What Is Vodka Made From?
VODKA VARIETALS – THE GENESIS OF VODKA
Part of what makes vodka so appealing is that it’s a so-called ‘neutral spirit’, meaning that it’s largely free of discernible flavours left by impurities. In fact, by very definition vodka must be ‘flavorless, colorless, and odorless’.
Though vodka is produced through the fermentation of a wide array of ingredients from potatoes, to grains, to grapes, the end result is largely the same: a smooth, clean, and delicious spirit adored the world over. Which begs the question: why are there so many vodkas at so many price points out there?
The fact of the matter is that though vodka is adored largely because it’s a veritable Swiss Army knife of spirits, there’s a huge breadth of subtle flavors, textures, and finishes to be discovered and enjoyed by the discerning vodka drinker.
Why So Much Variety?
For the uninitiated, the dizzying array of vodkas available – and the myriad ingredients they are distilled from – can seem strange given they the end result for nearly all of them is a flavorless, clear spirit. The fact of the matter is that these ingredients are typically the result of geography, with different cultures and regions of the world seeking out whatever was abundant and available to produce their own version of vodka.
Today, the vodka drinker is not shackled by the ingredients outside their front door. In fact, a trip down almost any vodka aisle will act as the story of how one spirit’s versatility took over the global drinking public. So, what is Vodka made from? And more importantly, which is the best vodka for a drink like a mule?
Here is a breakdown of the most common everyday grains, fruits and carbs used to make vodka.
Vodka 101: Understanding Ingredients
Vodka can be distilled from any type of sugar-free or sugar-rich plant material. Though most of the world’s vodka is produced from grains, ingredients such as potatoes, fruit, and soy can be used: essentially the limits of vodka are those of the distiller’s imagination.
Grains like wheat, rye, and barley are known to produce some of the highest quality vodkas in the world. It was grain vodkas that stormed across the Atlantic after prohibition, winning over the American public with their flavour and versatility.
When it comes to grain-based vodkas, people will often talk about ‘terroir’, or the soil/region that the respective grain came from. The starch content of many grains is ultimately affected by the soil, climate, and post-harvest processing; all factors that contribute to how the final product tastes.
Above all, grain vodkas are prized for their ‘clean’ flavour and texture, featuring a smooth mouthfeel, and pleasant sweetness.
Though fruit-flavored vodkas have flooded the market in recent years, you may be surprised to learn that in most cases these are not fruit-distilled vodkas at all, but more traditionally prepared spirits flavored after the fact. Though a true vodka distilled from fruit will still maintain the required definitions of being “tasteless, odorless, and colorless”, like all the vodkas listed here, it’s the subtle nuances that count.
Fruit vodkas often result in a higher proof than their grain and potato-based brethren, mostly due to the high amount of sugar that’s available to be converted into precious alcohol. Those sugars that remain unconverted are what give fruit vodkas an ethereal sweetness, and almost syrupy mouthfeel.
This is the original ingredient that Russians and Poles – we won’t dive into the argument of who got there first – used to produce vodka. The primary reason for this is because potatoes are plentiful, inexpensive, and easy to grow in an unforgiving Eastern European climate. However, the potato is an extremely complex and dense starch, which means that producing a high-quality vodka from them can be very difficult.
In terms of their flavor, potato vodkas are known primarily for their mouthfeel, creating a somewhat thick, oily feeling in the mouth (particularly when served chilled). And because potatoes tend to introduce a lot of impurities to the finished spirit, filtering and multiple distillations are what will separate the best potato vodkas from the discount brands.
Other Varieties of Vodka:
With the global appetite for vodka showing no signs of slowing, it’s no surprise that almost any starch known to man is being tested as the hot new ingredient for this spirit. Though there are far too many to be addressed here, some of the most notable and en-vogue ingredients out there today include hemp, quinoa, and spelt. And before you turn up your nose at these unique ingredients, it’s worth remembering that in a war-ravaged Europe, ingredients like leftover wood pulp from the paper-making process was put to use in producing vodka for troops on the front.
Ultimately, though vodkas are by definition a neutral spirit devoid of color, taste, or smell, there’s an entire world of subtle nuances and textures that endear certain vodkas to certain drinkers. Whether it’s the warming, almost oily mouthfeel of a potato vodka on a cold winter night, or the ‘clean’ sweetness of a grain vodka on a hot summer day, there’s a world of flavour to be found in this ‘flavorless’ spirit.