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.
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.
The primary flavor, however, is ethanol, which has a taste that evokes the smell of rubbing alcohol. Many would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between different brands of vodka in a blindfold test.
There are two real reasons that some vodkas cost so much more than others. First, some brands spend a small fortune on marketing and celebrity endorsements—think Ciroc and its $100 million endorsement deal with Sean "Diddy" Combs.
Other brands, like Grey Goose or Hangar One, simply sell their vodka at a high price point to make their brand seem luxurious and exclusive.
Is there really vodka in that dish of pasta?
Most American Italian restaurants feature "penne alla vodka" on the menu. There is, in fact, actual vodka in the sauce. Many recipes use around a quarter of a cup, though Food Network star Ree Drummond uses a whole cup in her version.
While vodka was probably first added to a creamy pasta sauce for promotional or novelty purposes, some cooks claim that the vodka helps stabilize the cream and tomato mixture and that the alcohol helps extract flavors from the tomatoes and herbs.
Vodka can be used in other courses as well. A vodka-watermelon sorbet is an excellent intermezzo, or palate cleanser, while the authoritative *Cook's Illustrated *recommends using some vodka when making pie crust, as it adds moisture without activating as much gluten, keeping the pie crust tender and flaky.
Whatever the logic, a dish with a dash of vodka—accompanied by a vodka dry martini, of course—might be the best way to celebrate National Vodka Day.
As they say in Russia when toasting with vodka, "vashe zdorovie". Translation: "to your health!"
Jeffrey Miller is an associate professor in Hospitality Management at Colorado State University.