Hello? It’s Me, Vodka. The Birth of one of Earth’s Greatest Spirits

In our last post, we gave you some fun vodka facts to help you understand more of its history. We know a Polish document is the first time vodka was recorded. The Slavic word for water was voda to the Russians, and woda to the Polish. During the 14th century, the tradition of making vodka developed in these two countries, and would soon make its way across Eastern Europe and Scandinavia.

Vodka was on the move.

This migration of knowledge was so prevalent that it created a band of countries which came to be known as The Vodka Belt. Sharing a common vodka heritage, this is the precise location where the technology and tradition of vodka developed over the centuries. This collection of nations includes: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and Sweden, Finland, and Norway.

How is Vodka Made?
Now that we’ve got a little history under our (vodka) belt, let’s take a closer look at the steps behind how vodka is made.

Step One: Grow the Ingredients
Growing vodka ingredients can be summarized into one neat French term: terroir, translated as earth, or soil.
Terroir means “specificity of place.” It incorporates all of the factors that affect the final product: geography, microclimate, topography, soil, and the hand of the maker. Understanding terroir gives vodka makers more a more robust knowledge of the quality and character of the vodka produced.

Step Two: Breaking it Down/Mashing
Certain ingredients like grains and potatoes contain high levels of complex starch molecules which must be broken down into simple sugars by milling or crushing. Next, water, special enzymes, and heat are added. This process is known as mashing. If you’ve heard that word before, you can probably smell it too.

Step Three: Fermentation
Next, simple sugars are converted into alcohol by adding yeast culture to the mash. Yeast feeds on the sugars and converts them to alcohol. Heat and carbon dioxide are produced at the same time. During this process, many of the flavors tasted in the final product are developed, so the type of yeast used is critical. Among makers, the specific variety of yeast used is a closely guarded secret.
This process known as fermentation usually takes 24 to 48 hours. It will naturally tail off as the alcohol content rises, producing an environment in which the yeast can no longer survive. The result is a wash with an alcoholic strength of 10% ABV, typically.

Step Four: Refinement & Distillation
The fermented wash is then refined. Traditionally, makers did this in pot-stills, but now nearly all vodka is produced in continuous column stills. During this initial refining process, a raw spirit of between 60 and 80 percent ABV is produced. The main byproducts are water and leftover mash, known as stillage. This process is called distillation, and brands vary widely on how many rounds of distillation they perform.

With purity in mind, the raw spirit is then passed through a series of columns, which are designed to remove specific compounds. Distilleries vary widely in how many columns they use, but all of them produce a spirit in excess of 98% ABV.

Step Five: Rectification
Some brands will include another stage of pot-stills, and this process is known as rectification. A substantial number of brands are not involved in this part of the production process, even though the elements are crucial. Rather, some purchase bulk raw spirit that they can rectify themselves, while others buy spirit that has already been rectified.

Step Six: Demineralization
After rectification, water is added to reduce the alcohol strength so that it can meet regulations in the USA and be bottled. Sometimes added water can account for 60% of finished product. The type of water used is crucial because it can have huge impact on the vodka’s final flavor. Some common water sources used in the production process include lakes, wells, and icebergs, however, the key is that the water is demineralized to produce a cleaner taste.

How’s this done?

  • Reverse osmosis
  • Charcoal filtering
  • Distillation

Many distillers believe less is more: the less the water is processed, the better the final product. This refers not only to vodka’s flavor and taste, but also and especially its mouthfeel.

In this process of demineralization, the most prized water sources are those that haven’t been touched by farmers or industry. These ancient natural sources are the legendaries of the vodka industry because they require minimal treatment and produce a superior vodka.

Step Seven: Filtration
Not quite there, but almost—next comes filtration! Before bottling the vodka, it must be filtered to remove any remaining sediment or particles. Filtration can mean different things to different brands, however. Some common filtration practices are:

  • Charcoal filtration — activated charcoal is used to further purify the spirit after filtration. This can result in a more neutral spirit, as it may also remove a wide range of aroma compounds.
  • Simple barrier filters — using only cellulose or natural fabric mesh as a barrier, this method is used to retain more of the spirit’s original flavors. The final product is completely clear and free of particles and still maintains its character.

The length of the filtration process, how many times the filter has been used before and the number of filtrations that the spirit undergoes, all impact how much is removed from the vodka.

Step Eight: Rounded/Rounding?
Last but certainly not least, is a process called rounded, which only some vodka brands go through. Here, certain additives, such as sugar, glycerin, or citric acid are introduced with the intention of altering the mouthfeel and character of the vodka.

There are many ways to make vodka and each produces a unique range of characteristics. Understanding how vodka is made is a tribute to the heritage and beauty of this little water. Enthusiasts will find enjoyment in selecting from such a wide and colorful range of styles. Although the taste of vodka may vary widely, they all share a history of purity and universal delight.

We hope that wherever you are in the world, you will enjoy responsibly and consciously.