Got vodka?

If that catchphrase sounds more appealing than the one from the folks at the dairy industry, then, clearly, you’re someone who appreciates the flavor, aroma, and soft mouth feel of a good vodka.

Sure it makes for a mean martini, and easily blends with virtually anything found behind the bar, but how much do you really know about America's top-selling spirit that skyrocketed to stardom back in the ‘80s?

To get a better understanding of what to look for when choosing a quality vodka, and how to best enjoy its unique flavor, we turned to the industry experts at Absolut Elyx.

1. The main ingredient

“The only two things that are going to determine your vodka experience are the wheat and the water,” says Jonas Tahlin, CEO of the Swedish luxury vodka company, Absolut Elyx. Sounds pretty basic; however, not all wheat is created equal (we’ll dive into that water shortly).

Yes, potatoes are still used to make vodka, but the ideal way to make a crisp and clean vodka that requires less distilling is to go with wheat. And not just any wheat will do. The better quality the wheat, the better quality the vodka.

But what makes for a quality wheat? No we’re not talking the same kind of whole grain wheat that makes for a healthy loaf of bread. For vodka, a much different kind of wheat is sought. "Ultimately, you want the perfect balance of starch and protein," says Tahlin. The winter wheat variety proves ideal as it also allows the grower to minimize the use of pesticides and the overall harsh methods of agriculture.

Distillers will either purchase their wheat from suppliers or grow it in company-owned fields. The latter serves as a huge advantage since it gives the distiller complete control over the development of the wheat being used.

For example, the single estate in Ahus, Sweden used by Absolut Elyx has the best terroir [soil and weather conditions] for making winter wheat, which is why the company has been producing it there since the 1400s. According to Absolut Elyx, that single estate has consistently yielded the best wheat with the perfect water/starch balance for making vodka.

2. The other main ingredient

Water plays an important role in many stages of production, from irrigating the crops to mashing. But its most significant role comes into play during dilution, a later step in production when demineralized water is added to the pure spirit to bring the ABV of the vodka to a bottling strength.

There are many ways to purify water for vodka production, from charcoal, to reverse osmosis, and filtration. But for Absolut Elyx, using a pure-water source has never been an issue, explains Absolut’s master distiller, Krister Asplund: "We're lucky because we're sitting on top of an underground lake, and the water quality is extremely good." The water used to make Absolut Elyx hasn't been in contact with the modern world for thousands of years, meaning there is no modern pollution whatsoever in that water.

"We treat our water as little as possible. We bring it from the underground well [140-150 meters down]. First, we take away some of the hardness from the water, and then we put it through reverse osmosis. We handle the water as gently as possibly before it goes into production, says Asplund. Absolut Elyx has often been described as having the quality of "liquid silk" due in large part to the fantastic mouthfeel created by the high-quality water sourced beneath the Råbelöf estate.

3. The purification process

Copper has played an integral role in modern construction and electricity, and countless other practical applications since 8000 B.C. But did you know that the reddish-orange element is now being used to purify vodka?

After the fermentation and distillation stages are complete and the vodka begins to take on a defining taste and feel, the spirit is then refined or rectified. The care and consideration given to each step of the distillation and rectification process determines the quality and character of the spirit. Surprisingly, a significant number of brands don’t control the various elements of the production process, and will simply buy raw spirit in bulk to rectify themselves, and some will even buy already rectified spirit on the open market, bypassing production completely.

But not Absolut Elyx. The luxury brand takes a hands-on approach to crafting the smoothest, purest, and "creamiest" vodka possible by further distilling the spirit with copper. Elyx adds thousands of copper packets to the mix to remove unwanted sulphur compounds from the spirit in a process called "copper catalyzation". The raw spirit will only make contact with these sacrificial copper packets once before entering the second stage of distillation during which the spirit is rectified further by passing through vintage copper stills, which Asplund and his team adjust by hand. For Elyx, using techniques passed down through generations is of the highest importance to create a silky smooth vodka with personality, character, and a superbly creamy finish.

James Bond Drinking Martini

4. The Martini misconception

When it comes to style and sophistication, few guys pull it off better than James Bond. From his cars to his women, 007 always seems to get it right…well almost always.

It seems the British spy’s signature drink—the martini, shaken, not stirred—is one of the few instances where the secret agent misfires.

It’s not the type of drink he orders, but rather the way it's prepared.

“Most bartenders would agree that the stirred martini typically creates a better result than the shaken martini,” says Tahlin. “While it’s faster and more convenient for the bartender to make it shaken, it’s very difficult to control the amount of dilution due to the breaking of the ice. So, if you want to have something that’s really smooth where the dilution and temperature are perfect, there’s really no other way to do it well other than to stir it properly, rather than breaking everything up in a shaker.”

Along with the preparation style, ordering the perfect Martini requires skill and a basic knowledge of the various garnishes and vermouths that distinguish one cocktail from another. Do it right and you'll win points for class and sophistication every time. Here's everything you need to know:

Vermouth: Vermouth is an aromatized, fortified wine originally made in Turin, Italy, that is flavored with botanicals [roots, barks, flowers, seeds, herbs, and spices] added to vodka or gin to make a martini. There are many types of vermouth that add flavor, character, and personality to a cocktail. A dry martini will have less vermouth [or none at all], and a wet martini will have a heavier dose of vermouth.

