Known to the Russians as the “water of life,” and its name literally meaning, “little water,” vodka spirits can be distilled from everything from potatoes to beets. Unlike whiskey or rum that is aged for flavor, vodka is distilled and filtered to eliminate the aromatics completely in order to create the purest, untainted form of drinking alcohol.
Like all distillation, the process of making vodka is based on principles of evaporation and the assumption that different liquids boil at different temperatures. So when beer, wine, or any combination of alcohol and water is heated, the alcohol vaporizes at about 173F, while the boiling point of water is 212F. The alcohol vapors are then collected, cooled and condensed at a higher alcoholic content than the original liquid. (Yet, another project I should have suggested for the 8th grade science fair… Moonshine and Bathtub Gin 101)
With vodka, the alcohol and aromatics (which also vaporize at lower temperatures) filter through activated charcoal to remove impurities so that no distinct flavor remains. This makes vodka the blank canvas of alcohol, lending itself to countless culinary (and drinking) applications
According to history, the distillation of spirits was first invented in apothecaries and monasteries for medicinal purposes to stimulate circulation. Here in the Northeast, surrounded by snow mountains that were once parked cars and gale force winds that topple trees, my friend Katie and I were in desperate need of treatment. So in monk fashion, we prescribed ourselves a bottle of the stuff and declared February “Vodka Month.”
Due to the limitless applications, we decided to design some flavors of our own. Like a small test laboratory, we lined up our flavor components. For our first vodka experiment we infused some of the bottle with chopped fennel and lemons and infuse the rest of the bottle with toasted hazelnuts and coffee beans. The mixtures have been steeping for 48 hours and now wait in the freezer to be tasted. There are also many more flavor combinations to come…perhaps some dried fruits and orange peel, vanilla bean and ginger, or star anise and kumquats.
The fun of the vodka (aside from it being vodka) is that it provides a neutral medium to explore flavor combinations. Like a storyboard for greater applications, the vodka truly captures the essence of ingredients. So, bring on the cold month of February, and we’ll arm ourselves with simple curiosity, the urge to experiment, and a little added warmth to boost our circulation.