Making Vodka – How Vodka is Made
Purity versus Flavour
The art of making spirits always involves a compromise between optimal purity and the maintenance or enhancement of specific flavours provided by the raw materials. Not only does vodka not escape this problem, but it is also the alcohol that best illustrates it, since the term “vodka” covers a variety of different products, ranging from pure and practically tasteless alcohols to others with strong flavours. There are also vodkas that have multiple flavours.
For historical reasons, (explained in History of Vodka and History of Vodka and the Russian Revolution), vodka was never the subject of precise classification, unlike most other spirits, whether in terms of raw materials, distillation techniques, or types of added flavours. With vodka, anything is possible.
Choosing the Raw Materials
Grains, especially rye, are the most common raw material for traditional vodka. These grasses are highly resistant to cold and can grow in poor soil, and are thus especially well-adapted to the rough weather conditions of Northern European countries. Used for the making of bread, grains also supply the base for kvas, the light beer whose mash is used to make the highest quality Russian vodkas.
But almost any other grain can also be used in the manufacture of vodka, including wheat, barley, millet, and corn. Other plants containing the required amounts of sugar (or fermentable starches) that are transformable into alcohol — such as potatoes, beets, apples, onions, carrots, and pumpkins — can also provide a base for vodka, as can molasses, a by product of the crystallization of refined sugar. Most of these ingredients, however, are rarely used; today, most vodka is made of grains, potatoes, or molasses.
The potato is often looked down upon, a vestige of the days when it was cheap and often used to make clandestine vodka. This is no longer true, even though the yields from grains are two or three times higher than from potatoes: one hundred kilograms of potatoes makes slightly less than ten litres of alcohol, while the same weight in grains makes up to thirty litres. The potato is nonetheless an excellent base for vodka. In Poland, regular selection has led to the cultivation of special varieties of potatoes that make vodkas with fine aromas. Their starch content, which is transformed into sugar by fermentation, is up to twice that of varieties used for human or animal consumption.
These raw materials are often combined, depending mostly on price fluctuations.
Vodka is rarely made from just one ingredient, and if it is, it is usually rye, or at least exclusively grains.
The other essential ingredient is water. It is not surprising that vodkas from the Moscow region have long had a reputation for quality, since its water is especially soft, with little sediment and few mineral salts. It gives the vodkas made there greater finesse. Today, we know how to soften water, but, depending on the location, the procedure is more or less costly, and many producers do not take the trouble to make sure the water they use is of high enough quality.
Water is used in two main stages of vodka making. It is first mixed with raw materials in the form of flour or pulp to create the mash, the holy mixture that will then follow the path of distillation. It is also used in large quantities in the final stage to lower the degree of alcohol in the spirits coming out of the still.
The role played by water in the final characteristics of the vodka is illustrated by the production of the Polmos group, the largest manufacturer in Poland. While the same recipe is used to make the group’s leading vodkas, specialists can detect differences depending on which of the company’s twenty-five distilleries they were made in.
The Importance of Distillation
The mash obtained from different raw materials (grains or other plants) must first In addition, some cereal varieties, such as hard wheat, contain too much gluten and not enough starch. If they are used in the making of the mash, the unusable gluten must be removed during distillation.
The search for maximum purity, which avoids all noxious effects, led distillers to make vodkas that were increasingly neutral, especially after the development of the continuous still in the second half of the nineteenth century. It sometimes happens today that vodkas are made containing less than thirty milligrams of aromatic materials per litre, compared with more than two thousand milligrams per litre in other spirits like cognac. The Swedish vodka Absolut, which boasts that it is the purest possible, nevertheless contains a small amount of less-distilled alcohol that gives it a hint of flavour.
Such vodkas are distilled several times — two or three times for most, but some distillers go even further. One American vodka supposedly undergoes six successive distillations.
On the other side of the fence are the smaller distillers who continue to use pot stills (the type used in Charente) to obtain more flavourful vodkas that carry an aromatic reminder of their raw materials.
While the term vodka encompasses spirits that vary greatly, they do have one point in common that has nothing to do with flavour and which distinguishes them from other spirits made from grains or tubers. British gin, German schnapps, and Scandinavian aquavit are made from neutral alcohol, which is then flavoured with spices or plants and distilled once more.
This is never done with vodka. When there is flavouring, it is always added after the final distillation and concerns only a simple maceration of the aromatic substances in the spirits. The difference may seem small, but it does play a role in better preserving the taste of the raw materials used.
Filtration and Aging
To eliminate unpleasant tastes, vodka distillers can use filtration techniques. In the past, they used such materials as vegetable fibers, sand, or felt, but better results were obtained when the Russians had the idea of using charcoal, which is much more absorbent than most other materials. Smirnov vodka built its reputation on the success of its charcoal filtering in the nineteenth century.
The oldest method used to eliminate unpleasant flavours from vodka was to mask them by adding all sorts of aromatic substances: fruits, plants, spices, and so on. This led to the invention of a particular style of vodka that is most highly developed in Poland and Russia.
Two methods are used for flavouring vodka:
- The maceration of aromatic ingredients in vodkas of varying strengths for several weeks. Various methods, often kept secret, are used to achieve the maximum concentration of flavours in order to adjust the final degree of alcohol.
- A more recent technique consists of passing the alcohol several times through a filter containing aromatic substances. This method is faster and more economical and produces similar results.
Aromatic oils, which might be synthetic, can also be used to quickly add a particular flavour to a mostly neutral vodka.
This industrial technique produces flavoured vodkas of lower quality than those made with more traditional procedures.
Unlike many other spirits, such as whiskey, rum, or cognac, vodka is rarely aged for long periods. We have no historical explanation for this. There was always plenty of wood in Northern Europe for the making of barrels, and the technique had been used for a long time in many countries.
We can only assume that, since vodka was made to be drunk right away, no one ever took the time to see what would happen if it were aged for several years. In addition, this was a costly operation, and most producers did not have the financial means to wait ten or twenty years for the alcohol to age.
It must be noted, however, that a few producers, especially in Poland, leave their vodka in barrels for a time to develop certain added flavours, taking care not to use new barrels as it would add the flavour of new wood to the alcohol.
The Russian and Polish Starkas (which means “old”) are known for their sweet, fruity flavour, the result of the addition of liqueur wines like malaga, and they are also flavoured with various plants. They are barrel-aged for up to ten years, not to take on the flavour of the wood, but to better concentrate the aromas of the added ingredients. This would lead us to conclude that aging is simply not part of the culture of vodka, unlike that of cognac or whiskey.