Garnishing: A garnish serves two purposes: visual appeal and flavor/aroma. Garnishes include olives [green and black], tiny cocktail onions, pickles and pickled brine [the salty, vinegary solution], jalapeños, and caper berries. Garnishes should always be fresh for the best quality cocktail.

Zesting: This is another method used to add flavor and taste to a martini, also known as "a twist". Your bartender will cut the peel of an orange, lemon, or even grapefruit depending on your drink, and will twist the sliver to extract the natural oils in the skin. The peel is often then rubbed on the rim of the glass and dropped into the martini as a garnish, nuancing the personality of the cocktail. A zest can only be used once and should always be cut fresh in the moment.

5. The gluten myth

In the U.S., vodka is by definition a clear, tasteless, odorless spirit, but we know now that vodka can in fact be nuanced in its taste and texture depending on its terroir.

However, the biggest misconception about the spirit still remains—is it gluten-free? Some U.S. brands use the gluten-free label to market their vodka as a “healthier” version of the spirit (if there is such a thing as healthy alcohol), but does this mean other brands are leaving gluten in their vodka and not telling us about it?

“Gluten-free vodka is silly. You can’t claim the obvious,” says Asplund. “The major protein in wheat is gluten. Gluten is a rather complex protein, and when you distill it it’s absolutely impossible to get the protein through the stills.” He says that in Sweden and in Europe it would be illegal to label vodka as gluten-free, just like it would be incorrect to label water from the source as sugar-free. “In vodka, if you don’t add gluten afterwards, there is never gluten in it.”

Harvesting also determines the amount of protein vs. starch present in the wheat long before milling, mashing, fermentation, and distillation begin. “It’s really important to pick the right date to harvest because then you maximize the protein and the starch. We’re more interested in maximizing the starch,” says Absolut's master distiller.

For wheat-based vodkas like Absolut Elyx, harvesting a starch-rich crop is preferred over a protein-rich crop. So if protein is minimal at harvest and then removed during distillation, then there is no way gluten plays a significant role, if any, in the end result of vodka. In essence, all vodka is gluten-free.

6. The "luxury" label

If you appreciate a high-quality vodka, chances are you go with a premium selection to satisfy your discriminating palate. For you, the few extra dollars are worth the flavor and feel you expect from the first taste. But is there a class that’s considered a notch above premium?

The answer is yes, and the word is “luxury”. It’s a label worthy of only the most superior spirit offerings such as Absolut Elyx. But what makes the brand worthy of the elite status of a luxury vodka?

“The luxury piece comes from two areas. The first is the ingredients you use, and the second is what you do with those ingredients, says Tahlin. “When you know the exact ingredients you’re working with to create your own raw spirit, you’re controlling your entire production from A to Z, which gives you a tremendous edge over those who buy their raw sprit on the market.” Tahlin equates it to baking a cake using all your own fresh ingredients as opposed to buying a mix and hoping those ingredients supplied are up to par. But if you’re really obsessed with quality and detail you’d want to know where all the ingredients came from and control the process from start to finish.

Absolut Elyx estate in Sweden

7. The environmental effects

Producing and distributing vodka worldwide is bound to leave a footprint in the environment, which is why more companies are adopting strategies to minimize pollution and waste during every stage of production.

Absolut Elyx is one such company leading the way with its approach to the pursuit of sustainability. "We care a lot about how we do our farming to have a minimum impact on the environment," says Asplund. Absolut's focus over generations of wheat farming is on the proper use of pesticides and fertilizer. "The biggest problem we have from farming everywhere in the world is that the fertilizers leak out and pollute our water. We only accept pesticides that are naturally broken down in nature, and we optimize the use of our fertilizer."

One of the biggest biproducts created from vodka production is called "stillage," which is what remains from mashing and fermenting the wheat. Rather than discarding it, Elyx uses the stillage as feed for local cows and pigs. While it's common for distilleries to sell stillage to local farmers, Elyx sells the stillage wet rather than waste energy to dry it. The second major biproduct is carbon dioxide. Absolut supplies around 40% of the CO2 released during fermentation to soft drink companies for use in their products. "We always try to do the right thing, even when nobody is watching," says Asplund.

Martini Glass with Olive Garnish

8. Taste expectations

For some reason, many Americans believe that good vodka should be tasteless, odorless, and colorless. "Good vodka should have some kind of interesting and pleasurable flavor," says Tahlin. "It should not be water with a hint of alcohol. It should really have a nice flavor to it. It’s easy to create a vodka that doesn’t taste like anything. Triple distilled or five times filtered. That is such BS. If you must do that, you probably had a really terrible vodka to start with."

People should enjoy their vodka and appreciate it for being more than something that just puts an alcohol kick into a cocktail. "You don’t want to distill something to the point that it no longer has any body or flavor," says Tahlin. Vodka is a spirit, which is very difficult to make. Great vodka has a pleasurable flavor, and consumers should spend more time picking out something they really enjoy, and not just pick something in the bar that they think they're supposed to drink." Tahlin encourages those looking for an optimal taste experience to try a blind taste test with various brands to experience the vast difference in flavors. Give it a try, and see for yourself how the top brands compare. It's an Absolut must for any vodka enthusiast.