Why is this so? Vodka mixes well with juices, sodas, and other mixers without contributing unwanted flavors, yet adding the intoxication factor. It is now one of the world's most popular liquors because of this.
Vodka is used in almost every shot imaginable and it is rapidly replacing gin as the choice liquor for martinis. This is due in part to the influence of James Bond on popular culture and in part because most people think gin tastes like last year's Christmas tree.
Vodka is made from grain, potatoes, sugar beet molasses, or any starch/sugar-rich material from plants. Sometimes, vodka can even be made from the by-products of oil refining or wood pulp processing. Generally, a smooth vodka has been filtered several times to remove impurities. This process also minimizes the after-effects of intoxication, aka the dreaded hangover. Although that doesn't mean that the room won't spin when you lie down after a night of heavy drinking.
If I may, I'd like to briefly discuss well, call, and top shelf vodkas. Well vodkas are very inexpensive and great for making cocktails containing a lot of components, or mixers. With drinks like screwdrivers, you truly are not going to notice the difference between Kamchatka and Grey Goose vodka. When people order Grey Goose, they believe that the drink will taste better because the vodka is of a higher-quality and is more expensive, but I contend that the difference in a drink with many mixers is moot.
Call brands are a good choice for 2 oz. cocktails on the rocks, such as vodka gimlets, vodka tonic, or vodka and cranberry. In these drinks, the subtle quality differences of the vodka would be much more noticeable. In some bars, Stolichnaya, Skyy, and Finlandia are each considered to be a high call brand or low top shelf. Because of this, it is always a good idea to ask the bartender what call brands are offered, as they can differ between establishments.
In a vodka martini, comprised mostly of 2-3 oz. of alcohol, a difference in quality would be very discernible--hence, a higher quality of vodka is recommended for the drink. For martinis, find a smooth vodka or one with a flavor you enjoy, as it will be the primary taste of the cocktail (particulary if it's an extra-dry martini--i.e. no vermouth). But, ask a bartender for his/her recommendation for any drink, and (s)he will more than likely suggest a top shelf brand, for the same reason a car salesperson would recommend a more expensive car: profit.
Common vodka brands:
- Well: Gilbey's, Kamchatka, McCormick
- Call: Smirnoff red or silver, Absolut black or red
- Top shelf: Grey Goose, Belvedere, Ketel One
In case you wake up on Jeopardy: The world's proof standards were actually adopted from Russian vodka quality standards.
Some information for this article has been assimilated from the Wikipedia page on vodka.