VODKA BASE INGREDIENTS
Any grain or foodstuff that contains sugar or starch can be used as the base ingredient to make vodka. Fruits, vegetables, even wood pulp – yeah that’s scary. But most super-premiums are made from either rye, wheat or barley.
Vodka is simply pure alcohol diluted with pure water. But in practice the alcohol is never completely pure, there are always trace congeners that impart subtle flavors to the vodka. The character of these flavors are determined by the base ingredient used to make the vodka mash.
While there are some who still think that all spirits taste the same, a spot check on what’s lurking inside some might give you pause. Are you a fan of drinking wood pulp, farm animal feed, or the byproduct of fossil fuel processing? If not, read on.
No matter what the base ingredient, the goal is to create a clear distilled spirit that is colorless, odorless, and for the most part, flavor neutral.
Making Great Vodka is both Style and Art
The “Eastern style” is a favorite among those who prefer a vodka that retains a hint of the character and subtle flavor of the base grain. The European Union legislation defines vodka as “a spirit drink in which the organoleptic characteristics, meaning the qualities relating to taste, color and odor of the raw materials, are selectively reduced.
“Eastern European or traditional vodkas” have less distillations. They tend to be more flavorful and complex and show better the influence of their mash bills.
The “Western” style” is better suited for those seeking a pure, neutral spirit. Western style vodkas are typically subject to multiple distillations and filtrations to create a more neutral spirit. In the United States, domestic vodkas are defined as “neutral spirits without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.”
Below you will find a range of popular premium vodkas made from a variety of base ingredients. By no means is this the definitive list. Consider this a starting point for exploration and discovery of your new favorite style of vodka.
Wheat is the most popular grain for vodka and the grain of choice in Russia. Wheat vodkas are frequently associated with a clean flavor and aniseed finish, sometimes with an oily mouth-feel.
Wheat vodkas have a distinctive sweet note––all though they are less sweet than corn-based vodkas. There are elements of lime and lemon zest, hints of toast or crackers, aniseed and licorice.
Absolut (Sweden), Grey Goose (France), Ketel One (Netherlands), Russian Standard (Russia), Pearl (Canada), Danika (Denmark), Khortytsa (Ukraine), Pinnacle (USA) are all examples of wheat vodkas.
Rye vodka is the richest and the most intense when it comes to taste and the aroma. It has nutty notes with a strong, long finish. Wheat vodkas are generally smoother. Rye is the most common raw material in Poland. It tends to produce vodka with a sweet spiciness.
Vodkas made with a mash bill of rye, retain their spicy notes of cinnamon, clove, black pepper and nutmeg. Think rye whiskey but a lot subtler. These vodkas tend to have more robust flavors compared to those made from other grains, and have a pumpernickel bread-like sweetness.
Award-Winning Belvedere meaning “beautiful to see” is named after the historic Presidential Palace in Warsaw, Poland. Other expressions of rye grain vodkas include Sobieski and Zouk.
Barley is the least common of the grains used in vodka, and is usually associated with Finland. It tends to have a slightly sweet flavor. Barley based vodkas tend to be lighter with a hint of acidity. They can be nutty and slightly spicy, although less so than rye.
Finlandia, made in Finland, is the most popular brand of vodka distilled entirely from barley, which is more commonly used to brew beer and to make Scotch whisky.
Spelt has made a comeback thanks to the proliferation of organic farming and its ability to flourish with less fertilizer than modern wheat. It also has the reputation that it is easier for the body to digest.
One of the original seven grains appearing in the Bible, spelt has literally been harvested for thousands of years. Cultivation of this once widespread grain remained popular until the 19th century when spelt fields were replaced by wheat crops for use in modern industrial farming. But for no other reason than wheat could be harvested in a single process, whereas spelt requires the extra step of removing each nugget from its hearty outer husk.
In the hierarchy of grains used for making vodka, spelt grains stands out and remains the most sought after grain in Europe.
Ciroc Unlike most vodkas, which are made from grain, CÎROC Vodka is distilled from French grapes; a process inspired by over a century of wine-making expertise and craftsmanship.
Potato vodkas are typically very creamy with an oily, viscous character and a pronounced palate weight. These vodkas can be fruity and earthy. They are closely associated with Poland, although they are made all over the world.
Potato vodkas tend to have a creamy flavor and texture, with a weighty mouthfeel. Wyborowa, pronounced “vee-bo-rova” was founded in 1927 and translates to “excellent”. Commonly referred to as “Wybo”, the Polish vodka is made from potatoes or cereals grown in Poland and contains no additives other than water.
