V O D K A
The word ‘vodka’ comes from the Slavic ‘voda’ meaning ‘little water’. One of the oldest spirits around, there are references to it being distilled as far back as the Middle Ages – as early as 1405 in Poland and 1450 in Russia (at the Chudov Monastery).
In fact, there is an ongoing feud between the Poles and Russians regarding who first started making the spirit; the Poles are generally accepted as winners in that regard. However, the Russians are credited with inventing and perfecting the role charcoal filtration continues to play in vodka production.
Some have pondered why such a high alcohol spirit ended up being made in this part of the world (it is 96% abv in Europe and 95% abv in the US off the still, and min 30% abv when bottled in the US and minimum 37.5% in Europe). Most agree the high alcohol levels are a logical result of living in such cold weather; it won’t freeze in the bottle.
Vodka is made in a continuous multiple column linked still and the HRS (highly rectified spirit) is removed from the still at plate 42. It should have neutral flavours and aromas with few congeners and may be made of any agricultural product. Vodka must ‘retain a minimum character of the raw material’.
The most common bases are wheat (dry, elegant, neutral vodkas with a touch of anise like Smirnoff), corn (ethereal, light, delicate and soft), barley (crisp and dry with no oil like Finlandia), rye (spicy, citric, oily and clean like Belvedere and Wyborowa), molasses (sweet’ish), grapes (like Ciroc) and even potatoes (creamy, soft mouthfeel – enzymes must be added prior to fermentation and a de-methyliser must be used to remove methanol. Examples include Poland’s Cracovia and Chopin).
When vodka is distilled, the rectification plates in the rectifying column help to maximize the liquid and vapour contact. The theory is that the liquid settles on the plate and vapour heats and forces its way through because alcohol boils at 78.3c (lower than the 100c for water). This means the volatile congeners rise and lesser ones fall back (in a process called reflux) to be redistilled.
Making vodka is a real balancing act; butanol, propanol and methanol (definitely) must be removed while sugar, oil, water and ethanol are retained. There are two main types of vodka – neutral vodkas which are characterized by large international brands such as Skyy (US) and Smirnoff and characterful vodkas known best for preserving more of the base product character and congeners. Some of these examples include rye and potato vodkas especially from Poland.
A recent arrival to the vodka scene and done in an effort to drive sales and attract a new demographic to drinking vodka is the advent of flavoured vodkas. There are many featuring fruit, citric and spice additions/infusions as well as others that have been around longer – one being Zubrowka that runs the vodka through dried bundles of bison grass. (The active ingredient in bison grass is coumarin which is banned by the US FDA, so you can’t buy it there, but it is available in Canada. )
In past times, after being pulled off the still, vodka was then filtered through sand, egg whites, pottery shards or eventually activated charcoal. Russia’s Peter the Great had a private still through which he filtered his vodka 3-4 times, the last time through anise. Many, if not most, producers still filter their vodkas today – and will boast proudly about double or even triple distilled versions. However, many argue it is anachronistic and unnecessary because with today’s multiple linked column stills being so adept at removal of fusel oils and congeners, it is overkill and only done for marketing purposes. Finlandia argues that it’s ‘obsolete technology’.
Charcoal serves to soften the harsh characteristics and removes colour. The vodka is either pulled through the charcoal with a vaccum or pushed through a filter which must be monitored as when it’s too full, it cannot remove anything. It’s vital to remember that charcoal filtering can remove additional congeners and colour, but it cannot fix a badly made spirit.
Today’s best selling premium vodka is Diageo’s Smirnoff which sells more than double (25.8m cases in 2012) than the next closest competitor (Pernod Ricard’s Absolut Rent Brannvin from Alhus, Sweden). An up-and-comer to watch is Bacardi’s Grey Goose which burst onto the scene in 2000 with only 200,000 cases sold. However, by 2004 (1.2m cases) it was sold by founder Sidney Frank to Bacardi in the most expensive brand name spirit sale for US$2B.
This spirit which has been around for so very long, is undeniably big business.