The Diversity of Vodka
How do you determine if this clear neutral spirit is top quality and worth the extra cash?
If you are making mixed drinks, maybe it doesn’t matter so much if your vodka is crafted to perfection. However, if you are looking to make a spirit-forward cocktail or sip on a vodka straight, then it is important to determine quality and style. Although many vodkas remain neutral in taste to provide the ideal base for mixed drinks, some will deliver tastes and aromas beyond the taste alcohol itself.
The Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) states that vodka must be distilled or treated until it is "without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color." Hold on.... if everyone is required to make virtually the same tasteless colorless spirit, then how do producers make different products? Well, we are going to talk about how this spirit can become unique from one producer to the next. The starting material, fermentation process, distilling style, and processing can greatly influence a vodka’s aroma, flavor and mouthfeel. These differences alone can make vodka unique from one producer to the next.
The Starting Material
The starting material and fermentation process will determine what other chemicals (congeners) beside ethanol are produced. Starting material for vodka can vary from pure mash bills to combinations of wheat, corn, rye, oats, potatoes, molasses, and grapes. Some character is retained from raw material and carries through into the finished spirit either in terms of taste or texture or both. Starting material varies in sugar type and amino acid profiles and will lead to different ratios of congeners,.e.g., methanol, fusel alcohols, and esters, created by the yeast during fermentation. At Bently Heritage, we produce a vodka made from oats and wheat. We’ve identified the specific esters that elevate our product from just being a neutral vodka. When present in very small amounts, these compounds can add positive aromas and mouthfeel. However, too much of a certain congener can also create flaws in the vodka, which may not be removed during distillation. It is important to mention that the fermentation stage is where flaws can be created. Sulfur is easily created by stressed yeast or bacteria contamination. Yeast stress can be caused by many issues including too low or too high nitrogen content, too low oxygen, or too much alcohol. The goal is to start with quality grain, fruit, or molasses and have a healthy fermentation that creates as much ethanol as possible and limits congener concentrations. However, downstream processing can eliminate congeners to a certain extent.
Distillation can have a great effect on the final product. Distillation is a technique that uses a difference in boiling points to separate heads (unwanted low boiling compounds), from hearts (mainly ethanol or product), from tails (unwanted high boiling compounds). Unfortunately, a lot of the congeners produced during fermentation boil off at temperatures similar to ethanol, so precise control of the distillation process is necessary to ensure that these aren’t present in the final product. Distillers have control at the still and determine when product is collected and when congeners from heads and tails fractions get removed. At Bently Heritage, you can count on every drop of spirit being caressed from the still to the sweet melodic sounds of a banjo*. Congeners left in the product can add character or add an undesirable flavor. Often, vodka is distilled more than once to remove as many congeners as possible. In addition, many manufacturers filter the vodka through activated charcoal, which helps pull out any remaining congeners. In general, more distillation and filtration are equal to less congeners, leaving behind mainly ethanol and water. Despite distillation and multiple filtering, it is not possible to produce 100 % ethanol. Vodka is distilled to 95-96% alcohol by volume (ABV), depending on country regulation. The obtained solution also contains trace amounts of other compounds such as esters, aldehydes, higher alcohols, and methanol. The neutral spirit is then proofed down with water to bottling strength, typically 40% ABV.
Another processing step for vodka includes adding flavor additives. The TTB allows limited amounts of certain flavor additives, such as critic acid, sugar, and 3-Hexanone. Citric acid and glycerol can be used as smoothing agents to correct objectionable tastes. Sugar is used to sweeten vodka and is allowed up to 2,000 ppm. 3-Hexanone is used as a flavoring agent in specialty vodkas and its aroma is described as wine-like. In general, you will find craft distilleries are “purists” and would never add artificial flavors to their spirits. At Bently Heritage we focus on quality starting material and attention to detail during fermentation and processing. Then we simply let the spirit speak for itself.
Sometimes your high quality spirit is the result of very good marketing. It is common for companies to purchase a vodka concentrate, i.e., neutral grain spirit, in bulk from a handful of suppliers. Then they just add water, put it in a pretty bottle with a pretty label, and let marketers do their magic.
At the End of the Day
Ultimately it comes down to preference. If you are looking for a super clean vodka, look for a brand that boasts multiple distillations and filtering. If you are looking for more character in a vodka, it may be best to look at a craft distillery using a less common raw material or a unique process. The only way to really understand the differences is to taste them for yourself. It won’t take long to find that the most neutral spirit by definition does indeed have a distinctive character, aroma and taste.
Source One Vodka
For a truly unique and premium vodka, try our Source One. The oats used in this vodka provide a rich mouthfeel and sweetness, while the wheat adds hints of nuts and cereal; the finish is clean and bright. This vodka has all the hallmarks of a classic, with just a bit more body.