This vodka 101 article is a complete guide to vodka, including some of its history, how it is made, what it is used for, and brand recommendations to suit a range of budgets.
When it comes to curating your home bar, vodka is an essential liquor to add to your collection. As one of the most popular liquors on the planet, this clear and neutral spirit is a regular fixture in nearly any bar.
From casual sipping to mixing into stylish cocktails like martinis, gimlets, and cosmos, vodka is the perfect liquor to have on hand for any occasion.
In this guide, I will take you on a journey through vodka’s colorful past, break down how it’s made and what it’s used for, then finish with my top brand recommendations for any budget.
By the time you’ve finished reading, you’ll know everything you need to know about vodka in order to stock up your home bar.
What is vodka?
Vodka is a clear distilled spirit that was made famous by Eastern Europe and is now popularly consumed worldwide. It’s most often made from grains or potatoes and is the most common liquor to use in cocktails.
The proof of vodka typically ranges from 80 to 100, with an ABV (alcohol by volume measurement) of 40 to 50 percent. It can be served straight, chilled, on the rocks, as shots, and mixed into cocktails.
On average, there are 65 calories per 1 ounce of vodka, making it one of the lowest-calorie spirits. Vodka lacks a distinct taste, so brands are more often differentiated based on texture.
The history of vodka
The history of vodka is as rich and intoxicating as the liquor itself. Depending on who you ask about its origins, you may get two totally different answers. Russia and Poland have gone back and forth on the matter for years, with both countries claiming ownership of the liquor.
The first variation of vodka on record dates back to the early 1400s. Because historians didn’t exactly have access to computers back then, this is where things get a bit fuzzy. Both Russia and Poland are recorded to have a history of vodka around the same time, so it’s hard to say who truly created it first.
In Russia, the first vodka ever made was distilled from grapes and considered to be a spirit wine. In 1430, Isodore the Monk created the first known recipe for vodka in Russia and it was referred to by many as “burning wine.”
In Poland, vodka was used in the early 1400s as well, but for medicinal purposes. It wasn’t until years later, in the early 1500s, that Polish writers began to discover vodka had additional benefits, including increased lust and fertility.
As the spirit was slowly consumed on a more regular basis, it eventually became widely accepted as a casual beverage.
How vodka is made
Vodka is a distilled spirit, meaning it’s made through a distillation process. It can be distilled through a variety of food products like corn, rye, wheat, molasses, and potatoes. Once the distillation process is complete, the vodka is then filtered (often three times over) and sometimes flavored.
While most vodka is produced without flavor, the popularity of flavored vodka has grown tremendously in recent years. Early on, vodka was flavored to make it easier to swallow when being consumed for medicinal purposes.
As vodka became more common as a casual drink, adding flavors became more common as well. Many at-home vodka mixtures used infused fruit to add flavor, a practice which still holds strong today. See my Cherry Infused Vodka recipe.
Uses of vodka
We know that in early times vodka was used for medicinal reasons, but how exactly did the liquor serve as medicine? It was often used as an antiseptic, a disinfectant, and a fever reducer. Keep in mind, once upon a time people also thought cigarettes were good for you.
In a bind, plain vodka with a high proof of at least 120 can be used as a disinfectant, but these days we have far better ways of reducing fevers.
Nowadays, vodka is most commonly enjoyed as a drink, but there are actually many other uses you may not be aware of. Some of the unique uses of vodka include:
- Fights against dandruff when mixed into shampoo
- Works as mouthwash when mixed with water
- Makes for a long-lasting ice pack when mixed with water
- Works as a great insect repellent
- Alleviates toothache pain
- Soothes a jellyfish sting
- Kills bad odors in the feet and underarms
- Works well as an after-shave
- Disinfects the hands
- Cleans windows
- Works as a disinfectant for rugs and mattresses
- Neutralizes sneaker odors
- Cleans moldy spots and greasy dishes
Best vodka brands for your home bar
Whether you’re shopping in a budget, mid-level, or premium price range, these are my top choices of vodka in every category.
- Absolut. Produced in Sweden and inspired by an 18th century medicine bottle, Absolut is one of the most popular budget level vodkas. Absolut has a smooth mouthfeel with subtle hints of vanilla and caramel, followed by a fresh and fruity finish. It’s a well-balanced vodka that makes a great liquor for cocktails.
- Ketel One. Made using European wheat and a combination of both traditional and modern distilling techniques, Ketel One is another popular choice for budget vodkas. It features a refreshing nose with hints of citrus and honey, a crisp and silky mouthfeel, and a long yet subtle finish.
This Ruby Red Grapefruit Cosmo is a perfect cocktail for mixing with budget brands.
- Grey Goose. Well-known for its stylish packaging, this French vodka is made using soft winter wheat and Gensac spring water. It features a delicate and floral nose, sweet and rounded mouthfeel, and a bold toffee finish. Its smooth and clean flavor profile makes it one of the vodkas you can enjoy straight or chilled.
- Belvedere. This Polish vodka is made with Polska rye, purified water, and a quadruple distillation process that uses fire to distill it. The nose is soft with notes of vanilla and cream, the mouthfeel is smooth and velvety with vanilla notes, and the finish is soft with notes of almond, cream, and Brazil nuts.
My personal brand favorite is Grey Goose, which I always use in my favorite cocktail, the Dirty Martini.
- Stolichnaya Elit. This 9-time platinum award-winning vodka is made with a single source grain harvest and produced in Latvia. The extensive distillation process produces a clean nose with faint notes of vanilla, charcoal, and black pepper, followed by a clean and velvety mouthfeel, then completed by a subtle finish with notes of charcoal, black pepper, and aniseed. This high-quality liquor makes for a fantastic sipping vodka and also mixes well in any cocktail.
- Crystal Head Vodka.This Canadian vodka is made from locally sourced corn and filtered a total of 7 times, 3 of which are through layers of Herkimer diamonds. The iconic skull-shaped packaging makes for a stylish edition to any home bar, but the vodka itself is supreme. The nose offers neutral grain aromas with notes of citrus, followed by a silky smooth mouthfeel with vanilla notes, then completed with a sweet, creamy finish. If you’re looking for a sipping vodka you can enjoy straight, chilled, or on the rocks, Crystal Head is a great choice.
When you go to the liquor store, see what catches your eye and if you love the brand after trying it, you hit the jackpot. If you don’t love it, there are plenty of other brands to try.
I hope you enjoyed this vodka 101 guide. Check back for future guides to whiskey, tequila, rum, and gin, coming soon. Leave me a comment if you have questions or feedback about this post or to let me know your favorite vodka brand!