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Different Kinds of Vodka & How They’re Made

by
Apr 5th, 2024

Vodka. The clean canvas for countless cocktails, the icy companion to a lime wedge, or simply enjoyed neat – it's a spirit that's become a staple in bars and home liquor cabinets around the world. But beyond its reputation for neutrality, there's a surprising amount of depth to this clear spirit. From its mysterious origins to the surprising variety of ingredients used, let's dive into the world of vodka and explore what makes each bottle unique.

Where did vodka come from?

The word “vodka” comes from the Russian word for water, “voda,” a name that likely came around because of the liquid’s clear, tasteless flavor — though we can’t be 100% sure.

Pinpointing vodka's exact origins is a bit like trying to find the first person who ever whistled. While both Russia and Poland claim vodka as their national spirit, there's evidence of similar grain alcohols being produced in Eastern Europe as far back as the 8th century.  Wine grapes  couldn’t grow well above certain latitudes in Europe, so people began experimenting with various grains in order to make spirits. And if there’s one thing humans everywhere started doing as soon as possible, it was making alcohol!

Early versions were likely rough and unrefined, a far cry from the smooth vodkas we know today. It wasn't until the development of multi-column distillation techniques in the 18th and 19th centuries that vodka truly started to take shape. These advancements allowed for a cleaner, purer spirit, paving the way for vodka's rise to global popularity.

How vodka is made

Despite the vast array of vodkas available, the core production process follows a similar path.

Choosing a base ingredient

It all starts with the base ingredient. Traditionally, vodka was made from grains like wheat, rye or barley. Today, distillers get creative, using everything from potatoes and corn to grapes and even whey from cheese production! The base ingredient plays a subtle role in the final flavor profile, so it’s up to the distiller to choose what base to use and what flavorings to add in the final steps.

Making a mash

Once the main ingredient is chosen, it goes on to be milled, ground or blended with warm water in order to start breaking down the material. This mushy “mash” is easier to ferment and break down than solid materials, and the heat helps break down the mush into starches and solids.

Washing the mash

If the mash is heated properly, the solids in the mash become functionally useless and are strained out of the starchy, sugary liquids. The solid byproduct can be reused in animal feed, in compost, in baked goods and in fuel, since it still contains high levels of fiber, protein and fat — all of which is useless in making vodka but useful in many other ways!

Fermentation

Once properly broken down and mixed with enzymes, the mash is combined with yeast and water and sealed in an airtight container. This mixture ferments over a period of up to two weeks and, as the yeast feeds on the base ingredient’s natural sugars, it produces a simple alcohol called ethanol or ethyl alcohol. 

This is where the different base ingredients start showing their colors: potatoes, corn and wheat have high starch contents that make it difficult for the natural sugars to break down, so distillers add enzymes to the mixture during the mash stage in order to break down the molecules and kickstart the right amount of fermentation. Grapes and sugarcane, on the other hand, have plenty of freely-available sugars in them that break down easily, producing an ethanol that’s free of enzymes and, as a result, is cleaner and smoother than potato or wheat-based ethanol.

(By the way, a very similar process is used to create ethanol fuel made from renewable biomass!)

Distillation

The fermented liquid goes into a still, where it's heated to around 175-195° Fahrenheit. Alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, so the alcohol vapors rise and are captured in a condenser, where they cool into liquid and drip down into a separate container while the water remains behind. 

Many distillers will choose to add flavoring during this stage, allowing botanicals or fruits to steep either between distillings or during the distilling itself — gin is made by steeping juniper berries in the distilled ethanol!

Distillation is a complex process that involves careful monitoring of the temperatures and the ethanol levels. The first vapors to rise in a distillation are primarily methanol and other toxins and are all thrown out immediately — these are known as the Foreshots. Next come the Heads, which are vapors distilled at temperatures of around 175-185° Fahrenheit and, while safe to drink, still contain impurities and flavorings from previous steps. The Hearts are the vapors that are pure, high-proof ethanol that goes on to become the high-quality, top-shelf vodka, while the Tails that follow start to become diluted with water and other impurities as temperatures start to rise into the 205° range. 

