Vodka is the liquor of choice for many people. In fact, it’s the most popular liquor worldwide. In the United States alone, approximately 756 million quarts of vodka are consumed per year, and that number keeps growing.
The prevalence of vodka is due to its lack of overpowering taste, making it easy to combine with mixers so that it’s barely noticeable. On the other hand, those who prefer to drink it neat love the crisp flavor and light mouth-feel vodka provides.
But how is vodka made? Here, you’ll learn all about vodka, how it’s made, its history, its ingredients, and more. So, let’s dive in!
What Is Vodka?
Vodka is a clear, distilled liquor, typically made from grain or potatoes, without any distinctive taste or aroma. To be considered vodka, the liquor needs to be 40% alcohol by volume (ABV), or 80 proof, in the United States or 37.5% ABV (75 proof) in the European Union.
Since vodka doesn’t have a distinct flavor, it’s judged on its texture or “mouth-feel.” As such, you’ll often hear vodka aficionados referring to certain vodkas as silky, oily, watery, or clean.
Vodka is also judged on its “heat,” referring to the burn felt on the tongue or back of the throat when drinking it neat. Premium vodka is usually put through a filtration system, making it smoother.
So, it won’t have as much heat. Conversely, cheaper vodkas will either not be filtered or not have as rigorous of a filtration, causing more heat.
Vodka’s history is disputed, as both Russia and Poland claim to be the first producers of vodka. However, the first documented evidence of vodka production comes from Russia in the late 9th century, and the first documented vodka distillery was in the town of Khylnovsk, Russia, in 1174.
On the other hand, the “vodka” from Poland was first documented in the 8th century, though it was made from wine, so it was technically a type of brandy.
Vodka is a focal point of Russian history. Russians traditionally drink vodka at a variety of events, like weddings, births, and funerals. Advertisements for vodka in Russia highlight its essential place in culture, often referring to it as the ” best of Russia” or “jewel of Russia.”
Vodka is so important that there is a museum in Moscow, the Museum of Vodka, dedicated to educating the public on the importance of vodka in Russian culture.
The introduction of vodka into North America was relatively recent—during World War I. From there, its popularity grew immensely, and the United States became the leading producer of vodka.
What’s more, the United States was the first country to use other ingredients, like potatoes and corn, to make vodka.
Vodka is a fairly straightforward liquor that requires only a few ingredients.
Most vodka is made from cereal grains, with the exception of potato vodka and other alternatives, such as fruits, vegetables, or even just sugar. The main types of cereal grains used to make vodka are wheat, sorghum, and rye, and most often, it’s a mix of these ingredients.
The grains are the fermentable base of vodka. Once the grains (or other ingredients) ferment, they create ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, the intoxicating element of liquors.
The vodka makers will separate the ethyl alcohol, which is liquid, from the solid base. This liquid is pure alcohol and the base for vodka.
Water is added to make the vodka mash and, most importantly, after distilling the alcohol from the fermentable base, in order to dilute it. The amount of water added to dilute depends on the desired alcohol content.
Most vodka makers in the United States aim for 40% or higher. To ensure they reach this level, they use an alcometer or hydrometer to measure the alcohol levels.
If no water is added, then the content of the vodka would be 100%, or 200 proof, which is incredibly dangerous to consume.
Drinking pure ethanol, otherwise known as rubbing alcohol, can result in seizures, irregular breathing, and death, which is why it is illegal to sell pure ethanol for consumption.
The vodka with the highest ABV is Everclear (190 proof), which is still dangerous to consume.
Yeast is the ingredient that produces alcohol. It’s added to the fermentable base, which needs to have sugar or starch. The yeast will feed off the sugar or starch and turn it into alcohol.
Without yeast, the fermentable base wouldn’t be alcoholic. Some alcohols claim that they are yeast-free, but that’s not possible. What they mean by “yeast-free” is that they are using a substitute that already contains yeast; they’re just not using straight yeast.
Popular substitutes for yeast include rice bran, grapes, or bread, which all contain some amount of live yeast.
Flavored vodka is popular with younger crowds or those new to drinking vodka because the bite of the alcohol is slightly lessened.
Flavored vodkas will usually have a lower ABV, usually around 35%.
How To Make Vodka
Distilling vodka is a lengthy process involving many steps, but the result is well worth the effort.
That said, it’s important to remember that home distilling of alcohol is illegal in most states due to the potential dangers, and it carries a hefty penalty of a $10,000 fine, up to five years in jail, or both.
Make the Mash (Combine the Ingredients)
Making the mash or the fermentable base varies depending on the primary ingredient. Here, we’ll be covering the process of making a wheat mash.
Making a wheat mash involves mixing dry, flaked wheat with water. The combination is heated to between 150° F and 155° F.
Next, crushed wheat malt is added. The temperature is brought to 149° F, left for one and a half to two hours, and stirred occasionally.
After this, the mash is cooled to between 80 and 85° F. Cooling is done by either using an immersion chiller or just leaving the mash to cool on its own, usually overnight.
