has the same flavor, texture, level of sweetness, or alcohol content. Spirytus Rektyfikowany, a Polish vodka that is 192 proof and 96 percent alcohol, is said to be the strongest liquor available for sale, and if you can’t pronounce the name sober, you sure won’t be able to after imbibing.
Finding a quality vodka can be difficult because, by law, vodka is supposed to be flavorless, colorless, and without odor. But if you do sip it straight, preferably ice cold, it will definitely leave both a taste and texture on your tongue. And if you are not quite ready to drink it neat, find a popular brand and try some of the following recipes. Just remember that while the predominant flavor will be the fruity or tangy mix, the overwhelming ingredient is still alcohol, so sip responsibly.
Lemon Drop Martini
With a taste of childhood innocence — like those lemon drops your grandma gave you as a kid — combined with a very adult alcohol-induced wallop, the Lemon Drop Martini is one of the most popular vodka drinks available. First introduced in San Francisco during the disco era, it was designed to entice women into bars with its “girly-girl” appearance, but the drink has since been happily enjoyed by both sexes in establishments all across the states.
While the Lemon Drop is traditionally given the formal title of “martini,” it is in fact a martini imposter and should be called a “crusta,” an alcohol-based sour beverage with a sugary rim. However, since bars rarely list their signature “crustas,” we will forgive its misleading moniker. And like all vodka cocktails, martini and martini-imposters alike, it is much better with quality ingredients, so don’t economize too much on the vodka, triple sec, or simple syrup.
Superfine sugar for martini glass sugar rim
2 ounces premium vodka
3/4 ounce Cointreau or Triple Sec
3/4 ounce simple syrup
1 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
Lemon wedge or twist
Put a martini glass into the freezer to chill, then rub the rim with the lemon that will later be used as a wedge and dip the glass into the sugar to create a sugary coating; set aside. Fill a shaker with ice and add the vodka, Cointreau, simple syrup, and lemon juice, and shake until very cold. Strain into the martini glass, garnish with a lemon wedge or twist, and serve immediately.
The only thing “blue” about this happy drink is its color. While the traditional Kamikaze cocktail was thought, because of its name, to have originated in Japan, it too was born when divas everywhere were staying alive at the disco. And while the word actually translates as “a divine wind,” this drink blows through with more than just a gentle breeze and was most likely given its name because drinking too many will definitely result in a crash-and-burn situation. The white version is kaleidoscopically crazy, but the blue kamikaze takes that level of psychedelic grooviness to a whole new level. If you don’t mind calling attention to yourself — it’s hard not to notice someone enjoying a mind-blowing, brilliantly blue colored beverage — then this drink is for you. If you’d rather enjoy the taste without the attention, swap out the blue curacao for triple sec and enjoy in relative anonymity.
2 ounces premium vodka
1 ounce blue curacao
3/4 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
Lime wheel for garnish
Place martini glass in freezer to chill. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice, add vodka, blue curacao, and lime juice and shake. Strain into chilled martini glass and garnish with lime wheel. Enjoy immediately.
Vodka cocktail names are notoriously misleading, and the Black Russian is no exception. It originated not in Russia but in 1940s Belgium when a bartender invented a drink for the American ambassador. This beverage and its first cousin, the White Russian, made its way to the states, where they both peaked in popularity in the mid-1960s. Both drinks also came back in a “hey, there’s a beverage here” style when moviegoers everywhere watched “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski down eight White Russians and sadly drop one on the floor. While both the high alcohol and sugar content, not to mention mood confusion created by combining alcohol with coffee, make drinking eight unadvisable, one or two responsibly sipped is delightful.
2 ounces premium vodka
1 ounce Kahlua or other coffee-flavored liqueur
Maraschino cherries for garnish
Pour vodka into an ice-filled highball glass, then slowly add Kahlua. Do not stir. Refraining will give the drink a cloudy, mysteriously sultry look that absolutely suits this dark drink. Garnish with maraschino cherries and serve immediately.
