Monday, April 30, 2018

Trolling Vodka World

I had a little harmless fun today on Facebook by posting the following statement: "'Craft Vodka' is an oxymoron."

The crowd went wild.

Simple trolls are best because they allow people to respond with their pet prejudices and most practiced arguments, with little regard for the subject of the original post. With a simple troll, many commenters just free associate. It can be entertaining and sometimes illuminating.

The best part about this one is that everybody missed the point.

'Craft Vodka' is an oxymoron, not because of the word 'craft' but because of the word 'vodka,' which is nothing more than a fanciful name for ethanol or, rather, ethanol diluted with water. Ethanol is a type of alcohol, the type we drink. The typical 80° proof vodka is 40 percent ethanol, 60 percent water.

There is ethanol in whiskey, of course, but whiskey (or tequila, etc.) isn't pure ethanol, which is what vodka is supposed to be.

This is not to say all vodkas are identical, anymore than any two glasses of water from different sources are identical. Humans can detect extremely subtle flavors and especially aromas, so the idea that some vodkas taste better than others is not fantasy, although what craft there is to it has more to do with filtration techniques and materials than anything else.

With something like beverages, a skilled craftsperson can make a product that is better than what can be mass-produced. The pertinent question is how much better and at what cost? There is, however, one drink that a factory can almost always make better than a craftsperson and that's vodka, because the making of ethanol is a highly developed industrial process. If the goal is ethanol that is as nearly pure as can be made, you want a machine to make it.

If you drink and like vodka, you can easily understand why this is true. People talk about good vodka in terms of the flavors that aren't there, not the flavors that are. The best vodkas, according to most drinkers, are the ones that taste most like water and 'don't taste like alcohol.'

There is one form of vodka that is, or at least can be, genuinely craft and that is flavored vodka. There the craft isn't in making the ethanol, it is in flavoring it. Gin, for example, is an example of a flavored ethanol product. I made gin once, at one of the big producers. I climbed up to the top of a huge tank of ethanol and poured in about a quart of 'gin essence' purchased from a flavorings house. Voila, I made gin, thousands of cases of it. There wasn't any craft in it, of course. The craft in gin-making, and vodka-flavoring, is in how one selects and processes the flavoring ingredients and how one infuses them into the spirit. That is a real craft requiring creativity, skill and experience.

Vodka is a great way to put alcohol into a drink that gets its flavor and character from its non-alcohol ingredients, but it is not so much a drink itself. It is an alcohol delivery system.

Vodka is also a great vehicle for embodying a particular self-image in a consumer product. That explains why there are so many different vodkas at such a vast range of prices. Get some ethanol, do perhaps some filtering to remove any lingering unpleasant flavors or aromas, then package and market it based on the simple premise of giving people what they want. Maybe you call it 'moonshine.' Maybe you make it in France, from grapes. Maybe you put it in an elegant bottle, give it an exotic-sounding name, and charge a ridiculous amount of money for it, some of which you pay to a suitable celebrity to endorse it. Since vodka is cheap to make, the money can be spent on marketing.

Very few people distill vodka themselves. Most buy it from one of the huge producers who simply make ethanol, some of which is used for drinks, some for medicine, some for fuel, etc. Even the big liquor companies like Diageo and Beam-Suntory don't distill the ethanol they use for their vodka, gin, and liqueur products. They buy it like they buy sugar or any other commodity. The companies that make it all seem to have names that consist of three initials: like MGP, ADM, and GPC.

Most vodka is made from corn (maize), which is why it can be labeled 'gluten free.' Other cereal grains can be and sometimes are used, whatever is cheapest at any given moment. A synonym for ethanol, common in the beverage world, is 'neutral spirit.' U.S. law requires products that contain neutral spirit to identify the source of the spirit, so ethanol made from corn is 'grain neutral spirit' (or 'neutral grain spirit'), ethanol made from sugar cane is 'cane neutral spirit' and so on.

