Thursday, July 28, 2022

The Truth About Vodka

1995 ad from Smirnoff's 'Message in a Bottle' campaign.

In 2020, federal regulators in the U. S. dropped the rule that vodka has to be "without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color." Since they didn't change the definition of vodka, this means producers may now talk about and promote their product's distinctive character, aroma, taste, and color such as it is. Vodka is still defined as a spirit distilled above 95% ABV. That leaves little room for character, aroma, taste, or color. 

Here are some other facts about vodka. 

(1)  Vodka is not Russian. Especially after Russia's cruel and irrational invasion of Ukraine, people wondered if they should stop drinking vodka. Don't stop on that account. Vodka is not Russian. The word has its origins in Russian and other Slavic languages. It is simply the Slavic word for a clear, nearly-neutral spirit.  

(2)  Vodka is mostly water. Vodka has two ingredients, ethanol and water. The typical vodka is 40% ethanol and 60% water. From the cheapest to the most expensive, that's the ratio. A few brands contain slightly more ethanol but they aren't necessarily the more expensive ones. The label will tell you. The initials ABV mean "alcohol, by volume." Alcohol is just another word for ethanol. "I mean, it's not like they just take some ethanol and add water to it, right?" No, that's exactly what they do. They take 300 ml of ethanol, add 450 ml of water, and that's your bottle of vodka.

(3)  Vodka is not made from potatoes. Although there are a few potato vodkas, virtually all vodka is made from grain, mostly corn, less often rye, even less often everything else. Vodka can be made from anything that can be fermented, so fruit, sugar cane, agave, etc. It hardly matters when it is refined to more than 95% pure ethanol.

(4)  Vodka is nothing new. Americans first heard the term 'vodka' when Smirnoff was introduced in the United States in the 1930s, after Prohibition. They didn't do much business until they launched the "Smirnoff Leaves You Breathless" advertising campaign in 1958. The idea was that if you drank vodka at lunch, instead of whiskey or beer, no one would be able to smell it on your breath! It was a huge success. Before Smirnoff, American distilleries sold something they called 'grain alcohol,' mostly as an ingredient for other things. A few people drank it. After Smirnoff took off, that product was rebranded as vodka.

(5)  Most companies that sell vodka don't make it. Because there are so many brands on the shelf and every company seems to have at least one vodka in its portfolio, and some have dozens, you might think many different companies make vodka. In fact, it is more like a handful. These specialists distill virtually all of the world's ethanol, even for the biggest brands, imported and domestic. Liquor companies buy it like they do any other commodity, based on price and availability. 

(6)  Vodka is an ingredient in many other drink and non-drink products. There is little difference between the ethanol you drink and the ethanol in your car. Vodka is ethanol with slight additional processing, if any. Add juniper and some other flavors, it's gin. Add caraway seeds, it's akvavit. Add peppermint and sugar, it's peppermint schnapps.* Add orange and sugar, it's triple-sec. If it's not whiskey, tequila, brandy, or rum, then vodka is the alcohol in the drink. It's also in fuels, drugs, explosives, synthetic fibers, and many other products.

(7)  Buy what you want, drink what you want. Decadence has been defined as the most for the least. Expensive vodka in a fancy bottle is just ethanol and water. It cannot be otherwise. Consumption doesn't get more conspicuous than that. Go big or go home. You deserve it.


* In the original post, this example said 'Kahlua.' That was a bad choice. Kahlua, in fact, is made with white rum, which is nearly neutral but not quite, and most other coffee liqueurs have rum, brandy, or tequila as their base too, not neutral spirit. The point was that most liqueurs, schnapps, cordials, etc., have neutral spirit as their base. 


Sam Komlenic said...

When Sidney Frank, the creator of Grey Goose, died in 2006, NPR did a piece on the success of that brand, and that the very first decision he made, well before production ever started, was the high-end MSRP. They then interviewed a specialist in organoleptic analysis who had run tests on three vodkas provided by NPR. One was a bottom-shelf brand, one a bulk vodka like those available from MGP and ADM, and the third was the Goose.

Based purely on her analysis and not taste, she was asked to rate the three for perceived quality. Her first choice was the bottom-shelfer, her second the bulk brand, and her third was Frank's creation.

And people place importance as regards this category of spirit. Sidney Frank was a genius!

Bill said...

Pretty sure that Kahlua is made with rum. Maybe rum and vodka, and they don't mention the vodka?

Richard Turner said...

FWIW, my favorite vodka for about ten years has been Rain, from Buffalo Trace. Partly for the snazzy bottle (not kidding, I actually love the big one, which I have filled with water on my mantle). I realize that vodka is preferred by many for its total lack of flavor... its extremely "clean" taste/aroma. This is the main reason I like Rain; it actually has flavor and some noticeable aroma. ...And, it can be a treat unmixed over a cube or two. It tastes and smells to me like popcorn. I seem to remember hearing from someone that it's distilled from 100% corn. So maybe that's why.

Anonymous said...

So, is gin really flavored vodka? I had thought the juniper, etc was added during the distillation. No?

Chuck Cowdery said...

There are a couple of different ways to make gin but, yes, gin is the original flavored vodka.

Anonymous said...

Comical. Using your reply "gin is the original flavored vodka" in a search gave me the correct info.

Chuck Cowdery said...

If you saw the same thing I did when I Googled it, that's misleading. No matter how the botanicals are added, whether through infusion or a flavoring concentrate, gin is still made by flavoring neutral spirit, i.e., vodka. Under British law, the gin producer is required to use neutral spirit, made separately from the gin-making process. That is for distilled gin. Most gin sold is compound gin, which is manufactured by simply adding a flavor concentrate to neutral spirit. I've done it, at one of the major producers. Gin is flavored vodka, regardless of the spin gin producers want to put on it. Nothing wrong with it. I love gin.

Anonymous said...

That's even more comical. I used DuckDuckGo. I searched again with Google and got what you referred to. Quite different results!

Rob Arnold, PhD said...

For what it's worth, all distilled spirits are mostly water (when below 50% ABV) or mostly ethanol (when above 50% ABV). Even in whiskey, flavor compounds account for less than 1% of the mixture's composition. Pretty amazing how sensitive the human senses are to certain esters, higher alcohols, terpenes, aldehydes, phenols, lactones, and the list goes on!

Anonymous said...

Regarding the mostly water aspect, In the late '90s, I was highly amused by a display of "light vodka" being sold at a premium. You guessed it, diluted to 40 proof and sold somehow without breaking a straight face.