Vodka is a versatile, fairly neutral spirit that can be used to make a huge variety of cocktails. It can really be mixed with anything from sweet fruit juices or lemonade to spicy ginger beer to something earthy and herbal. But what is vodka actually made from? And what does the production process look like?
We’ll tell you what vodka is made from, explain a little bit about the production process, and even tell you what different brands of vodka are made from.
What is vodka?
The United States’ Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau used to read as follows: “‘Vodka’ is neutral spirits so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” However, many distillers took issue with the description of vodka as “without character.” The definition was recently revised to be much more specific, and many vodka distillers asked that this line be removed. One spirit produced specifically noted that the line “is no longer appropriate given the variety in base ingredients, flavors, and flavor profiles found in the diverse vodka category.”
It’s difficult to pin down what vodka actually tastes like. The spirit is intentionally designed not to take on too much flavor from its alcohol source. There are flavored vodkas infused with additives during the distillation process, but these vodkas follow a different set of government-defined criteria. Pure vodka must always be flavor-free.
What is vodka made from?
Vodka is made from alcohol created by fermenting high starch or high sugar plant matter with yeast. The type of plant matter used varies from brand to brand. Vodka is traditionally made from grain, with rye being the most common. However, wheat, corn, and potatoes are also used fairly often.
Vodka can also be made from fruit, like grapes or sugar cane, or even milk whey. However, grains and potatoes are much more common, as they have a much more neutral flavor profile than sugar or fruit-based vodka. Neutrality is usually desirable when it comes to vodka, as that’s what makes it so versatile.
The strain of yeast used to convert the sugar molecules into alcohol is also a key ingredient. The type of yeast varies from brand to brand and is usually a closely guarded secret. If the plant matter used as the base is extremely starchy, enzymes are often added to help convert the starch to sugar, so the yeast can eat it. This creates the raw alcohol, which is then distilled, diluted, and filtered to make vodka.
How is vodka made?
There are four major steps to the vodka-making process: fermentation, distillation, dilution, and filtration. It begins with a mash of grain, potato, fruit, or other plant material, which is combined with water and heated to create a pulp. Yeast is then added to the pulp, which initiates fermentation, and the yeast begins converting the sugars to alcohol.
Next, the raw spirit is distilled. This purifies the vodka and filters out any unwanted elements that would affect the flavor or texture of the final product. The distillation process also removes the water added earlier in the process, which increased the alcohol by volume, or ABV%. Many brands distill their vodka multiple times to create a higher quality product. For example, Ciroc, a French vodka, is distilled five times.
Some types of vodkas, called rectified spirits, are sold at this stage of the production process. They’re extremely high in alcohol and are meant to be mixed with water or another liquid before being consumed. A prominent example of this is Everclear, which is sold at a variety of high proofs, including 120 proof, 151 proof, 189 proof, and 190 proof. However, most vodkas are diluted with water before being bottled and sold.
Depending on the purity of the water used for dilution, some vodkas need to be filtered before being bottled. At the very least, most brands will demineralize their vodka, so the final product doesn’t become cloudy over time. Some vodkas are filtered through charcoal, lava rocks, or quartz crystals to further remove unwanted elements. The filtering process affects the vodka’s overall characteristics, including its nose, palate, and finish.
After the filtration process, most vodkas can be bottled and shipped right away. There are, however, a few types of vodka that are left to mature in oak casks stored underground. At this stage, if the vodka passes inspection, it can be bottled, labeled, and shipped out to be sold.
Is vodka considered gluten-free?
Even though it is often made from a base of grains, pure, distilled vodka is considered gluten-free. Most vodkas are safe to drink for those with gluten sensitivities or Celiac disease because of the distillation process. However, those with severe insensitivities should be on the lookout for hidden gluten in vodkas with flavors or other ingredients added after distillation.
Pure vodka typically only contains water and ethanol, both of which are gluten-free. However, vodka can sometimes contain traces of other ingredients. Since vodka distilleries often have large amounts of grains present, there is also a slight risk of cross-contamination.
Vodkas that are certified gluten-free include:
- Tito’s Handmade Vodka
- Crystal Head Vodka
- Ciroc Vodka
- Grey Goose French Premium Vodka
- Smirnoff Vodka
- Burnett’s Vodka
What are common vodka brands made from?
Here are the base ingredients for some of the most popular vodkas on the market today.
Tito’s Handmade Vodka
Tito’s Handmade Vodka is made in small batches in old-fashioned pot stills, just like scotch or Cognac would be made. Tito’s is distilled and bottled in Austin, Texas, and made from an entirely corn mash base. This makes it naturally gluten-free, as certified by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TBB).
Ciroc is a French vodka with slightly fruity notes. This is because Ciroc is distilled from grapes harvested from the Gaillac and Cognac regions of France. Ciroc follows a cold fermentation process and is distilled five times for smoothness. Although it is distilled from grapes, Ciroc isn’t overly sweet or grape-y. It has subtle fruity notes, like orange, strawberry, and raspberry.
Grey Goose Vodka
Grey Goose is a premium French vodka that is crisp, clear, and aromatic. It’s said to be made from the highest-grade wheat and pristine limestone-filtered spring water. Even though it’s made from a base of wheat, it is certified gluten-free by the TBB. Grey Goose is known for its smoothness, subtle flavors of almond, and long, satisfying finish.
Chopin Vodka is a potato-based vodka. It has a creamy, full-bodied flavor profile, making it ideal for sipping neat or mixing into cocktails. Chopin is made in Poland and is made from Podlasie potatoes. It’s also 100% gluten-free.
Ketel One Vodka
Ketel One, a Dutch vodka, is made using 100% European wheat for smoothness and neutrality. Ketel One is distilled in copper pot stills, filtered over loose charcoal, and stored in lined tanks. It has a crisp, unique flavor and a strong finish.
Svedka is a Swedish vodka. It’s distilled five times from Swedish winter wheat, resulting in a clean, subtle, smooth, easy-to-drink vodka. It has a subtle, rounded sweetness, making it a perfect addition to a variety of cocktails. It has a clean, clear taste, with a balanced body and a crisp finish.
Skyy Vodka is made in California from heartland grains filtered through California limestone. It is quadruple-distilled and triple-filtered, resulting in extreme smoothness, medium body, and a dry, creamy mouth feel. It has spicy notes of coriander and anise and a subtle, peppery finish.
Belvedere is a Polish vodka made from Polish Dankowskie rye. It boasts incredible purity and smoothness and is quadruple-distilled and completely free of additives like sugar and glycerin. It is diluted with purified water, which allows the rye to be the star of the show. Belvedere is perfect for drinking on the rocks or mixing into your favorite cocktail.
Vodka can be made from a variety of different bases. Grains and potatoes are the most commonly used, but vodka can also be made from fruit or sugar cane. Rye is the traditional grain used in vodka making, but there are a huge variety of other grains used today. Regardless of what vodka is made from, it’s usually neutral in flavor, making it the most versatile liquor on the market today.
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