Vodka: The Pure, Clean Spirit
The argument over who drank vodka first, Russians or Poles, will forever continue. Let’s agree that this “white drink” originated in northern/eastern Europe around 1400 AD and has since gained popularity worldwide. Vodka, derived from voda meaning “water,” was discovered in the cold regions of Europe and Asia. Distillers realized that their fermented wine became stronger after freezing during the winter. In the 1400s and 1500s, with advanced distilling techniques from the West, the Slavic people refined vodka and created high-quality alcoholic drinks that became their countries’ trademarks.
Vodka did not become popular in the US until the 1940s. Importers introduced it into the American market in the late 1800s and early 1900s, targeting Eastern European immigrants with a nostalgic drink. Many Russian distillers, who lost their livelihoods when private distilleries were confiscated after the 1919 Revolution, escaped to the US and brought their vodka-making secrets and dreams. However, vodka didn’t gain prominence among American alcohol until the repeal of the Prohibition Act in 1933. Vladimir Smirnov (changed to Smirnoff) sold the Smirnoff company to Rudolph Kunnett, who later sold it to the Hublein Company in 1939. Multiple attempts were made to break into the American market, but vodka’s success came when it was marketed as a cocktail base. Its versatility as a mixer made it a favorite at parties and social gatherings. Today, popular vodka brands include Smirnoff and Absolut.
ACE 3000L Vodka Distillation Column Still
How to Make Vodka
Vodka is a simple spirit to make. The final result depends on taste and government regulations. In the US, vodka is classified as “neutral spirits, so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color” by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. This simplifies vodka distillation in the US as the only permitted variety is alcohol content. Those who prefer lower proof, which includes more flavor, can achieve this using a pot still, although it is less efficient. Those who prefer high proof vodka will find reflux stills with a higher number of bubble plates ideal. The mash only needs to run through the reflux still once, and the number of bubble plates determines the final proof.
There are various methods to produce vodka. The most popular is from grains like rye, wheat, and corn. Other options include potatoes, beets, or molasses. For grains, such as rye or wheat, they are mixed with water and heated to create a wort. Heat breaks down starches into fermentable sugars, which dissolve into the water. The resulting liquid, known as the wash, becomes the ferment for vodka production. The process is the same for potatoes; they are mashed before heating and starch conversion.
After fermentation, the wash is distilled once through a reflux still and at least twice through a pot still. More closed bubble plates in the reflux still result in higher proof and less flavor. Some people choose to filter vodka through charcoal, giving it a slightly smoky flavor and the crisp taste it’s known for. Finally, the spirit needs to be cut. Since it’s distilled at high proof (usually around 190 proof or 95% alcohol), it must be diluted to the preferred taste. Most vodkas are cut to 80 proof or 40% alcohol. Vodka tends to be clear and is not aged in barrels. Some exceptions exist where distillers abroad flavor and age their vodka, resembling brandy, but this is not allowed in the US.
Once it’s all done, you can enjoy it as vodka.