Vodka for a cold winter day

Col-head-ZalkinVodka is the traditional liquor of choice in the chilliest parts of Russia and Eastern Europe and it certainly conjures up images of the icy North  of fur hats and ice fishing and snow.

Vodka is also a classic cocktail mixer and goes with nearly everything. From the tomato-based Bloody Mary to chocolate and cream, vodka finds a place in all manner of creative infusions and spiked desserts, but in those endless-winter countries hugging the Arctic Circle, it is traditionally drunk neat.

Vodka is traditionally made from rye, potatoes or sweet beet juice, but modern distillers make vodka from corn, wheat, grapes, and nearly any other carbohydrate that can be fermented. While some purists argue that vodka is vodka only when made from traditional ingredients, they are missing out on some delightful experimentation.

The base ingredient is made into a mash, which is fermented and distilled. Though the distillation process removes much of the flavor as it strips away impurities, the final product will retain hint of the character of the base ingredient, giving potato vodka a creamy note, and corn-based vodka a touch of sweetness.

Big-name vodka brands use stills the size of office buildings, which don’t allow for the level of precision and control that artesian distillers seek. Small-scale production also allows for the use of costly materials, like copper, which is great at removing sulfur-based impurities but is impractical on an industrial scale. No one sets out to make bad vodka, but budget and time constraints lead a lot of the lower end labels to develop a production process that is simply “good enough.”

Great vodka aims to remove anything that will leave you with a bad aftertaste or a nasty hangover, while carefully preserving any herbal or mineral notes. The undesirable by-products of fermentation tend to either rise to the top or sink to the bottom of the tank. Manufacturers that emphasize bottom line over quality will keep as much of the batch as possible, but in premium vodkas, these “heads” or “tails” are bled off and discarded, saving the pure and flavorful “heart” of the batch.

For many vodkas, the next step is charcoal filtration, a process that is so spectacularly effective that you can filter cheap vodka yourself if you’re willing to sacrifice some time and a Britta pitcher to a grown-up science experiment. The vodka is then diluted to a uniform proof before bottling. The water used during this final dilution is critical, which is why many companies make a big deal out of their artesian springs or deep mineral wells.

Good vodka will have a luxurious, almost creamy body to it. Serving it ice cold will enhance this effect, but also dulls some of the subtler aromas. Vodka is also exceptionally easy to flavor — all you need is a great mild vodka and some aromatics (like rosemary or orange peel) and you can make your own custom infusions as a quick holiday gift. Serve vodka alone or in cocktails, with traditional Nordic fare like lox, herring in cream sauce or caviar. The bracing bite of vodka makes a particularly great palate cleanser for fatty or creamy dishes. So raise a glass against the cold, and appreciate the gentle warmth and sophisticated bite of great vodka.

Here are a few featured vodkas for your enjoyment:

• Beluga Noble Russian Vodka. A touch of sweetness on the nose, with a pungent herbal quality. Satiny-smooth, clean and gently warming.

• Berkshire Mountain Distillers Ice Glen Vodka. A very mild vodka, with a rich body and hints of pepper and eucalyptus. Great on its own or as a subtle mixer.

• Boyd & Blair Potato Vodka. Smooth and luscious, this relative newcomer has received fantastic reviews. Bitter cocoa, maple and honey on the palate with a nice bite. Gluten-free.

• Broken Shed Vodka. A gently viscous vodka with an almost floral aftertaste. A gentle sipping vodka that is great for skeptics. Sugar- and gluten-free.

• Hangar One Vodka Straight. A balanced, slightly fruity vodka distilled from Viognier grapes and Midwestern wheat. All flavored vodkas are produced with fruit extracts made in-house for exceptionally authentic flavor.

• Karlsson’s Gold Potato Vodka. Minimal distillation preserves the rich and delicate character of the potatoes used to make this vodka. A traditional vodka with a crisp bite.

• Reyka Vodka Iceland. A refreshing vodka with an herbal tinge, and notes of spicy cedar and warm citrus. Gentle heat goes down easy.

• Zyr Vodka. Velvety smooth with a clean and slightly sweet finish, a great sipping vodka made from a closely guarded formula.

You can find all of these delightful vodkas for purchase at our store, Old Greenwich Fine Wines & Cheese, located at 195 Sound Beach Avenue, Old Greenwich, or visit our website, Ogfinewines.com, or call 203-990-3030 to place an order. When you stop in, we invite you to taste a number of our favorite wines while we help you find the right bottle for your palate.

Robert Zalkin is the owner of Old Greenwich Fine Wines at 195 Sound Beach Avenue. His column is available weekly at Greenwich-post.com.

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