Vodka Basics to Learn for Your Next PurchaseBy Stephanie Moreno
While whiskey and tequila have been making up ground in recent years, vodka is still the most popular spirit in the world (for now). According to the Distilled Spirits Council, vodka sales in the US — which represents the 2nd largest spirits market in the world — has the largest share in both revenue ($7.2 Billion) and volume (76.9 million 9-liter cases sold) in 2022. But while you may have had your fair share of vodka sodas over the years, you may not know the differences between the brands or how it’s made. Below, we’ll cover a few vodka basics so you can better understand the category and to help you decide on your next purchase.
When discussing spirits, it’s best to begin with the base ingredient. Most of the larger spirits categories are limited in their ingredient list. For example, all whiskeys must be made from grain. More specifically, bourbon is mostly corn while single malt whisky is made from malted barley. Meanwhile, brandy is made from fruit, and rum is made from sugarcane and/or its by-products. However, vodka can be made from any fermentable ingredient.
Traditionally, vodka has been made from either grains or potatoes, which are still the go-to ingredient choices. But vodka can also be made from other common agricultural products such as fruit, molasses or sugar beets. In fact, there are a few vodka producers using unexpected ingredients such as flowers or milk.
Of course, vodka is also known for what it lacks, and that’s flavor — or at least that’s how it used to be defined. The government agency that regulates alcoholic beverages in the US, the Alcoholic Trade and Tax Bureau (TTB), recently updated its standard for vodka. Previously, the TTB defined vodka as a spirit “without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color,” but that has been removed from its regulations.
Among a few other details regarding wood aging (not allowed unless the casks are lined with paraffin), and when a vodka can be listed as “charcoal filtered,” the current US definition for vodka is: “Neutral spirits which may be treated with up to two grams per liter of sugar and up to one gram per liter of citric acid.”
Of course, we’re talking about unflavored vodka basics here. Flavored vodkas are — flavored. And that’s a discussion for another day.
Where It’s Made
Unlike some other spirits like tequila, vodka can be made anywhere in the world. Both Russia and Poland claim to be the originators of vodka, but historians continue to disagree on this point. Beyond those two countries, other Central and Eastern European countries like Latvia, Slovakia and Ukraine are large producers. Very generally, you can expect vodkas from the aforementioned countries to be a bit more robust and flavorful when highlighting their base ingredient.
Scandinavian vodkas such as those from Sweden, Finland, and Denmark tend to be more neutral in flavor. Meanwhile, vodkas in the US can be either robust or neutral, but expect larger brands such as Tito’s, Smirnoff and (recently updated) SKYY to lean neutral.
How It’s Made
Since we’re covering vodka basics, we’ll spare you the technical details about the distillation process itself. But as a matter of comparison, vodka is distilled to a much higher alcohol-by-volume than bourbon (~ 95% ABV compared to 80% ABV). This is because vodka producers are aiming for a more neutral flavor than bourbon. To achieve this, vodka producers will use continuous column stills in the distillation process.
One thing that is often mentioned in vodka marketing materials is the number of times a vodka is distilled. Ignore this. While that number is helpful when talking about batch distillation (like single malts which are pot distilled), it is utterly meaningless when a spirit is column distilled. These marketers are counting the number of times a spirit’s vapor passes through each plate in a column still as a single distillation. These claims are confusing at best or just straight out deceptive. Look for other production details to help make your purchase.
In the US, vodka must be bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV. That means the other crucial ingredient is water, since it is 60% of your volume. This makes the source of the water very important. Of course, other spirits add water to their products as well, but neutrality isn’t what those spirits are after.
What’s often overlooked in vodka production is the filtration process. While some producers opt out of filtering their vodka beyond the larger particulates, most choose to filter. Not only does this process help to remove impurities in a vodka, but it also affects the mouthfeel. Charcoal filtration is the most common, but quartz crystals, paper, lava rocks, coconut shells and even crushed diamonds have been used.
Vodka Brand by Ingredient
So know that you know a few vodka basics facts, you’re ready to make some purchases. We’ve selected a few brands and categorized them by their base ingredient. This makes shopping for your next tasting party a breeze. Do a vertical tasting by getting all of the same vodka ingredient, or mix and match to figure out which style you like best!
Rye vodkas are generally robust and have dark, spicy profiles.
We like Belvedere Vodka, Sobieski Vodka, and Square One Organic Vodka.
Wheat vodkas tend to be slightly sweet with a wheat cracker flavor and citrus note.
Our favorites include Ketel One Vodka, Absolut Vodka, and TILL American Wheat Vodka.
Potato vodkas are typically creamy, full-bodied, and earthy.
Look for Chopin Potato Vodka (they make Wheat and Organic Rye versions as well), Luksusowa Vodka, and Woody Creek Potato Vodka.
Corn vodkas generally provide a rich mouth feel and popcorn, buttery sweetness.
Naturally, the US is the king of corn vodka production with Smirnoff No. 21 Vodka, Prairie Organic Vodka and of course, Tito’s Vodka.
Mixed grain vodka producers use a unique blend of ingredients to get the balance right.
Our recommendations include Reyka Vodka (malted barley & wheat), Purity Signature 34 Vodka (organic barley & winter wheat), and St. George’s All-Purpose Vodka (pears & grain).
As we mentioned before, vodka can be made from any agricultural product. The base ingredients below give a delicate, yet distinct flavor which makes them great sippers.
Try Haku Vodka (Japanese rice), Black Cow Vodka (milk), and Ocean Organic Vodka (organic sugarcane).
How to Find Your Perfect Vodka Bottle
Filtering by category in the Distiller app allows you to browse each vodka style individually. Plus when you upgrade to Distiller Pro you can scan bottles on the go to quickly browse reviews, flavor profiles and more. As an exclusive article discount we’re giving you a free trial month when you use code ‘ARC7’ at checkout.
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