Variation: Turn this into a “Dude” worthy White Russian by adding an ounce of heavy cream after the Kahlua. Give it just one quick stir to avoid getting a mouthful of heavy cream for that first sip, but then let the colors naturally combine.
While extremely popular, the Moscow Mule remains one of the most controversial vodka cocktails available. First, its origin is in question. Some believe it was invented in the 1940s by a trio that included an alcohol salesman who was having trouble selling vodka, the owner of a Los Angeles Bar who was having a similar complaint with his stock of ginger beer, and a Russian immigrant who couldn’t unload a warehouse full of copper mugs. Lore has it that the three sat down and invented the Moscow Mule as a way to alleviate all their troubles. Other individuals maintain that it was created by a New York bartender who was just trying to clean out inventory in the bar’s basement.
Secondly, while the fabrication of the drink’s creation is harmless enough, an actual report in 2017 just when the Moscow Mule was enjoying a resurgence in popularity, suggested the signature copper mugs might be slowly and subtly poisoning fans of this beverage. Exactly how long the cocktail would need to sit seeping into the copper or how many of these drinks would need to be ingested to produce any adverse effects is unclear, so simply use a copper mug lined with silver or nickel to enjoy all the flavor with none of the risks.
2 ounces premium vodka
3 1/2 ounces ginger beer
1/2 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
Pour vodka and lime juice into an ice-filled nickel or silver lined cooper mug; slowly add the ginger beer. Garnish with a lime wheel and enjoy immediately.
Easily the most famous and recognizable vodka cocktail, the Cosmopolitan is thought to have first been served in a Minneapolis steak house and, as legend has it, was given its name when a patron took a sip and exclaimed, “How cosmopolitan!” It was later immortalized when the fictional Carrie Bradshaw and her friends from the popular HBO series Sex and the City took it as their signature drink. The Cosmopolitan has since been a mainstay in bars everywhere.
2 ounces premium vodka
3/4 ounce Cointreau
1 ounce cranberry juice
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
Lime wedge, for garnish
Cranberries, for garnish
Put a martini glass into the freezer to chill. Fill a shaker with ice and add the vodka, Cointreau, cranberry, and lime juice, and then shake until very cold. Strain the ingredients into the martini glass, drop a couple of cranberries into the drink, and garnish edge with a lime wedge. Serve immediately. No Carrie Bradshaw high heels required!
Double Fold Vodka Infused
While this isn’t something you would order at your local bar, Vodka Infused Vanilla Extract is fun to make, smells divine, and makes a great, albeit not last minute, gift. It will enhance the flavor of any recipe calling for standard vanilla extract and, since the alcohol evaporates during the baking process, you don’t need to worry about giving your friends and family an unwelcome buzz.
Double fold refers to the proportion of vanilla bean to vodka. Most extracts found in stores have a 1 to 10 vanilla bean to vodka ratio, which is considered single fold. Professional bakers use a stronger flavored extract, with a 2 to 10 ratio. Below is a recipe that gives that double fold flavor.
6 Madagascar, Tahitian, or Mexican vanilla beans
1 cup vodka (cheap works just as well as premium, so save the premium for cocktails)
8 to 16-ounce glass jar with fitted lid
2-ounce dark glass jars (four of these) with lids
Pour the vodka into glass jar with fitted lid. Slice the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape out the vanilla flecks into the vodka and, using a spoon, push the flecks down to the bottom so that they are completely submerged. Shake the jar every so often if you want to feel like you are doing something, but mostly, you need to wait. It could be ready to use in as little as 10 weeks, but 6 months is better. Once it is ready, you can either strain the liquid or leave the flecks to give the extract that homemade look. Using your funnel, pour the vanilla extract into the four dark glass jars, tie three with a ribbon, and give to friends. Keep the fourth to use in your own baking!