Stirred But Not Shaken

With a slew of luxury brands flooding the vodka market, there is now a vodka for your every whim or fancy. Irving Oei finds out why ultra-premium vodka is now the hottest selling item on the shelf

‘Shaken, not stirred’ is how James Bond likes it. In Casino Royale, author Ian Fleming illustrates Bond’s choice when he asks for ‘three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka’. Purists argue that martinis are made with either vodka or gin. But in Bond’s case, he’s not drinking a martini; he’s having a vodka martini. 

It seems even the world’s favorite secret agent has discovered vodka’s versatility. His disregard for traditional mixers is deliberate; vodka is both without flavor and odor, which makes it the perfect choice for cocktails. While James Bond was not the first to discover vodka’s uniqueness, many have gone on to create highly illustrious sounding cocktails such as Cavalli Cobra, Bloody Moana or Lime Caiprioska. 

Is this a case of art imitating life? It seems to be. Vodka’s surge in popularity in recent times has seen demand for pre-mixed drinks rise more than ever. Today, vodka is the spirit of choice for social drinkers and aficionados alike. While whiskey, rum, cognac and gin all have their fair share of the distilled spirits industry; it is vodka that remains king of the category.


In 2002, American consumption of distilled spirits totaled 153 million cases. Vodka-infused drinks alone claimed 26.6% of all distilled spirits sold in the United States, making it the most popular liquor sold in the country. Much of this desire for premium alcohol comes from the consumers’ growing thirst for fruit-infused vodkas and other flavored beverages. According to Time magazine, Russia, which has a population of nearly 146 million people, consumes 4 billion liters of vodka a year.

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Clearly vodka has penetrated society as the staple spirit of choice. In essence, vodka is essentially an un-aged neutral spirit purified by distillation from fermented substances such as grains or fruits. It shares the root word for ‘water’ in various Slavic languages, such as voda or woda, and translates literally as ‘dear little water’. Its history remains in question too. The Russians and Poles often debate about their discovery of the spirit. Regardless of who invented vodka, one thing for certain is this - its arrival in Russia in the 14th century heralded vodka’s new beginning.

Filtered And Infused

The production of vodka starts from the distillation process, and most vodka today is made from grains such as wheat, rye or corn. Initially, vodka was the product of a single distillation to a relatively low proof. Manufacturers soon learned, however, the benefits of multiple distillations. Extra distillation steps mean the final spirit has a higher strength and purity. To further improve the latter, the spirit is filtered through charcoal and other media, which reduces vodka to its purest form, which is essentially pure alcohol. For this reason, it is diluted with water before bottling to give it its final alcohol content and flavor, depending on the water’s source.

Since vodka has no color and carries only the clean aroma of pure spirit from the still, some makers add flavors to improve its taste. Common flavorings include vanilla, chocolate and fruits such as pear, raspberry and lychee. These natural flavorings are added in the final distillation to give the spirit its taste that is unique to brands such as Absolut’s Mandarin and 42 Below’s Passionfruit.

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Much of this desire for premium alcohol comes from the consumers’ growing thirst for fruit-infused vodkas and other flavored beverages.

In order to cater to the large market of vodka connoisseurs and aficionados, manufacturers sought creative ways and means to separate their brands from the rest. These include unique distillation processes and ingredients, exceptional bottle design, and premium status. Relative newcomer, 42 Below, uses genetically engineered-free wheat and is distilled four times and put through 35 separate filtering processes. It then distills the vodka three times and ‘washes’ it in spring water to thin it, before distilling it one last time.

Roberto Cavalli Vodka is made using pure water from the peaks of Monte Rose in Italy and filtered through layers of crushed Italian marble. From New Zealand, 26000 Vodka uses pristine paleowater that is said to be 260 centuries old. This ultra-premium vodka is triple distilled with grain and paleowater, which results in crystalline, a form of pure vodka. Diaka Vodka, the priciest in the market, is named after a unique filtration process involving one hundred diamonds of up to one-carat in size. Apparently the patented process took three years of research and development before being approved.

Then there are those that manufacture vodka in small quantities in order to ensure only the highest quality vodka is sold. Chopin and Ketel One, for instance, are produced in small batches to main strict standards. Of course, we must not forget what is regarded as the best of them all, Grey Goose, which declared itself as the ‘world’s best tasting vodka’. It was a bold move on the marketer’s part, but one that eventually paid off. Since its introduction in 1997, Grey Goose has won multiple industry awards and is regarded unanimously by many as the world’s premium vodka.

Straight Up Or Mixed

So how does one best enjoy vodka? It is mostly taken chilled, straight up in small glasses and accompanied by appetizers. However much of it depends on culture. The Russians, for instance, drink vodka ‘a la ruse’, meaning in accordance with Russian traditions. They drink it neat and never mix it with anything, not even with ice. It is simply served cool in special vodka glasses. The latter usually holds up to 70mL, whereas larger glasses are accompanied by ‘zakuski’ (hors d’ oeuvres).

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Purists claim that vodka, not champagne, is the drink of choice as the cool fresh taste of vodka cuts the salt of the caviar and cleanses the palate.

Most people prefer to savor caviar along with vodka. Ideally the caviar should be fresh and chilled and served without condiments. Purists claim that vodka, not champagne, is the drink of choice as the cool fresh taste of vodka cuts the salt of the caviar and cleanses the palate. Smoked fish, salami and cheese are also fine choices to consider when drinking vodka.

Whether you’re a purist who goes for the best, in this case, Grey Goose, or the adventurous connoisseur who appreciates the attitude that is 42 Below, you can’t deny vodka’s influence and significance on the alcohol industry. Vodka is here to stay. And to think it all began as a humble, dear little water.

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