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3 Questions About Vodka, Answered

Toward the end of Ian Fleming’s spy novel “Dr. No,” James Bond orders a vodka dry martini — “Shaken and not stirred please.”

The novel was published in 1958, at the height of the Cold War. But four decades before the Berlin Wall would crumble, vodka had already bridged the East-West divide.

Between 1950 and 1975, vodka went from being a statistical blip to America’s best selling spirit. In addition to the martini, it’s become the base spirit in popular cocktails like the Cosmopolitan, the Moscow Mule and the Vodka Red Bull.

With National Vodka Day taking place on Oct. 4, here are the answers to a few questions I sometimes hear in my classes on food and beverage management.

1. What’s vodka made from?

You might think that all vodka is distilled from potatoes, but only a handful of today’s brands use the root vegetable.

Russia and Poland each claim to the be the birthplace of vodka, which is a Slavonic diminutive term meaning “little water.” There are mentions of vodka in Polish records as early as 1500, but the drink was probably around for at least 300 years prior — maybe even longer.

Potatoes, however, weren’t brought from South America to Europe until the 1570s. And before 1700, it’s unlikely that they were grown in quantities large enough in Poland or Russia to sustain any sort of commercial enterprise.

Instead, vodka was originally a grain distillate, with rye as the primary constituent. This makes sense: Rye grows better than other grains in the cool, damp climates of northern Eurasia.

While some vodka is made from potatoes, most vodkas are made from whatever grain the distiller prefers to use, with sorghum, rye, wheat and corn leading the pack. Grapes, plums and sugar cane are even used by some brands.


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