Friday, October 20, 2017

Also, You Can't Make Vodka in a Pot Still



I apparently struck a nerve with yesterday's Tito's post. In barely 24 hours it has received 135,000 pageviews. That is so much more than what my posts usually get, I am blown away. Now I know how Katy Perry feels.

The post has received many comments, both here and on Facebook, and I've received quite a few emails about it, including from industry folks. Several have pointed out the difficulty of distilling vodka in a pot still, especially a true alembic without the benefit of a rectification column. If you talk about 'old-fashioned pot stills,' as Tito's does, then you're talking about alembics like the ones pictured above.

The problem is that to strip 95 percent of the water from a fermented mash that is 8 to 10 percent alcohol, you need multiple passes through a pot still. That simply means you run it, then take the condensed distillate and run it through again. It takes eight to ten passes through a pot still to achieve the 95 percent alcohol concentration necessary for a spirit to be called vodka. That's just chemistry, there is no way around it.

If you would like a distiller to explain it in greater detail, click here.

Now on to economics. If you did run a spirit through a pot still ten times and achieved the 95 percent alcohol concentration, you couldn't charge $20 a bottle for it. There is too much time and labor involved. Don't say, "well maybe Tito has figured out a way." No, he hasn't, it can't be done and it is not being done, by Tito or anyone else.

Tito's isn't alone in this. Far from it. Many of the products marketed as 'legal moonshine' are the same deal. Some 'legal moonshine' is corn whiskey, some is 'sugar shine,' some is a mixture of the two. Many, including most of the flavored products, are our old friend grain neutral spirit (GNS), i.e., vodka. Since 'legal moonshine' isn't a recognized type of distilled spirit, the small print must tell you what it really is, although some use the catch-all 'distilled spirit specialty' classification, which doesn't really tell you anything. In many cases, though, the words 'grain neutral spirit' or 'neutral grain spirit' are right there on the label. You just have to look for it.

12 comments:

Ricky Christie said...

Talk to me about it - as the founder of Valt Single Malt Vodka - I know from hard experience. Our first and original production was in a traditional copper pot still 5 times to get the strength up. It meant that our base cost was initially twice the price because of the malted barley, but then 5 times that - our cost was 10 times more expensive than the next "premium" grain vodka to produce... It was fun - but certainly not a commercial proposition and we now have an integrated pot and column still.

Midas said...

Completely agree Ricky, we faced the same issue. Theoretically and technically it’s possible to achieve a pure and smooth 96% abv product, but commercially it doesn’t make any sense.

Tom said...

You can get 96% alcohol from a simple pot still in a single pass.
You can 96% from a funnel or a siphon too.
All you need to do is to start with 96% NGS.
I assume Tito's process is to dilute his store-bought NGS from it's initial strength of 96% by adding enough water to reduce the ABV to about 50%, and then to run it though a pot still with packed columns, bringing the abv back to 96% in a single pass.
But who knows, maybe he does not bother to bring it back all the way up to 96% abv, despite the legal requirement to do that. Since Tito'e entire business practice is to fool the consumer, it is reasonable to me that he is also fooling the regulators.
By the way, filling a still with a 96% abv NGS presents several practical challenges, top among which is that is would be very dangerous.

Brian McDaniel said...

A lot of this stuff is marketed at the kind of pop culture fans, especially fans of rock and hip-hop, who have odd ideas about "authenticity". Odd and naïve. I know because I used to be one of them. They (we) pick it up from certain magazines and TV stations, and now web sites. Nowadays I at least realize that Old Fashioneds are GOOD when made well. With real bourbon, not "legal moonshine". :)

Anonymous said...

There is no legal requirement for Tito's or any other Fakeillery to bring their bulk purchased NGS back up to 96%, nor could they in a pot still even at 50 passes. What they and other fakeries are doing is complying with OSHA requirements to cut their NGS with enough tap water to not blow up their buildings when they reheat their mix. In most cases the remix will come over at the same proof as would a whiskey, which is usually around 140p. Although most of the reheaters are running it so fast, that even 100p will work. They just need to bring the pot above 175degreees and "let it rip" to comply with the CFR Standards of Identity.

The rules that allow some consumer protection against this smoke and mirror scam is governed by the labeling CFR's. The TTB requires that if a company is going to reheat/redistill already produced NGS/Vodka, the redistiller is required to put a disclaimer on the back that says some derivation of : contains/made from 100% NGS/ Netural Grain Spirits. The next time you are in your friendly liquor store , or for that matter a craft distillery, just check the back of the vodka and Gin bottles. If it says 100% NGS, then it was more than likely produced by MGP ( you know them as the makers of the infamous Templeton Rye) for roughly 44cents per 750ml bottle.

The only difference between bottom shelf vodka and Tito's is the customer. Kind of makes you wonder how gullible people really are. We occasionally have people come into our distillery and tell us they normally drink Tito's and we always ask "why". In at least 80% of the cases, they respond "because it's cheap". We don't have the heart to tell them that if their desire is cheap NGS, they should just bend over further in the liquor store. It hard to say that to people who are already bent over, getting something stuck up their.......

Brian McDaniel said...

"Well, I prefer the bouquet of Belevedere, but it's a bit too pricey for me at the moment. Maybe at the end of the month."

potsy said...

Chuck I'm curious, how many pageviews does one of your typical blog postings get?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Not 500,000, as that one has done. Usually a couple thousand.

potsy said...

wow, i would have assumed much more than that. thanks for keeping it real...

MadMex said...

Tito is a mad, marketing, adult (Beveridge) genius. He's even quoted in FORBES - and cited here by Chuck C.

"First he had to face down the law. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission told him Texas had never licensed a distillery, since the laws wouldn't permit it. So Beveridge dug into the 3-inch-thick codebook and proved there was no such statute. The state deferred to the feds, who also said no; it could license only companies. Nope, Beveridge said, citing the reg, chapter and verse, to confirm that one-man shows were okay. "It was my bible for a while," he says."

TITO studied the Regulations like the TORAH/BIBLE and built a bleeping empire in 20 years. Son of a *****. Only in America. Only an American Entrepreneur. Only in Texas.
.
PS -- I bleeping hate vodka

Charles_in_TN said...

I don't fault Tito for his success. Glad to see an American business do well. I do wish there was a little more truth and a lot less flannel in US marketing. But you can't blame him. Look at ads for soap. In a pinch I can use a trial size body wash to shower, wash my hair, and shave. I have done it while camping. But if you watch the ads I would need a dozen products to accomplish those three tasks. No different.

Anonymous said...

So, what exactly is the difference between a Popov vodka and Belvedeere or Grey Goose?