Spirits Week: Introduction and Vodka
Last week, we gave a brief overview of the three big categories of liquors, their distinctives, and the part they each play in cocktails. Over the course of this week, we’ll be going into more detail on one of those three categories: the base spirits, vodka, gin, whiskey, rum, brandy and tequila. These are the highly alcoholic, basic building blocks of the liquor world. Spirits Week will be of most interest to those of you who like your drinks to have a nice burn to them, but as we mentioned last week, a working knowledge of all three categories is pretty helpful to any cocktail drinkers. Even if your drinks favor one category, the other two almost always have a part to play. In fact, today’s recipe, while it employs a generous helping of base spirit, does so in service of a drink that favors liqueur lovers.
Spirits for mixing
If you’re coming to cocktails from drinking your liquor straight, it’s from one of two directions: one typified by cheap tequila shots with a wedge of lime, the other by very refined single malt Scotches. For good cocktails, you’re going to want to avoid both of those extremes. Good cocktails require good ingredients. If you use cheap, low quality spirits, you’ll end up with substandard cocktails. That is, by the way, what you’re getting when you order a ‘rail drink’; you’re probably better off with a beer or a glass of the house red instead.
On the other hand, it’s a waste of money and of a fine spirit to use something from the very top shelf in a cocktail. Rare anejo tequilas and single malt Scotches are like purebreds, refined over time to have a very specific character. When you mix them with other ingredients in a cocktail, what makes them special gets lost. Save your single malt for sipping.
For cocktails, the best spirits are medium-priced, solid, and somewhat adaptable; you want them to work well for a variety of cocktails. Over the course of the week, we’ll give you some hints for finding that ‘just right’ level in each of the kinds of base spirit. This ‘golden mean’ level of spirits can still be quite broad and diverse, by the way, in both taste and price. Not all of these mid-priced bottles taste the same. So, while one serviceable bottle can fulfill your needs in any of these categories, you might still find yourself with two or three of your favorite spirit.
Vodka is the most basic of the base spirits. It can be made from most anything (though most of the time it’s made from grain), and its defining characteristic is that–when done right–it has a relatively neutral flavor. Decent vodka goes through multiple distillations and multiple filterings to get to that point of clarity. You’ll know your vodka is too cheap if it’s slightly hazy in look and kind of muddy in flavor.
Vodka is actually not that popular in the craft cocktail world. I think that’s partially as a reaction to its omnipresence in cocktails of the non-craft variety (hey there, Screwdriver!), and partially a judgement that its neutrality makes it dull. But neutrality comes in handy sometimes. We think vodka is very useful as a sort of blank canvas when we really want the liqueur in a cocktail to get the spotlight.
If you’re just going to buy one bottle: Smirnoff is a solid choice. You can find it anywhere, and they do the work to make sure it has a clear, crisp character. We like Svedka even better; it’s just as solid, and a little less expensive.
If you really love vodka: there is a new wave of small batch distillers who make vodkas that stay true to the spirit’s clear character, while also leaving room for some uniqueness. Taste a few, get a sense of their differences, and pick out one you like. We’re fans, for instance, of One Eight’s local District Made Vodka, with its whiff of the malted rye from which it is distilled. We keep some District Made on hand for vodka martinis, when we’ll really be able to taste the difference. For more general use, we have our Svedka.
What to Make with Vodka: Ginger Martini
As we mentioned, a great use of vodka in a cocktail is when you really want the other ingredients to stand out. We love to use it rather than gin in flavored martinis. You can substitute pretty much any of your favorite liqueurs for the ginger liqueur in this recipe.
- 2 oz vodka
- .5 oz ginger liqueur
- candied ginger (for garnish)
- stir with ice for 40 rotations
- strain into a cocktail glass
- garnish with candied ginger