Taste: Spirits: What Is Vodka?

VODKA HAS TRAVELED a long way from its rural roots in Poland to become the world’s most fashionable spirit. Essentially just alcohol and water, vodka has a neutrality that’s known as the perfect blank canvas for crafting flavorful cocktails. But all vodkas are not the same. The recent launch of fruity Ciroc, a luxe French version, posed the existential question: What is vodka?

It was originally a peasant drink, made with the cheapest ingredients available. Most often these were starches like grains or potatoes, but sometimes molasses or beet sugar was used. Recently, vodka’s transformation from blue-collar to blue-chip has created an incentive to distill from tastier, and more expensive, raw materials. California cult vodka Hangar One’s aromatics and flavors come from adding viognier wine to a wheat base. And Cîroc is made exclusively from grapes.

So the answer seems to be that vodka is in the eye of the beholder. The European Union defines vodka based entirely on its flavor: a neutral spirit made from anything of agricultural origin.

To assess the range of “neutral,” sidle upstairs to Rittenhouse Row’s sultry Walnut Room, set up shop at a bar table at Nectar in Berwyn, or snag a booth at the original Continental in Old City. Or you could always take a road trip to Atlantic City for some serious sensory analysis at Red Square in the Quarter at the Tropicana. Sample a selection of chilled shots side by side, with no mixers to muddy the waters. You’ll find subtle differences in taste and texture between prestige vodkas made from grain, like Grey Goose, from potatoes, like Chopin, and from grapes, like Cîroc.

Marnie Old discusses wines, beers and spirits at marnieold.com. She may consult for some of the businesses she writes about. E-mail: mail@phillymag.com