Although ethanol can be refined to 100 percent purity, destroying every trace of the ingredients from which it was made, ethanol likes water too much to stay that dry for long. It quickly absorbs moisture from the atmosphere and stabilizes at about 96 percent. The regulations call it "at or above 190[deg] proof." Then, of course, water is added by the producer to dilute it to, typically, 40 percent.

The last time I wrote this much about vodka was last fall when I wrote about Tito's. As of today, that post has gotten 553,884 page views, my personal best.


Anonymous said...

I dispute your assertion that alcohol can be distilled to only 95 % on scale. It is true that there is an azeotrope, but this can be broken in various ways to produce 200 proof beverage-grade alcohol. See for instance:
Of course, this matters little in terms of the final, rediluted product.
On another note, I have made gin from alcohol, water, herbs, and a column still, and it can be a craft product. That did not stop my product from tasting like drinking a Christmas tree :-P

Brian McDaniel said...

So when James Bond recommends "a vodka made with grain instead of potatoes", is he just being pretentious?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Depends on where he was when he said it. In Poland, for example, potato vodka may well be the default. But my theory about the way Bond orders drinks is that he does it as a distraction, to keep anyone who might be listening off-balance.

Anonymous said...

We distill vodka from grapes, and we do so at the absolute minimum legal requirement to carry over viscosity and flavor. You seem to be confusing mass produced ethanol, with the ability to adjust distillation parameters on purpose. But I understand. You always seem to think bigger is better, when in fact bigger is just common.

Brian McDaniel said...

"Vodka is, by definition; colorless, odorless and tasteless." Basically your vodka distilled from grapes is designed to NOT have any off-flavors.

Unknown said...

I had to use anhydrous alcohol (in theory 100% alcohol until you open the bottle) once for a procedure. The pharmacy kept it locked in the cabinet with the Schedule II narcotics!

In my opinion, flavored vodka is only useful for cleaning windows.

Anonymous said...

Actually we distill our vodka from grapes at 190p, not 195, as allowed by law.
As for the misconception that vodka is by definition , colorless, odorless and tasteless, that is not the law. The law is that it shall be produced to without "distinctive" character, aroma, taste or color. Without distinctive is a far cry from no flavor or aroma. For drinkers who pontificate ad nauseum about the subtle differences between 48 month old and 60 month old identical mash bill product, you should know better.

Chuck Cowdery said...

The truth here is that a distiller, craft or otherwise, who makes the distillation cut at 190° proof instead of pushing on to 200° can retain 5% of the flavor created during fermentation or from the original ingredients. That's not a lot but, as they say, it's not nothing.

Mark McGuire said...

James Bond came about in the mid/late 50'2-early 60's. At that time most Eastern Europeans &/or Soviet Union vodkas were produced with a crop that they had plenty of...the potato. At that time the few Western vodkas that were made were generally made with grain (which 'we' had plenty of). The difference, then, was not with which "starch / carbohydrate" source that you used; but rather the quality of the mashing/distilling process used. 'We' had the distilling knowledge to not allow "heads or tails" (vodka in the Eastern block at that time was made by batch, in lack of a better term, a pot still) into the product due to 'our' use of the Coffey still (&/or quality control of 'our' pot stills). That is why, when he ordered a vodka "cocktail" (Martini's are made with GIN & always stirred), he always ordered then "shaken not stirred". He was trying to dilute the nasty tasting distillate with more water through a 'harder' shaking & aeration. So no James Bond is not being pretentious, but rather trying to make it somewhat more palatable.

Brian McDaniel said...

I think Casino Royale is the only novel where he orders it shaken. Unless I am forgetting one.

Unknown said...

Late to the party here, but THAT mY be the BEST f-ing post I've seen all year. IBTT (I bow to thee)

Anonymous said...

During my recent visit to California I saw an "All Purpose Vodka" at Trader Joe's. Multiple bottles there had lot/batch numbers and distillation/bottling dates, etc. as if they were whisky. Hilarious.