Vodka: Neutral grain and nuance

Story by Meredith S. Jensen • Photos by John Halley

Colorless, odorless, and flavorless, vodka holds a vaulted place in America’s liquor cabinet. From the top shelf to the well, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a bar without this mixology staple, let alone any spirit-loving household.

Known as a “neutral grain spirit,” vodka is a blend of ethanol and water. The standard method for making it is by fermenting and distilling grains like corn, rye and wheat, but other sugar bases include beets, potatoes, and grapes. It’s typically distilled multiple times to achieve a clean, neutral taste.

Vodka has a rich a history in its home of Russia and Eastern Europe that is difficult to distill into a few lines of a magazine, much less its history here in the United States. Despite its ubiquity now, vodka was a foreign oddity up until the mid-20th century. In fact, America’s first domestic vodka distillery—for Smirnoff—opened in 1934 in Connecticut, but went bankrupt four years later.

Then, WWII hit, we found a new ally in Russia, and Americans got to know her beloved liquor. Surprisingly, the Cold War years that followed didn’t temper vodka’s rise to popularity. According to an article from Imbibe Magazine, only 40,000 cases of vodka were sold in the United States in 1950; by 1955, that number was up to 4 million. You can thank the Moscow Mule, the Bloody Mary, and the vodka martini preferred by a certain British super spy shaken, not stirred.

Thanks to its ability to take on the flavor of whatever its mixed with, vodka became a kind of gateway for mixing creative cocktails. By the end of the 1970s, it beat out whiskey and gin to take the top spot as America’s favorite liquor. It’s not just big-named brands that are popular, either. Following in the footsteps of the craft beer movement, small craft distillers are doing their part to keep the nation’s liquor cabinet’s stocked.


Vokda in Appalachia Ohio
Fifth Element Spirits: Shade, Ohio // Vidal grapes, Corn

Through the history of these hills flows streams of white lightning, but moonshine doesn’t have complete control over the clear spirit market in Southern Ohio. Kelly Sauber, co-owner and production manager of Fifth Element Spirits (soon rebranding as Athens West End Ciderworks and Distillery… stay tuned) considers distilling liquor a natural progression in his career as a zymurgist.

Sauber, who also produces for Athens, Ohio’s West End Ciderhouse with managing co-owner Deanna Schwartz, started out as a homebrewer before he began fermenting professionally in 1996. After making beer, meads, and ciders for years, he wanted to take refining alcohol to the next level. In 2011, he founded Fifth Element Distillery (then known as Dancing Tree) with the intent to craft “exceptional local spirits” drawing from regional resources.

“I like to detect character and the source of the fermentables,” Sauber said. “Vodka can be made from any sugar source—grapes, corn, potatoes, wheat, whatever is prevalent in a region. There’s no legal definition for the sugar source. Vodka is a wily beast; it’s a wide open world.”

Fifth Element Spirits features two vodkas using locally sourced ingredients. One is made using Vidal grapes grown by the distillery’s neighbor four miles away, the other using non-GM corn from Cowdery Farm, a fifth-generation farm also in Meigs County. The bases are blended with spring water from the distillery farm. The sugar sources lend certain traits to the vodkas, which Sauber likes.

The difference in many craft-distilled vodkas doesn’t simply end with nuances in flavor, added Sauber. It’s a matter of doing business neighbors, friends, and fellow members of the community. Working locally helps a region thrive.

“We support local farmers,” he said. “It’s a socioeconomic force. You’re supporting someone. Is it worth the extra five to 10 bucks a bottle? I think so.”

Fifth Element Vodka Recipes

Courtsey of the West End Ciderhouse, Athens

Westside Lemon Drop

Add to a shaker with ice:
3/4 oz. simple syrup
3/4 oz. fresh lemon juice
1/2 oz. Tessora Limoncello
2 oz. Fifth Element Vodka

Shake, strain into cocktail glass and garnish with a twist of lemon

Two Step

Muddle 3 raspberries with 3 drops Angostura bitters in a cocktail shaker.


1 oz. simple syrup
3/4 oz. fresh lemon juice
2 oz. Fifth Element vodka

Shake, double strain into a cocktail glass using a mesh sieve.


Pour over ice in mixing glass:

1 oz. white vermouth (we use Cocchi Americano)
1 oz. Fifth Element Vodka
1 oz. Watershed Four Peel Gin

Stir about 30 seconds until alcohol is no longer “hot.” Strain into cocktail glass and garnish with a twist of lemon.

Other Popular Ohio Vodkas

OYO Vodka, Middle West Spirits   Columbus • Soft red winter wheat

Buckeye Vodka  Columbus • Corn

Watershed Distillery   Dayton • Corn, Apple

Seven Brothers  Cleveland • Soft red winter wheat