In the world of vodka marketing much is made of the multiple times it may be distilled and filtered, but that downplays the core factor that gives the spirit its character: the fermented plants that start the process. They deserve a closer look.
Vodka can be made from any vegetation that can be fermented—and yes, there is a hemp vodka. But most premium vodkas stick to grains and potatoes, with grapes gathering a following of late.
There's little need to dispel the old notion that all vodka is strictly made from potatoes (that type is actually in the minority). But spuds yield a distinct taste and have a long tradition—especially in Poland, where Chopin ($30) is made. But they are by no means limited geographically. (Woody Creek, $37, is made in Colorado and Karlsson's Gold, $35, comes from Sweden.) Chopin is so convinced of the importance of source material that it also makes rye and wheat vodkas as counterpoint. Potato, with its earthy, oily notes, is probably the type that James Bond had in mind to contrast the gin in his Vesper cocktail creation.
Rye is a grain that yields a characteristic spiciness. It informs such formidable vodkas as Belvedere ($35) and Effen ($30), and is partnered with wheat in Stolichnaya Elit ($69). Its subtle bite is the element that makes it right for standing up to the righteous flavors in a Bloody Mary.
Such characteristically smooth vodkas as Grey Goose ($30), Ketel One ($26) and Hammer + Sickle ($20) feature wheat. They make good backdrops when the point is to feature a secondary ingredient like the vermouth in a Martini made with vodka in place of gin. Sensitivity to gluten has popularized corn in a similar capacity. Tito's ($19) from Texas and the Canadian Crystal Head ($50), with the skull-shaped bottle, are examples. Stoli recently announced that it would market a corn and buckwheat vodka of its own. Reyka ($30) mixes wheat and barley.
Leaving the grain arena all together are eau-de-vie vodkas based on grapes, such as Cîroc (with Sean Combs as a partner, see June's Cigar Aficionado, $30). Grapes are also a component in California's Hangar 1 ($35). Consider their floral/fruity character when making Champagne cocktails.
If you remain unswerved about the importance of grain in a vodka's taste, consider that one scientist avoided taste altogether, inventing a powdered vodka for use in pills. Doesn't sound like much fun.