Let's be honest, most of us buy the bottom-shelf vodka either because we're broke or because we're going to disguise the gag-inducing taste of it with juice or something fizzy. If you're cooking or baking with vodka (ice-cold vodka works wonders in pie crust), what's the point of buying Belvedere?
Yet even when disguised by other tastes or evaporated over flame, something of the vodka's essence, minimal though it may be, comes through. That's why it's nice to use a quality spirit if you can get it. If you can't, there are some good tricks to make your bottom-shelf hooch taste more like something you'd choose to imbibe and less like rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer.
This classic Russian spirit is usually made from a grain, like barley, corn, wheat, sorghum, or rye. It can also be made from potatoes, grapes, and beets. Vodka has been the top-selling spirit in America since 1976, partly because it's flavorless, colorless, and odorless, which makes it a popular base for mixed drinks (and for getting tipsy in public). In 2012, it accounted for 34 percent of hard liquor consumption in the U.S.
Most vodkas are about 80 proof, or 40% alcohol. It's known as a rectified spirit, which means that it is highly concentrated and has been passed through a still (distilled) several times. It's then usually sent through a charcoal filter, which helps to get rid of any carbon-based impurities that could make the vodka taste bad. Some very high-end brands advertise that they filter through charcoal and then through precious metals like silver, gold, and platinum for extra effect.
While vodka may not have its own taste per se, you can tell good or great vodka by how cleanly it goes down. Bad vodka will feel painful in your mouth and throat, while the good stuff takes a decidedly smoother journey into your stomach. Quality ingredients, including the type of grain and water source the vodka was made with, have a huge effect on the end product.
The same way big-time vodka makers do—send it through a charcoal filter. Charcoal, with its miniscule porous openings, is a whiz at filtering out microscopic impurities that affect taste and purity.
Now, keep in mind that this is not going to make your bottle of Popov suddenly taste like a Russian oligarch's private stash that he sips while dining on caviar. Your homemade filters can improve the taste quite a bit, but they can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
Yes, it's true, pouring vodka several times through an ordinary water filter like a Brita or Pur can really improve the taste of vodka. A test by America's Test Kitchen showed a marked improvement in flavor, especially when the vodka was used in cocktails or cooking. You have to run it through the filter four or five times to get a noticeable difference in taste.
But beware: you cannot reuse the filter for water after it's been vodka-ized. Any water that runs through the filter will come out with a distinct alcohol taste and flavor. Our recommendation is to wait until your water filter is almost at the end of its game—say a week or so to go before it expires. You can use it to filter a batch or two of vodka before that filter goes in the trash.
If you're feeling handy and thrifty, you can also refill your Brita filters with new charcoal and use those to filter your vodka.
Okay, say you don't own a water filter because you know of other ways to purify water. You can still improve your cheap-ass vodka simply by adding some food-grade activated charcoal tablets directly to the bottle and shaking it for a few minutes every day for one whole week.
Use about two tablespoon's worth per one average 500 mL bottle. Be sure to rinse off the charcoal tablets before you add it to the vodka to remove any silt or residue. Then strain the vodka to remove the charcoal and voila! You're ready to drink.
Don't have time to wait weeks for some good filtered vodka? Never fear, my boozehound friends—all you need is some of those activated charcoal tablets from the last method, coffee filters, plastic funnels or cups with holes cut in the bottom, and a bottle of not-great vodka.
Place a filter paper into a funnel, add charcoal, then place the apparatus over a container. Put the vodka in so it can filter through the charcoal. Repeat several times until vodka reaches the desired level of smoothness (experts say the vodka should have at least five minutes of contact with the charcoal for maximum effectiveness).
You can get the full guide over at Gizmodo.
If you're looking to save some money, but really don't want to mess around with refiltering cheap vodka, you're in luck. In a famous blind taste test, fancy-pants cocktail and spirits experts picked mid-priced Smirnoff as being the best-tasting vodka on the market, which means it beat out several high-end and much more expensive brands.
Turns out that others agree. So, if you're looking for a good bottle of Belvedere at a fraction of the cost, just hit up the 'noff.
If you're more into wine than hardcore liquor, you can make it taste better too, but not with Brita filters or activated charcoal. Check out my previous guide on how to make crappy wine taste good to see how it's done.