Once the mash is cooled, it’s added to a fermentation vessel with yeast. This mixture will then be left to ferment for one to two weeks. During this time, the compounds will begin to break down and turn into ethanol.
Fermentation vessels will often have an airlock. An airlock allows carbon dioxide to escape the vessel without oxygen getting inside.
An airlock is also helpful for telling when the mixture is completely fermented, as it will bubble while fermenting and slow down or stop once the fermentation process is complete.
After the fermentation process, the mixture is strained to separate the liquids from the solids. The resulting alcoholic liquid is called the wash.
Some vodka makers will strain the mash before fermenting it. It simply depends on preference.
The time it takes to strain the mash depends on the batch size—it could take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours.
After fermentation, the wash is siphoned from the fermentation vessel, and the yeast sediment is left behind, as it can burn during the distillation process.
The wash is placed into a column still or pot still and heated to above the boiling point of alcohol, which is below that of water.
Once the alcohol is heated to this point, it begins to vaporize. The vaporized alcohol then travels to the column or pipe of the still. There, cold water is applied to the column or pipe to externally cool the vapor, turning it back into liquid.
Depending on the still, distilling can take anywhere between three to six hours per ten gallons of wash.
Some manufacturers will distill their vodka multiple times. Many believe that it creates a better product. However, this is up for debate. For example, Grey Goose, one of the highest quality vodkas, is distilled only once, while Smirnoff, on the lower quality side, is distilled three times.
After the distillation process, the liquid is sorted to ensure the proper liquid is collected. This is because during distillation, the first 35% of the liquid, called the heads, is highly toxic, so it is discarded.
The remaining 30% is the liquid that is kept—the hearts.
The remaining liquid is called the tails and is an impure liquid. It’s either discarded or distilled once again to make a bit more vodka.
This is an optional step, but many vodka producers will filter their vodka to ensure it’s smooth and has no distinctive flavor leftover from the mash.
For this step, the hearts are passed through a filtration system. The filtration system typically uses charcoal or carbon.
Like distillation, some vodkas filtered multiple times. Again, it’s thought to create a better product, but there’s no evidence for that.
As mentioned, the vodka needs to be diluted to make it safe for consumption. Distilled water is added to the hearts, either filtered or unfiltered, to get the desired ABV, which is measured by a hydrometer.
This step is done gradually, with several measurements of ABV taken while water is incrementally added. After this step, the vodka is ready for consumption.
This is another optional step. If the manufacturer is creating flavored vodka, the flavoring ingredient(s) (citrus, vanilla, fruit, etc.) is added to the final product.
The vodka and ingredients are left for some time, depending on how potent the flavor is to be. After this, the vodka is strained.
Alternatively, you can easily flavor any type of vodka at home by mixing your preferred flavor with the vodka in a mason jar and leaving it for three to five days, giving it a good shake now and then.
If you like citrus vodka, you can add lemon or orange peels, or if you want your vodka on the spicy side, you can add chilis.
This bottling procedure is straightforward; the vodka is poured into sterile plastic or glass bottles and appropriately sealed. Manufacturers will include a small number on the labels for each batch of vodka.
These numbers represent the date and hour the vodka was bottled so that they can trace the bottle to the batch if needed.
All vodka makers must ensure their product meets certain standards before they can sell it to the general public. Quality control is conducted during every step of the vodka-making process by taking samples of the liquid and chemically analyzing them.
Humans are often also used in the quality control process for their senses. They will smell and visually judge the product from the first step to the last. Also, most manufacturers will have a trained tasting panel prior to bottling.
If the manufacturer is very serious about their product, then they’ll start quality control before making the vodka by ensuring the seeds for ingredients are up to par, the soil the ingredients are grown in is nutrient-rich, and, once the ingredient is grown, it is free of faults.
Now that we’ve covered how vodka is made, you probably still have some lingering questions. So, here are some frequently asked questions about vodka to give you more information.
Can you make vodka out of anything?
You can’t make vodka out of anything, but there are some surprising ingredients from which vodka can be made. Vodka needs to be made from something fermentable.
Apples, honey, maple sap, quinoa, and rye are just a few examples of alternative ingredients used to make vodka.
What’s the best way to drink vodka?
This depends on who you ask. If you ask a vodka purist, they’ll tell you to drink it straight, but, of course, you’ll want a premium vodka.
However, most people will suggest one of the top three cocktails made with vodka: the screwdriver (vodka with orange juice), the cosmopolitan (vodka, cranberry juice, Cointreau, and lime juice), or the vodka martini (vodka with dry vermouth; olives optional).
Can you use potatoes to make vodka?
Yes, since potatoes ferment, they can be used to make vodka. In fact, they are a popular main ingredient in the vodka-making process. The most popular vodka brands that use potatoes include Chopin, Luksusowa, Woody Creek Distillers, and Karlsson’s Gold, to name a few.
Hope this answered all your questions about the process of making vodka!