The name vodka comes from the Slavic word voda or woda, meaning water. Vodka can be made from a variety of ingredients, and every distillery has its own way of ensuring a unique product, whether it is distilled four times or filtered twice, or maybe the base ingredient is different from the traditional vodkas. Some people say vodka is flavourless or that every vodka tastes the same, but they could not be more wrong. If you are one of those people, I recommend you read this post and try to take part in some vodka tasting; hopefully, you will then understand the differences between the many brands and learn to appreciate the spirit.
There are five components when making vodka: vegetables or grain (or both in some cases), water, malt meal, yeast and flavourings (optional).
Most commonly, vodka is made from potatoes, corn, rye, barley or wheat. There are a few exceptions, such as Black Cow Vodka, which is made from cow’s milk. The whey is fermented into a beer using a special yeast that converts the milk sugar into alcohol. Or there is also Ciroc Vodka, which is made from grapes by distilling wine five times.
Water. Pure demineralised water is added at the end of the distillation process to lower the alcohol levels. The legal EU minimum ABV strength is 37.5%, but it is not unusual to have vodkas of up to 50% ABV. In the USA, the minimum for vodka is 40% ABV.
Malt meal. Potatoes especially have a lot of starch, which needs to be broken down into basic sugars. To help with this process, distillers use malt meal. Malt meal is made by soaking grains in water, allowing them to germinate. After they have done so, they are coarsely ground into a meal and added during the mash process.
Yeast. It contains enzymes that allow food cells to extract oxygen from starches or sugars, producing alcohol.
Flavourings. These aren’t necessary, but they are increasingly popular. Flavourings don’t have to be artificial. For example, Bimber Distillery uses fresh berries to flavour its vodkas. The ready distilled vodka is left in stainless-steel tanks to soak with the berries. It’s delicious. Other flavourings may be spices, herbs, grass or fruits.
The mash is sterilised by heating it to boiling point, after which it is injected with lactic-acid bacteria to raise the acidity to the level needed for fermentation. During fermentation the yeast will help to convert the sugars into alcohol. This process normally takes two to four days.
The most commonly used still for making vodka is a column still, but some distilleries use copper pot stills (Ciroc, for example). Alcohol is cycled up and down the column and heated with steam until the vapours are released. The vapours rise into the upper chambers where they are concentrated.
The spirit can be redistilled a few times before it is cut with water to bring down the alcohol level.
You could say that filtration is a key element when making vodka; the water often needs to be filtered to strip out any unwanted minerals. The spirit can be filtered by distilling the liquid several times, and some distilleries also use filtration after the distilling. Some distilleries do all three.
Apart from making sure the water is right, filtration is optional, as repeating distillation several times will also remove unwanted impurities and will produce pure spirit. Using minimal filtering after the distillation process allows the final spirit to keep its unique characteristics and flavours. For example, Sipsmith Distillery distil their vodka on copper for extra purity, and they do not use filtering or add any flavourings or sweeteners.
But when filtration takes place after distilling, it is done by pumping the vodka through several consecutive columns of charcoal. This removes impurities and odours and ensures longer storage life. The charcoal is treated by steam or chemicals to make it more absorbent.
Filtration is often used as a selling point, e.g. ‘triple filtered’ or ‘distilled five times’. This, however, doesn’t guarantee the quality of the vodka. When the base ingredient has a stronger flavour, such as rye, it is helpful to distil the spirit a few times to get the optimum subtle flavour. However, in some cases, when spirit is distilled (or filtered) too many times it is because lower-quality base ingredients have been used. As a rule of thumb, the better-quality vodkas are the ones with minimal distillation and filtration. (As always, there are some exceptions, such as Ciroc, but their main ingredient is unusual.)
What is your favourite vodka? Do you pay attention to the number of filtrations when choosing vodka?