Straight Vodka is a pure spirit, distilled from anything containing starch or sugars to produce ethyl alcohol. With few exceptions it will be reduced, filtered and sometimes flavoured.
What is Vodka Made From?
Vodka can be produced from the distillation of grains, potatoes and sometimes fruits or sugar. This was initially determined by what crops were grown in the various producing regions.
Winter Wheat – this is most common in Sweden and some part of Russia and produces delicate vodkas with a aniseed notes that are subtle, layered and have a creamy texture on the palate – see Mamont from Siberia, Beluga or Crystal Head vodka from Newfoundland, Canada.
Rye – common in parts of Russian and Poland but can also be found in the USA. Rye grain gives the vodka a certain pungency and a spicy, peppery finish. They are usually medium bodied with a nutty mid-palate. Try Wyborowa from Poland or Square One from California.
Oats and Barley – a bit more unusual, produces a smooth and nutty spirit such as Vodka 7000 from Utah
Mixed Grain – sometimes producers make vodka from a mix of different grains
Fruit – Vodka can be made from fruit. One notable example is General John Stark from New Hampshire, USA which makes a vodka from apples. Vodka can also be made from grapes i.e distilled from wine and rectified until any grape character disappears.
Molasses – molasses usually obtained from sugar cane or sugar beets can be used to make a fairly neutral, inexpensive vodka. See Mainstay Cane Spirit from South Africa.
How is Vodka Made?
All vodka is produced from a starchy compound which is converted to sugar that can then undergo alcoholic fermentation. Grains are milled and potatoes are shredded which releases the starch that can then be cooked up with hot water which, along with enzymes, breaks it up and converts the starch to sugar. Yeast is then added to the liquid which ferments the sugar to alcohol resulting in a liquid called “wash” which is normally below 10% abv. The wash contains primarily ethyl alcohol but also aldehydes, fusels, esters and acids known as congeners which combine to produce the nose and palate of the vodka. It is this wash that is then distilled.
Distillation and Filtration of Vodka
Most vodka is now distilled in a column still consisting of an analyser and a rectifier. Alcohol and water have different boiling points as do the congeners which is what makes the distillation process effective. The higher the number of rectifications the purer the spirit may be and some vodkas make a point of this. For example Kauffman is distilled five times. Filtration of vodka is normally carried out by passing the vodka through activated charcoal filters (usually made from silver birch or alder which has been steamed or chemically treated). This helps to temper the power of the spirit and makes it more mellow and balanced.
Vodka is also reduced with very pure water (spring, mineral or other) at various stages in the filtration process to bring the alcohol by volume down to around 40%. Many of the traditional vodka producing countries prefer to use very accurate distillation with minimal filtering, which helps to preserve unique flavors and characteristics of the vodka.
Many producers take their pure vodka and flavour it with all sorts of things. This is not a new phenomenon and flavouring was one of the ways that vodka was made more palatable centuries ago. Flavoured vodkas include Lemon, Pepper, Cucumber, Blackcurrant, Vanilla, Green Apple, Watermelon, Bison Grass, Bloody Mary and even Bacon! Chase in Herefordshire make a very nice Rhubarb Vodka and an Orange Marmalade Vodka too.