A Brief Guide to Vodka
- POPULAR SPIRITS
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Vodka, one of the world's most popular liquors, is composed solely of water and ethanol with possible traces of impurities and flavorings. Vodka is made from any one of these fermented substances: grain, rye, wheat, potatoes, grapes, or sugar beet molasses. Vodka’s alcoholic content usually ranges between 35 to 50 percent by volume; the standard Russian, Lithuanian, and Polish vodkas are 40 percent alcohol by volume (80 proof).
Historically, this alcoholic-proof standard derives from the Russian vodka quality standards established by Tsar Alexander III in 1894. The Muscovite Vodka Museum reports that chemist Dmitri Mendeleev determined the ideal alcohol content as 38 percent; however, because in that time distilled spirits were taxed per their alcoholic strength, that percentage was rounded upwards to 40 percent for simplified taxation calculations. For such a liquor to be denominated “vodka,” governments establish a minimal alcohol content; the European Union established 37.5 percent alcohol by volume as the minimal alcohol content for European vodka.
Vodka is now one of the world's most popular spirits. It was rarely consumed outside Europe before the 1950s. By 1975, vodka sales in the United States overtook those of bourbon, previously the most popular hard liquor and the native spirit of the country. In the second half of the 20th century, vodka owed its popularity in part to its reputation as an alcoholic beverage that "leaves you breathless", as one ad put it — no smell of liquor remains detectable on the breath, and its neutral flavor allows it to be mixed into a wide variety of drinks, often replacing other liquors (particularly Gin) in traditional drinks, such as the Martini.
According to The Penguin Book of Spirits and Liqueurs, "Its low level of fusel oils and congeners — impurities that flavour spirits but that can contribute to the after-effects of heavy consumption — led to its being considered among the 'safer' spirits, though not in terms of its powers of intoxication, which, depending on strength, may be considerable."
Russian culinary author William Pokhlebkin compiled a history of the production of vodka in Russia during the late 1970s as part of the Soviet case in a trade dispute; this was later published as A History of Vodka. Pokhlebkin claimed that while there was a wealth of publications about the history of consumption and distribution of vodka, virtually nothing had been written about vodka production. Among his assertions were that the word "vodka" was used in popular speech in Russia considerably earlier than the middle of the 18th century, but the word did not appear in print until the 1860s.
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