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How vodka is made and why it's the most diverse category of spirit

by Robin Sinhababu 6 min read

 The more we know, the less we think we know. Whether we’re into architecture, Zydeco, or cocktails, every lesson learned opens doors to a few others, and the world grows more vast and full of possibility. 

Are you in a bourbon, vermouth, or mezcal phase? Obsessed with tiki culture, Japanese bartending, or mixing the perfect daiquiri, without an end in sight? Wherever you’re at, there’s enough information available today - and more than enough products in today’s spirits market - to make just about any niche feel like the deepest and most infinite of them all, the one true thing.
In this six-part series, we’ll make the case for each of the six major spirit categories as the most diverse in all of booze. This month, we’re certain that vodka is the broadest, furthest-reaching category of spirit. Yes, you read that right. In fact, this isn’t a six-part series, it’s a one-part series. Once we’re through here, there’ll be no need to mention, let alone drink, anything but vodka again. 



You can make vodka from anything containing starch or sugar, so any fruit, vegetable, or grain will do. You'll combine that with water and rely on yeast to turn the sugars in that wet base ingredient to alcohol through the process of fermentation. If you’re starting with something non-sugary, like rye or potatoes, you’ll need to let enzymes break the starch into sugar. This fermentation process will take at least a few days and will depend on how fast-acting your yeast is and the temperature of the tank containing the yeast, grain/vegetable/fruit, and water.


During the fermentation process, yeast will eat this sugar and emit alcohol and carbon dioxide. The CO2can blow away, but the alcohol will stay suspended in the water - up to 15 to 20 percent, about as boozy as yeast can handle. That’s where you start distillation: heating the liquid and letting the low boiling point of ethanol evaporate it up and around into a condensation chamber.


By law, you’ll need to gather it in a nearly pure form: at least 95% alcohol, and no more than five percent water or other vapors. You could choose to get there by distilling it again (“double-distilling,” “triple-distilling”), increasing concentration while reducing impurities (or flavors). Most vodkas on the market are distilled more than once in an attempt to capture the most clean, pure taste.


Once you reach the desired concentration, cut it with water down to the standard 40% (80 proof) or up to 88% (a la Serbia’s Balkan).




Varieties of whole grains


Much as soccer stretches all over the world in a way tennis and basketball cannot, vodka’s minimal equipment and ingredient requirements make it global. It requires no specific fruit or grain, but one crop of any kind. Even a staple will do. It requires no single terroir and no specific process of cooking before distillation or aging afterward, so it isn’t dependent on the availability of wood, steel, space or time.


Despite the vast, global sets of options that can be used to meet these very loose requirements, vodka finds itself panned time and again for blandness and mundanity. Pay these sneers no mind - like anything this deep, vodka reveals itself slowly, and only with effort and respect.


Vodkas lined up in glasses for tasting


Perhaps you have observed the connoisseurs of spirits like Scotch and aged rum compare old and new bottles of the same entry of the same brand of liquor, hoping to find subtle differences between eras of production. What they’re likely to find, however, are the mere generational inconsistencies that appear when distilling crop mashes at lower proofs, muddied further by the vagaries of oak-aging.


Vodkas, on the other hand, are truly fascinating to examine side-by-side, whether in a historical way or simply by comparing modern brands. Fine variations in aroma and huge differences in texture make A/B-ing them a revealing exercise that sharpens your palate.





The modern back bar features a cornucopia of singular, aggressive flavors, and balancing them in a cocktail is made only more complicated by factoring the powerful base spirit into the equation. But when you just want to focus on the wild flavors of your accents and modifiers, painting them on the neutral canvas of vodka as base spirit is a great way to let them shine. In Houston Eaves’s infamous Smokin’ Gypsy, a shootout between rich Benedictine, fiery Balcones Brimstone, searing Bad Dog Fire and Damnation bitters, and tannic Angostura, it’s hard to imagine anything other than clean, neutral vodka as the venue. A similar principle applies - and goes down much easier - in the Algonquian Sour.


The balancing act isn’t always that complex. When you want to showcase the synergy of just two flavors, as is popularly done in the Moscow Mule, vodka is the ideal foundation. When these flavors come from modifiers - as in the 1/4 oz pours of the Cristallino - the base spirit's much larger pour requires it to be even less obtrusive. Only vodka will do.


The same principle applies to the martini, which itself is at its most manifold when built on vodka. Though not all vodka and vermouth combinations are created equal, the very idea is more flexible than that of the gin martini, where each gin's unwieldy, concave flavor profile limits the number of truly delicious vermouth, bitter, and garnish choices.


Classic Eastern pairing of herb-infused vodkas with caviar on blini


The pristine clarity of vodka also lends itself to infinite variations, via infusions. Bars in America, Russia, and Central Asia may feature long lists of house preparations. The flavor of the infusion will present strongly in every one, opening the door to infused cocktails like the Triple Entendre, where vodka  - by its neutrality - can match up with one of the more powerful spirits in your bar.


Polugar buckwheat vodka


When you’re looking for the opposite of that - a bold, expressive spirit, redolent of its mash - once again, you can’t do better than vodka. From the piercing rye spice of Poland’s Potocki, to the gentle, silken sweetness of Pennsylvania’s Boyd & Blair, back to the truly original, oily, herbal, and gently grainy buckwheatiness of Poland’s classic Polugar, vodka has no peer as a showcase of mash. As the simplest spirit to distill, it stands ready to capture and express crops the world over.


Why seek the taste of rye in whiskey, where decades of pesky oak may obscure the hard-won grain aromas? Why shell out for the artistry of producers like Koval to taste millet and oat spirits in costly whiskey forms, when delicious vodka alternatives are available? We don’t like to raise questions we can’t answer, but these are mysteries to us, too.





Even the law has caught up to vodka’s supremacy, and we don’t mean its put an end to it. No, this May, the TTB amended its official definition of vodka, which guides how distillers may label and market their spirits, to remove the clearly problematic “without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.” The TTB “hereby declared obsolete” eleven separate Rulings pertaining to vodka going back as far as 1955.


VERKHNIE MANDROGI, RUSSIA - October 03, 2020: Showcase of a gigantic collection of vodka bottles at the Vodka Museum at the Verkhnie Mandrogi craft and museum tourist center. (inset)





This majestic spirit can be made from any grain, any fruit, or any starch, anywhere in the world, any number of ways. It can cleanly and beautifully express the bounty of nature from which it arose, yet it is the one spirit that cannot be said to clash with any other. It’s indispensable for cocktails, and yet is finally finding its deserved place as a grain essence, best savored neat or on the rocks. It’s a wonder, really, that there remains this single word to encompass such a vast world of spirit.


Or perhaps that’s as it should be. “Vodka's vodka,” Steven Robbins rightly says. “It's favored for its neutrality since the '50s. Very indicative of that zeitgeist, impending modernity, and a regrettable homogenization of taste.”


Interested in the rest of this ongoing six-part series on spirits? Check out our other articles on how whiskey and gin are made.


Vodka in glass topped with rye bread

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