With technology that can measure the levels of ethanol and impurities in vodka down to the percentage, good-quality vodka can be distilled in just one sitting — Grey Goose vodka is distilled just once and is considered one of the world’s premium vodkas! So don’t let the marketing ploys declaring their “20-times distilled” stuff get you, since a well-done fermentation means you only need to distill once!

Purification & filtering

Many vodkas undergo additional filtration or purification steps. This can involve charcoal filtering, passing the spirit through various materials or even multiple rounds of distillation which helps remove impurities and create a smoother, more neutral spirit.

Dilution and bottling

Freshly-distilled vodka hearts (the good stuff) leaves the still with an alcohol-by-volume (ABV) level of about 95%, which is a whopping 190 proof! Did anyone else’s stomach start feeling queasy just then? 

Distillers will dilute (or “cut”) the vodka with water in order to get the vodka to their desired ABV, which is usually 40%. Then they’ll bottle the stuff, ship it off to store shelves and start the whole process again!

What makes vodka “premium”?

This is where stuff starts to get really interesting!

Unflavored, off-the-still vodka is all pretty similar in terms of taste and quality. All Heart vodkas will taste pretty much the same, as will the Heads and Tails. The real difference in taste comes from the water that they add to the vodka, not the vodka itself! That’s why there’s such an emphasis on spirits cut with certain glacial waters, spring waters, river waters and so on — there’s more water in a bottle of vodka than there is actual vodka, so the quality of the water is what makes the quality of the spirit you buy! 

Additionally, the very bottle that distillers use to house the diluted spirit could account for up to a third of the cost of production. This means that when you buy a “premium” bottle of vodka, you might be paying for the quality of the water and the fanciness of the bottle more than the quality of the vodka itself. Crazy, right? 

One example of finding value in the ingredients and production process is in the vodka made by Icelandic company Reyka Vodka. The ethanol produced by the still is pretty much the same, but the water used to distill the spirit comes from super cool Arctic spring water, the filtration system uses volcanic lava rocks and the entire process is powered using renewable geothermal energy from the volcanoes! Plus, they utilize a one-distillation process in a one-of-a-kind copper still. So, while the ethanol may not be of the most value to you, the zero-emissions, renewable energy, locally-sourced ingredients and holistic approach to the process may be what makes this vodka a premium one!

Different types of vodka ingredients

All this doesn’t mean that all vodkas are the same — it just means that they’re more similar than they seem. 

There’s still a difference between the Heart vodkas and the Heads or Tails, and the quality of the water really does make a difference in flavor. Even the filtration system used can leave trace flavors behind, for better or for worse. Plus, the base ingredient really does play a huge role in the flavor and mouthfeel of a vodka.

Here's a taste of the different types you might encounter:

  • Grain vodka: Made from wheat, corn, rye or barley, this is the classic type of vodka known for its clean and crisp taste. Wheat vodkas tend to be smooth and slightly sweet, while rye can add a touch of spice.
  • Potato vodka: Traditionally popular in Eastern Europe, potato vodka can have a slightly earthy or creamy taste compared to grain vodkas.
  • Fruit vodka: Made from fermented fruits like grapes, apples or cherries, these vodkas offer a distinct fruity flavor. They're often enjoyed on their own or in cocktails that highlight the fruit notes.
  • Flavored vodka: These vodkas are infused with various natural or artificial flavors after distillation. Think vanilla, citrus, chili pepper or even birthday cake – the possibilities are endless!

The takeaway

Vodka may seem like a simple spirit, but there's a surprising amount of history, production and variety to explore. So, the next time you raise a glass of vodka, take a moment to appreciate the craftsmanship that went into creating that simple, smooth spirit and maybe even experiment with a new flavor or base ingredient. 

And while you're here, check out how rum, gin and whiskey are made, too!

Cheers!

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Featured photo by Yanik Flowers on Unsplash

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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