Chopin is one of the most recognizable luxury vodkas in Poland, and around the world. It’s one of a few brands of Polish vodka that are still within Polish ownership. Award-winning Wyborowa is probably the most popular Polish vodka in the world and one of the most heavily consumed at Polish weddings.
Corn is also a popular distillate in the US because we grow so much of it. Top-selling brands, including Tito’s and Smirnoff, use it at their base. Corn is rightfully viewed as the source of sugars to fuel ethanol production. The reason the ethanol fuel industry frequently uses corn is because of the efficiencies in growing corn as well as the high yield in alcohol. Over time corn has been hybridized and modified to produce more sugars for an endless range of food products.
Corn vodkas are creamy with a sweet and buttery flavor. Imagine buttered popcorn. Corn has the largest yield of the grains and is generally only used in western-style vodkas.
Tito’s, the bestselling “craft” vodka in America is made using 100 percent corn. It imparts a little sweetness and subtle vanilla and caramel notes. As an added, bonus corn is naturally gluten free.
Other corn-based vodkas include Polar Ice (Canada), L’Chaim (Israel), Anastasia Vodka (USA) and Nikolai (USA), New Amsterdam (USA).
About “Craft Vodka” Distillers
“Craft” has no laws regulating its use and there’s no real consensus as to what craft actually means. Craft is open to interpretation and producers are free to make up their own definitions.
Many self-proclaimed craft distillers begin with neutral grain spirits purchased in bulk, then apply their own additional distillation and filtration protocols to get their desired aroma and flavor profile. Somewhere on the label will be something to the effect of “made” or “produced” with “neutral grain spirit”. These statements will also typically be preceded by a percentage number (it’s usually 100% in the case of vodka) which is a dead giveaway.
Seek out distillers that are making everything from scratch. They will use phrases like “distilled from corn” or “distilled from potatoes” and nothing more.
Premium vodkas will typically undergo additional distillations, either in a column still, pot or hybrid still, and then undergo complex filtration protocols before eventually being diluted down to the preferred bottling strength. Even though a vodka may be distilled numerous times, it will still retain trace amounts of impurities. The impurities that remain from fermentation (foodstuff) and yeast, help to distinguish vodkas in both taste and mouth-feel.
Don’t get get too infatuated with the number of times that a vodka is distilled. A brand like Ketel One is recognized as a top quality vodka and has won numerous awards. It is distilled only twice. Grey Goose, another perennial favorite is only distilled once.
The final variable that shapes a vodka’s aroma and taste profile are the number of times its filtered and the filter type. The principal purpose of filtration is to capture substances that might create disagreeable aromas and flavors. It can also be used to catalyze certain reactions that can improve the mouth-feel of a vodka.
The more times a vodka is filtered the more impurities will be removed; although the impact will diminish with each repetition. However, filtration is a double-edged sword because it can also remove desirable aromas and flavors. That’s why the choice of filtration material is so important, and why it can take months of trial and error to choose the right material and the optimal filtration method.
While most vodkas are sold as plain vodka, many are infused with additives to create flavored vodka. The process of flavoring vodka––so that it tastes like fruits, chocolate, botanicals and more ––usually occurs after fermentation and distillation. Various chemicals are used to reproduce the flavor profile and aroma.
The Opposite of Premium
In the United States, many vodkas are made from 95% pure grain alcohol produced in large quantities by agricultural-industrial giants by Archer Daniels Midland, Grain Processing Corporation and Midwest Grain Products (MGP). Bottlers purchase the base spirits in bulk, then filter, dilute, distribute and market the end product under a variety of vodka brand names.
Pure grain alcohol, also known as rectified spirit, neutral spirit, or ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin is also available directly to consumers in some areas, as products such as Everclear.
Final Tasting Notes
To fully appreciate vodka, it should be tasted like whisky – at room temperature, with a little water or ice. That way it will reveal its full aroma, taste and finish. Side note, vodkas served from freezer taste pretty much the same.
A great vodka will cause virtually no burning sensation. Last (but not least), If you’re looking to mix cocktails without imparting a vodka taste, Western-style vodkas made from grain are the clear choice. Pun intended.
It’s now time to find your new favorite brand. One you will proudly ask for by name.
We love to hear from you! Please let us know your preferred vodka brand and why in the comments section below.