Vodka is undoubtedly one of the most popular (if not the most popular) alcoholic drinks in the world. It’s particularly popular throughout the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada.
It isn’t hard to understand how vodka got so popular, as it’s the base for a wide variety of popular cocktails, including the Moscow Mule and Bloody Mary. But do you know how vodka is made and where it comes from?
Keep reading to discover everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the vodka production process!
What Is Vodka?
Vodka is a neutral spirit (also called a rectified spirit). This means that, at its core, it’s a colorless and odorless alcohol with a high alcohol by volume (ABV) percentage, thanks to its ethyl alcohol content.
But standard pure vodka has unique characteristics that set it apart from other rectified spirits like gin or moonshine.
For example, although most traditional vodkas are made from fermented cereal grains like rye or barley (just like gin), the unique distillation and filtration process vodka undergoes removes any flavors of these base ingredients.
Pure vodka is essentially just water and alcohol. This absence of additional ingredients makes vodka the ideal choice for almost any cocktail, as a pure vodka base won’t impart additional flavors to mixed drinks.
What Is Vodka Made From?
One of the most prevalent questions about vodka is, “What is vodka made of?” The answer might surprise you, as vodka can be made from almost anything!
The only requirement for transforming an ingredient into vodka is that it has to be fermentable. This means that the ingredient in question must contain starches or sugars, the two elements that help yeasts produce alcohol.
Essentially, alcoholic fermentation means feeding sugar to yeast, which then converts the sugar into consumable ethyl alcohol.
The fermentation process (converting sugars to alcohol) is crucial to creating any alcoholic beverage, from beer to wine. Because pure vodka is primarily made of ethyl alcohol, you can’t produce vodka without fermenting glucose-rich or starchy ingredients.
Main Vodka Production Ingredients
All vodka, from flavored vodkas to pure vodkas, rely on three primary ingredients:
- A fermentable ingredient
Naturally, the “fermentable ingredient” is the most variable aspect of these necessary components, as most grains, fruits, and vegetables contain sugars and/or starches.
Potato vodkas are an example of vodkas made from starches, while wheat vodkas are examples of grain-based vodkas. Some vodkas are even made from sugar beet molasses or maple sap!
But no matter the fermentable ingredient, most vodkas advertised as “pure” are relatively flavorless. The main things that give this neutral spirit unique flavors are optional ingredients.
Vodka Optional Ingredients
Although pure vodka is just ethyl alcohol and water, flavored vodka features optional ingredients that impart natural flavors, a slightly tart zing, or a hint of sweetness. These additional ingredients vary from fresh fruits to hearty grains, and each makes for a unique taste.
Fresh fruit or fruit juices can make vodka sweet, especially when added after the distillation process. Some fruits, especially those containing citric acid (like oranges and grapefruit), can make vodkas taste slightly sour.
Frankly Organic Strawberry Vodka is a type of vodka that heavily features fruit ingredients, most notably strawberries and lemon. It’s a corn-based vodka described as citrusy, fruity, and bold.
Unlike fruit, which is often used to flavor vodka, corn is one of the variable fermentable ingredients typically used to create this neutral spirit. Overall, vodka made from corn pairs well with sweet liqueurs and has a velvety texture.
A great example of a corn-based vodka is Big Spring Vodka by Big Spring Spirits. It’s made in the United States and derived solely from fermented corn.
Honey is rich in sugars, making it a great base for all alcoholic beverages, including vodka. But you can also add honey to a finished vodka to give it a distinct floral sweetness and smooth mouthfeel.
One of the most popular vodka brands in the United States, Smirnoff, makes a honey vodka called Smirnoff Wild Honey.
Potatoes are starch-rich root vegetables that can be transformed into yeast-friendly glucose with the help of specific enzymes. Vodka made from potatoes tends to be slightly thicker and earthier than its grain-based counterparts.
Polish vodka is a type of vodka that utilizes potatoes, and one of the most popular vodka brands in this vein is Luksusowa.
Many people enjoy quinoa due to its purported health benefits, but did you know that you can also ferment it to make vodka?
Vodka made from quinoa is earthy, nutty, and a little heavier than those made from corn or rice. This complex flavor profile makes quinoa vodka a great choice for shots but a challenging pick for mixed beverages.
FAIR Quinoa Vodka is one of the best-selling quinoa vodkas available in the United States.
As with corn, potatoes, and quinoa, barley is one of the most popular fermentable ingredients used to make vodka. It’s also a little more flavorful than other fermentable grains, imparting vodka with a spiciness you don’t often find with corn varieties.
Loon Liquors Wheaton Barley Vodka is one of the more popular examples of barley-based vodka.
Fermented rice is more closely associated with Japanese sake than with vodka. That said, some vodkas are made from rice instead of more traditional rye or wheat grains.
Vodka made from rice tastes somewhat a little like sake, with a smooth mouthfeel. If you’d like to try some for yourself, pick up a bottle of JT Meleck Louisiana Rice Vodka.
Several traditional vodka distilleries use rye as the primary fermentation ingredient, as rye is considered one of the original bases for vodkas.
Rye vodkas are often described as slightly peppery and very dry, making them acceptable substitutions for whiskey when making a Manhattan cocktail. Sobieski Vodka is a fine example of a Polish vodka made from rye grain.
Wheat is yet another cereal grain fermented to make vodka. The most notable aspect of wheat vodkas is that they’re very light on the tongue. Most vodkas made from wheat have a crisp and refreshing finish.
Absolut Vodka is the most famous and popular type of wheat vodka consumed in the United States.
Whey is a protein derived from milk, and while it’s not as sugar-rich as fruit, it can be used as a fermentation base when making vodka.
Vodka made from whey is often slightly creamy and sometimes sweet, making it a fantastic addition to cream-based liqueurs like Baileys Irish Cream. Broken Shed Vodka is one of the most notable vodkas made from whey.
Mixed ingredients are also an optional part of the vodka-making process.
For example, mixed grains are sometimes used during the fermentation process to create distinct or complex vodkas, while mixed fruits (sometimes two or three types) are often added to pure vodka to make it more flavorful.
Stolichnaya (also called Stoli) is a mixed-grain vodka (wheat and rye) popular throughout the United States, Canada, and Russia. It’s often stored in a freezer to make it ice-cold and served as-is in the form of shots.
How Is Vodka Made?
How exactly is vodka made? The precise answer varies from distillery to distillery.
But most modern industrial distilleries produce vodka via four essential processes:
Flavoring and aging are optional steps for pure vodka, but they’re crucial to creating more flavorful varieties.
Let’s discuss these parts of the production process to discover exactly how vodka is made!
Fermentation is the first major step of vodka production.
The selected fermentation ingredient (or ingredients) is mixed in a large container with water and yeast and heated to up to 140°F (60℃). Any hotter than this and the yeast can begin to die. But warmth is essential to initiating fermentation.
After mixing and heating, the container of combined ingredients is removed from any heat sources and sealed. It’s then stored away in a warm, dark location and left alone for several days or weeks.
During this time, the yeast inside the container consumes the sugar inside the chosen fermentation ingredient. The water helps the yeast travel throughout the container, ensuring a more homogeneous fermentation process.
The fermentation step creates ethyl alcohol, one of the most vital components of vodka. But the distillation process is just as crucial.
When fermentation is complete, the solid remains of the ingredients are separated from the water-and-alcohol mixture. The liquid is then subjected to a distillation process.
Distilling the liquid strained from the original fermentation chamber requires heat. Ethyl alcohol boils at about 173°F (about 78.3℃), and when it gets to this boiling point, it transforms from a liquid state into a gaseous one.
This vaporized alcohol then travels through a long tube or chamber, eventually condensing back into a liquid state and dripping into a separate container. This process separates the alcohol from any impurities remaining in the fermented liquid.
Ensuring that the final product is essentially tasteless and unbelievably smooth is one of the most important goals of any vodka distillery. To achieve this goal, some distilleries filter the distilled alcohol through charcoal filtration systems.
Traditional distilleries often skip this step, but modern industrial distilleries almost always filter their vodka before diluting and bottling it.
In fact, many modern distilleries claim to filter their vodka multiple times to ensure the final product has a smooth, clean taste.
After the distillation or filtration process (depending on the type of distillery), the next step is dilution.
This step is crucial, as most undiluted vodkas are 95% ethyl alcohol! This distinct character makes pre-dilution alcohol just as strong as the liquor created by the American brand Everclear.
To reduce the ABV percentage of this raw vodka to the desired alcohol content, distilleries add water. But this step can be tricky, as waters containing impurities can impart off flavors that give the final product a metallic or unpleasant taste.
For this reason, most distilleries use purified water during the dilution process. Continuous and rigorous testing ensures that the water used for dilution remains pure enough for vodka production.
The finished vodka is then bottled and sold as pure vodka. Of course, some batches are flavored or aged before being bottled.
Flavoring and Aging (Optional)
Some distilleries add optional ingredients after the distillation process (before the filtration and dilution processes), but others add them after dilution. After all, many flavors can lessen during filtration and dilution, making them almost non-existent.
Other distilleries add a little flavor to their vodka by aging it. One of the most common ways of flavoring vodka via aging is to store it in oak casks. As the vodka sits in these casks, it absorbs some of the oakiness of the cask, giving it a distinctly woody, almost whiskey-like taste.
These casks are typically stored underground in cellars. Oak casks stored underground keep the vodka cool and prevent degradation caused by UV rays (sunlight). This type of aged vodka is often served ice cold to ensure its oaky flavors are more palatable.
Do you have additional questions about vodka production or the best ways to drink vodka? If so, check out these frequently asked questions for more information.
How Popular Is Vodka?
Vodka is one of the most popular liquors in the world. It primarily gained popularity in the United States during World War II, quickly becoming one of the most treasured neutral spirits in the country.
It’s still incredibly popular, and the international vodka market was worth about 39 billion dollars (USD) in 2020.
For perspective, the global rum market was only worth about 13.7 billion dollars (USD) in 2020.
Can You Make Vodka With Anything?
You can make vodka from any fruit, grain, or vegetable that contains starches or sugars. Consequently, you can make vodka from potatoes, milk, and even bananas!
Where Did Vodka Originate?
The origin location of vodka is hotly contested, with Russia and Poland both claiming to have invented this liquor. The first official documented use of the term “vodka” comes from a 1791 decree by Russian Empress Elizabeth Petrovna.
However, vodka was likely a popular liquor throughout Russia for several centuries beforehand, perhaps even dating back to the late 800s.
What Are the Best Vodka Cocktails?
The best vodka cocktails vary depending on your personal preferences. But some of the most popular vodka cocktails include the vodka martini, Moscow mule, Bloody Mary, and the Harvey Wallbanger.
What’s the Alcohol Content Level in Vodka?
The alcohol content of any given beverage is measured in alcohol by volume (ABV), a percentage representing the alcohol content compared to all other liquids in a drink. The minimum alcohol content for vodka is 23.8%. But most vodka has an ABV of 40%.
There you have it, that’s everything there is to know about the various ingredients used to produce vodka. Which kind of vodka is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below!
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