Truth About Vodka – Are All Vodkas Created Equal?

vodka tasting

Are All Vodkas Created Equal?

Up until May 2020, by law in the United States, technically all vodkas should be defined as odorless, tasteless and colorless…and without distinctive character. In a sense, all vodkas were similar in that respect. In fact, the word “Vodka” derives from the Russian word “Voda” which roughly translates into English as “little water.” Hence, one would conclude that all vodkas are created equal. However, despite the antiquated TTB definition, vodka drinkers will tell you that there is a vast difference in taste, smell and smoothness.  The most distinctive difference can be found in a vodka’s softness or the intensity of the “alcohol bite” in the spirit. Filtering can alter the sensation of alcohol on the mouth to a small degree, but ingredients matter most.

What does vodka taste like?

Traditional Vodka will mostly taste like alcohol. It is almost all ethyl alcohol and water. There are likely trace amounts of methyl alcohol and acetones in almost all vodkas made from corn, potato or wheat. Vodka that is not distilled properly and “cut” at the right time may have an acetone (nail polish remover-esque) smell and taste. Experienced distillers claim to sense certain flavors or ‘taste overtones” in vodkas made from various raw materials such as grain, corn and potatoes. But for many of us, it’s seems pretty much the same. That’s because most vodkas are made from starch-based materials like potato, corn or wheat. However, vodka made from sugarcane has a discernably pleasant taste that even non professionals can sense immediately.

The history of vodka-making is most prominently traced to Eastern Europe and in particular Russia and (or) Poland. Early production of vodka called for the use of potato or grains as these were the most readily available and abundant materials. The idea was to cook the raw material (grains or potato) then add enzymes that would break-down the starches in the grains or potato into distillable sugars.

Had those early distillers had access to raw sugarcane plants; they certainly would have made their vodka from it instead of grains or potato. Distilling vodka from potatoes or grain is a labor-intensive and arduous process. In addition, the process of converting starches to usable sugars results in the creation of undesirable by-products that are harmful and negatively affect taste.

The goal of vodka is to achieve an output as close to 100% pure ethyl alcohol as possible. Ethyl alcohol is actually the legal (and chemical) definition of vodka. In the United States, vodka is fairly well-defined as being odorless, colorless and tasteless. Theoretically, the answer to the question, Are All Vodkas Created Equal is, yes! According to US Federal Authorities vodka must be “without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color,” So why go through the process of making vodka from potato or grains? The fact is, we don’t really know; but likely, it’s because that’s the way it’s always been done.

When vodka is distilled from grains and especially potato; or any other starch-based raw material, you need to add the enzyme amylase to convert the starch to fermentable sugars. This process also creates undesirable by-products such as methyl alcohol (a known neuro-toxin) and other related substances to the mash. Ultimately, the methyl alcohol and the other undesirable materials must be stripped-out in repeated distillations along with other substances or impurities known as “congeners”. In some cases, congeners are harmless and add character to some spirits such as whiskies; but not so in vodka.

A distiller using grains, corn and potatoes will almost always end-up with a harsh finished product after fermentation. One way to try to purify the vodka is repeated distillations which essentially means that they did not have the right result to begin with so they keep distilling it, thinking that might make it smoother. Repeated distillations does not make a vodka smoother, it makes it more processed and harsher. Invariably, cheaply produced vodka will use this faulty process as a marketing gimmick claiming “X Times Distilled” on their label. If that is the most important thing they can say about their vodka, you will be well-advised to avoid it.

Sugarcane-Based Vodka is Just Better

Modern distilleries are well adept at producing a vodka product free of these impurities, but the question remains; is there a better way? The answer is a resounding yes! Sugarcane vodka is superior in relation to starch-based vodka. Creating vodka directly from sugar or raw materials containing easily fermentable natural sugars can eliminate or reduce these undesirable elements. The result is naturally smoother tasting vodka that never contains the toxins found in a potato or corn mash.

In many commercial vodka distilleries that start with grains or potatoes, they often add “smoothing agents” such as sugars or citric acid after fermentation and distilling to disguise the bitterness of the congeners. Vodka made from pure cane,  non-GMO sugar is naturally smoother and requires no added sweeteners or smoothing agents.

Making sugarcane-based vodka delivers a smoother experience that is gluten-free and free of esters. Fermentation using sugar produces no methyl alcohol and only trace amounts of congeners, if any at all. Generally speaking virtually all vodkas will employ carbon filtering after dilution to 80 proof or 40% alcohol by volume. Carbon filtering has the identical effect that your home water filter has. It filters and chemicals or dissolved solids from the ethyl/water mixture.

Timothy Kelly

Tim is the Founder & Master Distiller at Felene. He developed his passion for the spirits and hospitality business while growing-up and working in his family's restaurant and liquor store business. Tim’s passion for the epicurean lifestyle has found it’s latest manifestation in the Felene Distillery. Tim is a 5-time Gold Medal Award winning Distiller. He has won a Platinum medal at the Prestigious Los Angeles Spirits Awards and his signature vodka was named Best-in-Category by the American Distilling Institute. Mr. Kelly is also a prolific author and writer and his blog is filled with ideas, discoveries, observations and recommendations to help his readers enjoy life’s simple epicurean pleasures.

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