The establishment where I work has over 600 different bottles of spirits and liqueurs on our back bar. Keeping up with that kind of inventory and making sure we have backups of any bottles that are getting low is a weekly task. Those backup bottles are stored in our liquor room on a series of deep shelves, organized by spirit family. Bourbons are on the bourbon shelf, gins on the gin shelf, etc. They're all labeled pretty conventionally, with the exception of the vodka shelf, that shelf is labeled "boring".
In craft settings, we generally like the flavor of the spirit to influence the overall flavor of any drinks we're using it in, so, for a while, it was considered en vogue within the industry to have a general disdain for vodka (this trend is beginning to reverse). But there is no questioning vodka's supremacy in terms of sales. It is, by far, the most popular liquor in the world. In the US, vodka outsells gin, rum, tequila, scotch, and Irish whiskey, combined.
So why does such a popular spirt get such a bad rap from booze snobs the world over? And how is vodka different from other grain-based, high-ABV beverages like moonshine? And what's the deal with all these crazy flavored vodkas, like those made by Pinnacle? Everything you ever wanted to know about vodka, and some stuff maybe you didn't, below.
A Definition, of Sorts
Vodka is an unaged, distilled spirit comprised primarily of ethanol and water. In most countries, including the US, vodka is defined as having a "neutral" quality arising either from precise distillation or post distillation filtration resulting in a beverage without "distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color." Of course, if you have ever tasted several vodkas together, you know that "neutral" is pretty loosely defined. Nearly all vodkas exhibit a subtle yet distinct flavor profile.
This is where vodka differs from other high proof grain-based liquors. Moonshine, for instance, distilled from corn (like most vodka in the US) to around 190 proof, differs from it's Slavic cousin in that the goal of the distillation isn't to create a neutral spirit, but to retain the flavor of the grain and the terroir. Moonshine isn't filtered, like vodka, or aged in oak, like other whiskeys, for the same reasons.
Vodka is traditionally made from grain or potatoes but it can be made from literally any fermentable sugar, and many vodkas in production today use fruits, beets, sugarcane, or even wood pulp as a base. The US and many other countries set a minimum threshold of 80 proof for any vodkas sold in bottles (in the EU, it must be bottled at a minimum of 75 proof). Unlike scotch or pisco, vodka can be distilled anywhere in the world. As long as it meets the legal requirements for a given country, it can be sold there as vodka regardless of where it originated.
That said, some European countries, specifically those in the vodka belt, are lobbying the EU to define vodka as a distilled alcoholic beverage made only from a base of fermented potatoes, grain, or beets. Although those lobbying efforts haven't yet resulted in any statutory changes, if they eventually succeed, vodka distilled from sugarcane or fruit could not be sold legally in the EU under the name "vodka".
The word vodka like so many other spirits (including whiskey, aquavit, eau de vie, etc.) is a derivation of the word water. In this case, it's etymological roots trace back to a diminutive form of the Slavic word for water, voda. So, vodka, translated, means little water.
Some History (Mythology)
Although there is very little in the way of a written historical record, vodka production started in the part of the world now known as the vodka belt (Northern, Central, and Eastern Europe and Russia) in what is now Poland during the early middle ages. It was originally distilled as medicine, and it's antiseptic properties are well known.
Early distillations were much cruder and lower proof than the refined spirit we drink today. With primitive still technology, three successive distillations were normally required to bring the spirit to only 80 proof, and then it was usually diluted down to around 30 proof for drinking. These distillations were not nearly as precise as those obtainable today, so the neutral quality of vodka we've come to expect wasn't there. Instead, like moonshine, those first vodkas were maltier and sweeter than today's versions.
Production, the Good
Modern vodka production couldn't be more different. For those producers who actually distill their own product (increasingly rare) the process usually takes place in a column still. Some column stills have enough chambers to bring the spirit to final proof in a single distillation but often several successive distillations are still used.
Vodka is usually distilled to around 190 proof (95% ABV). By the time the ethanol content gets that high, nearly all the congeners and flavoring compounds are gone from the spirit, but most producers in the US still filter their distillate through a variety of substances to make the final product even more neutral. Cotten, activated charcoal, paper, even diamond dust, are commonly used filtering mediums for vodka. Many traditional producers, especially those in the vodka belt nations, choose not to filter the end product, relying on multiple distillations and the skill of the distiller cutting out the heads and tails to make the spirit as neutral as possible.
Although filtration does strip out flavoring compounds, the choice of filtering agent will often impart a specific texture to the vodka. You may not notice it unless you drink it neat, but vodkas can have textures ranging from thin and crisp to oily to thick and almost creamy. This is often a product of the water chosen to bring the vodka down to final dilution as well. Even the hoses and pumps used to circulate the vodka around the distillery contribute to the texture in subtle ways. For imbibers drinking their vodka neat, the texture, or mouthfeel, is an important aspect of the taste.
Production, the Bad
For some principled producers, the description I gave above is still how it's done. But for most vodka made in the US today, and increasingly for vodkas produced in Europe as well, "distilleries" are buying bulk 190-proof ethanol from giant agribusinesses like Archer Daniels Midland. These huge conglomerates produce ethanol, usually distilled from corn, in massive quantities. All your local "craft distiller" is doing, in many cases, is diluting the ethanol down to final proof and bottling it. For this reason, I recommend that you never pay extra for a "premium" vodka if you are going to be using it in a mixed drink.
In addition, that "citrus" vodka you bought to make the best Cosmopolitan ever is likely not flavored with natural citrus but instead with chemical compounds produced in labs. You might have suspected this when you saw that perfectly clear bottle of cinnamon roll-flavored vodka on the shelf at the campus liquor store, but it's true for nearly all flavored vodkas.
Some producers are legitimately using natural ingredients to impart flavor, and if flavored vodkas are your thing, the true examples of the form are worth checking out. Hanger 1 out of California makes an amazing mandarin orange blossom vodka that is a lot of fun to play with and Żubrówka, one of the oldest distilleries in the world, makes an incredible bison grass flavored vodka. Or, if you're truly ready to branch out, you could always opt for the original flavored vodka—gin.
How to Drink Vodka
First off, other than excessively, there's no wrong way to drink vodka. It's neutral nature lends itself well for use in cocktails where you want the other flavors to dominate. And for all the flack I gave to artificially flavored vodkas above, if you're the type of person who doesn't mind putting lab chemicals into your body, there are lots of fun ways to use some of the more exotic flavored vodkas on the market.
But for me, my favorite way to drink high-quality vodkas is neat, well chilled, and undiluted. Sticking a bottle in the freezer for a few hours does a great job of bringing the spirit down to perfect sipping temperature. Drinking it in this manner allows you to savor the nuances in flavor and texture of this supposedly flavorless spirit. Try several great vodkas side by side and you'll be blown away by the liveliness and complexity of this "boring" drink.
The US definition of vodka and other spirits can be found in the Code of Federal Regulations or CFR. Specifically, Title 27, Chapter 1, Subchapter A, Part 5, Subpart C, Section 5.22. You can go here for the actual legal info.