How to impress your friends with what you know about vodka.
Most of us have had vodka. Maybe it’s not your favorite (or not even close). At the very least, you’re familiar with it. But do you know what vodka is? Do you know how it’s made? The vast majority of us do not. This week, we’re going to talk about vodka. I’ll warn you; this primer may get a little sciencey.
Let’s start with a definition. Vodka is a distilled beverage composed primarily of water and ethanol, sometimes with traces of impurities and flavorings. To oversimplify it, start with ethanol and dilute it down to 80 proof, leaving you with 40% ethanol and 60% water. By definition, vodka is a “tasteless, odorless spirit.” However, each vodka has a different taste. Whatever the vodka’s unique character may be, it still lends itself to mixing well without changing the flavor of the drink you’re enjoying.
Where do you get these ingredients? Certainly, you can’t just use store-bought ethanol and tap water, right? You could, but we don’t recommend it. Last week we talked about our water, purity sourced from North Carolina’s Black Creek Aquifer (which we source on-site). We also talked about our corn, harvested a mere ten miles down the road. Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “I thought vodka was made from potatoes, and the good stuff is made of wheat.” Vodka can actually be made from any starch (or any fermentable source of sugar): potatoes, wheat, rye, grapes, or, in our case, corn — some people are even using maple sap and quinoa. What’s next, kale?
The first step is fermentation, where we create what’s called the “wash.” This is when it gets a little sciencey (I warned you), so I’ll keep it brief.
- Add enzymes grain into a “mash” of water and corn (or whatever your base is).
- By adding heat, the enzymes alpha amylase and beta amylase begin to convert the “mash” into wort.
- Add yeast that basically feeds off the sugars from the corn.
- Fermented “low-wine” is now made up of ethanol, water, and impurities. At this point, the liquid is closer to beer than vodka.
Simply put, distillation concentrates alcohol to the desired level. We have to get nearly pure alcohol (96%) before we can make vodka. We use heat to separate the component of the low-wine. Since alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, it can be collected separately and isolated for rectification, when ethanol is purified. At the end of distillation, you have high-wine (96% alcohol, mostly free of impurities—often referred to as congeners).
It would be extremely dangerous to consume our 192 proof liquid. At this point, we use our pure and flavor-neutral water to blend our ethanol to 80 proof. In the US, this meets the legal definition of vodka: 40% alcohol, no more, no less.
Some producers of vodka completely skip past filtration, believing some congeners impart a unique flavor to the spirit. While that is true, many brands prefer a vodka to have a subtle and more refined flavor. Running vodka through charcoal strips it of any remaining particulate matter and most congeners.
And that, in a small nutshell, is vodka. At a later date, I’ll dig into what makes our vodka so special, its character. If you remember everything above, you’ll know more than most when it comes to vodka. Go forth and impress your friends.