Vodka 101: The Basics of Vodka
What makes vodka vodka, anyway?
Technically in order to be called Vodka, it must be made with water and ethanol alcohol of agricultural origin such as wheat, rye, potato, corn, barley or grapes. Once the raw material is fermented, it must be distilled to increase the alcohol content at or above 95% by volume (ABV). It is then cut with water and bottled and no less than 40% ABV. This process gets rid of all the impurities creating a spirit void of taste or smell. Since vodka isn’t aged and is bottled right off the still (assuming no flavorings), it is has no color.
The U.S. defines Vodka as neutral spirits “void of” distinctive character, aroma, taste or color. The European Union defines it as a “spirit drink where the qualities of character, aroma, color and smell are “reduced.” What does that mean? It means the U.S. (Western style) wants to eliminate all taste and aroma to call a spirit vodka while the Euros which would include Russia, Poland, etc. (Eastern style) want to retain some of those traits for taste and distinction.
For the most part all vodka, or any other pure distilled spirit, is gluten-free because of the distillation process. That is even the case if the vodka is made with wheat, barley or rye. Keep in mind that there can be “hidden gluten” in vodkas that may add flavorings or other ingredients after distillation. Pure vodka is water and ethanol but can contain traces of other ingredients and there is also a risk of gluten cross-contact in the facilities in which the products are made but most say that celiacs are safe to drink vodka.
Since vodka can be made from so many different things like corn (Tito’s) or grapes (Ciroq) or even apples (Core) it is easy to pick one that isn’t made at all from any grain that would contain gluten. Just remember, the process in which vodka is made will get rid of all that stuff anyway since the product has to be distilled to reach 95% alcohol. That’s 190 Proof!
What’s with all this distillation talk?
Here’s what happens in a nutshell. Yeast eats up the sugars in the raw material creating byproducts of alcohol and CO2. As the yeast does its job, there is less sugar to eat and the alcohol is at about 14-18% ABV. To increase that alcohol content, it must be physically separated from the water and other impurities using evaporation and condensation – or distilling. Theoretically, each time the product is distilled, more and more impurities are removed. Add in some filtration processes with things like charcoal and one would think that you will have pure alcohol and water. When you hear of 4 or 6 or 8 times distilled, the manufacturer wants you to have the purest of the pure spirits. Just remember, the water added back in or flavorings can introduce other impurities. In the end, after a few distillations there shouldn’t be anything in it, other than some marketing angles…
But, herein lies where the products can have some differentiation. In today’s world, the vodka makers can be very precise on what is left in the product thus imparting individuality.
How is each vodka different?
Even though the vodka is distilled many times, there will still be trace amounts of impurities from the fermentation and yeast. That is what makes them different - simply by what it is made from and may have some residual characteristics of those ingredients.
Wheat – the most popular vodka grain will taste the “cleanest”
Corn – sweet finish, buttery mouthfeel
Rye – spicy finish
Potato – will impart a creamy flavor and have a heavier mouthfeel (think of how olive oil feels in your mouth. That is what weighty feels like as opposed to water)
Should I use different vodka for straight up drinks and mixers?
Vodka is supposed to be odorless and tasteless. I have always contended that if you are drinking a martini up or even on the rocks, the type of vodka means more than if you are drinking a vodka cranberry or a screwdriver. The reason that’s the case is because your drink will take on the characteristics of what you put in it. If you are putting cranberry and orange juice into your beverage, that’s what you will taste. No mixer, you get all vodka! I find it helpful to keep at least 2 vodkas on hand as a result.
What is the right one for me?
There is only one way to find out…try vodkas that are sourced from different ingredients and see where you stand. It can be a fun exercise with some friends to buy 5 different types and do a blind tasting where you compare each one. The end result will be knowledge and a bit of a buzz!