Consider a drink that is odorless, colorless, and tasteless, and water immediately comes to mind. But these characteristics are the legal restrictions put on vodka that is produced in the United States. Vodka, translated from Russian as “little water,” produces massive profits for distilleries around the world. The Poles and the Russians both claim its birthright, and while its history there is legendary, its presence outside Eastern Europe was scarce up to the twentieth century.

Rudolf Kunett (originally “Kunnetchansky”) ws a Russian émigré who bought the rights to produce Smirnoff vodka in the United States. Dismayed by poor sales, he sold the Smirnoff rights to Heublein president John Martin for $14,000 in 1939. The sale initially became known as Martin’s Folly because of consumers’ relative indifference to the product. Almost single-handedly, however, the astute executive reversed vodka’s fortune—and his own—by tenaciously promoting it through such cocktails as the Bloody Mary, the Moscow Mule, the Screwdriver, and the Vodkatini (see ‘Vodka Martini’). The crisp, clean spirit was touted as a universal mixer that would also not leave a scent on your breath; even more of a selling point was that it would not result in the typical hangover the next day. Helped along by Ian Fleming’s James Bond, Martin’s vodka would become the most popular spirit in the United States and the second in the world, after rum, by the end of the twentieth century.

The simple reason for vodka’s success is its amiability and chameleon-like nature —it blends with practically anything. Originally made from potatoes, vodka is distilled from fermented wheat, corn, or rye and is filtered through charcoal to remove any perceptible flavor. That said, the Russians, and subsequently nearly everyone else, have been adding flavors to vodka. Pepper, lemon, and various grasses have been added for centuries and have been joined today by every manner of berry and even vanilla. The potato is back, too, as evidenced by the Idaho Vodka Distillery.

from Quirk Books: