When it’s time for cocktails, I’m almost always reaching for a bottle of vodka. The spirit can be mixed into whatever my friends and I have a taste for that night, whether that be a fruity punch, spicy Moscow mule or something infused with fresh herbs.
Despite its unmatched versatility, I’d never really given vodka’s background much of thought. How complicated can a spirit that goes with everything even be, right? As it turns out, quite a bit of time, resources and energy go into each bottle of crystal clear vodka. Keep reading for an in-depth look at how and what vodka is made of.
Vodka’s usefulness isn’t limited to cocktails. These are our favorite ways to cook with vodka.
What even is vodka?
According to the United States’ Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, vodka is a “neutral spirit distilled or treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials so as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color,” which is “bottled at not less than 40% alcohol by volume (ABV).”
In more basic terms, vodka is water mixed with ethanol until it reaches a proof of 80, and no less. The spirit isn’t supposed to take on much of the flavor of its alcohol source, unlike the way gin gets flavor from juniper berries or tequila does from blue agave. Flavored vodkas are regulated under a different set of criteria which allows them to have fruit, citrus or herb additives. (We’d stick to regular vodka for these surprise uses.)
How is vodka made?
Vodka is made through a process that involves fermentation, distillation, dilution and filtration. It starts by creating a mash that is left to ferment until ethanol (alcohol) has formed. From there, the raw spirit is distilled to purify it and filter out any unwanted elements that would affect the product’s flavor, texture or overall characteristics. This process also removes the water that was added earlier, greatly increasing its ABV.
Many brands distill their vodka multiple times to create, what they believe, is the highest quality product possible. For instance, Ciroc, a French vodka, is distilled five times and Absolut Elyx is distilled twice. Not all turn to multiple distillations, though. Grey Goose cites its quality French ingredients as the reason for distilling its vodka only once.
Some alcohols, called rectified spirits, are bottled and sold at this stage of the production process and are so high in alcohol, they are meant to be mixed with water or another liquid before being ingested. One example is Everclear, which can reach 190 proof and is even banned in some states.
Depending on the purity of the water used, some vodkas need to be filtered before they’re bottled. Most are at the very least demineralized so the final product doesn’t become cloudy over time. Others are filtered through charcoal, lava rocks or quartz crystals to further remove unwanted elements. This additional step, again, affects the vodka’s overall characteristics including the nose, palate and finish.
OK, but what’s vodka made from?
Vodka is made from alcohol that is created by fermenting some sort or high starch or sugar plant matter with yeast. The most common types of plant matter used are cereal grains, like wheat, corn, rye or potatoes. Some brands that use these products for their mash are Ketel One, Tito’s, Belvedere and Luksusowa, respectively.
Vodka can also be made from fruit, like grapes, and sugar cane. Milk whey can even be used for the mash, like the English brand Black Cow does. Grain- and potato-based vodkas tend to have a more neutral profile than fruit- and sugar-based vodkas and are the traditional way to produce the spirit.
The yeast strain used to convert the sugar molecules into alcohol is specific to each brand, and is considered a closely guarded secret. If the plant matter used is heavy in starch, enzymes are also added to first convert the starch into sugar for the yeast to eat.
Once the alcohol is created, the raw spirit is distilled, diluted and filtered to make vodka.
What is the main ingredient in vodka?
Water is the main ingredient in most brands of vodka. After all, vodka comes from the old Slavic word voda, which translates to “little water.” The typical ABV for vodka is 40%, making the water content around 60% and resulting in an 80-proof spirit. While the United States’ ABV minimum is 40%, the European Union’s is 37.5%, allowing the water content to be slightly higher. Either way, it’ll stay liquid in your freezer.
While some brands of vodka, like Devil Spring and Balkan 176°, have an ABV of up to 88%, they’re intended to be diluted by the consumer before ingesting, like Everclear and other rectified spirits.
Now that you know all about this unassuming spirit, it’s time to mix up one of these choice cocktails.