The differences in vodkas are very subtle, according to Tony Abou-Ganim, a.k.a. the Modern Mixologist. During a vodka session and tasting at the 2013 Cheers Beverage Conference in Dallas on Feb. 12, Abou-Ganim told attendees that “vodka is out there naked—it doesn’t hide behind botanicals or barrel aging” the way some other spirits do. And once you master tasting vodka, “everything else is easier” in terms of identifying the nuances in different spirits, he said.
Vodka might be classified by the U.S. Government as a tasteless, odorless and colorless alcoholic beverage, but you’d never know it by some of the descriptors Abou-Ganim offered up during the tasting. Prairie Organic American vodka, he said, brought to mind “corn mash” and “powdered sugar,” while grape-based French vodka Ciroc had a “very citrusy” and “floral” nose, specifically lilac blossoms. Reyka, an Icelandic wheat vodka brand, was described as “stoney” with strong notes of pepper, and Swedish potato vodka Karlsson’s Gold had a palate of “dark chocolate and hazelnut.”
Abou-Ganim, a Cheers contributor and author of the just-published Vodka Distilled, noted that vodka was a tough sell in the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century. But there was one cocktail—the Moscow Mule—that “really elevated vodka’s status,” Abou-Ganim said. The drink, made with vodka, ginger beer and fresh lime juice and served in a copper mug, was developed in Hollywood by the owner of the Cock & Bell restaurant, he said. The Moscow Mule put vodka on the U.S. map, and helped sales of the spirit surge during the 1950s.
Other key vodka cocktails Abou-Ganim walked the audience through included the Vesper (“a great segway drink,” he said, since it includes gin and vodka, along with Lillet Blanc); the Cosmopolitan (which when made properly “should always be pink—not red,” thanks to the use of Cointreau); the Wizard (vodka, Cinzano Bianco, yellow chartreuse); and The Flame of Love (vodka, sherry, flamed orange peels).
And when making cocktails, Abou-Ganim said, “never underestimate the importance of the garnish,” particularly a beautifully spiraled citrus peel.