Vodka is an alcoholic beverage distilled at a high proof from a fermented vegetable or grain mash. Proof is a measurement of the alcohol content. Each degree of proof equals a half percent of alcohol. Thus, 100 proof is that which contains 50% alcohol, 90 proof contains 45%, and so on. Because distilled vodka can have a proof as high as 145, all taste and odor has been eliminated, making vodka a neutral spirit. Water is added to bring the proof down to a range between 80 and 100.
The practice of allowing certain grains, fruits, and sugars to ferment so that they produce an intoxicating beverage has been around since ancient times. Fermentation is a chemical change brought about by the yeast, bacteria, and mold in an animal or vegetable organism. In the production of alcoholic beverages, yeast enzymes act on the sugars in the mash (usually dextrose and maltose) and convert them to ethyl alcohol.
It was in the tenth century writings of an Arabian alchemist named Albukassen that the first written account of distillation was found. Distillation was also said mentioned among the writings of the thirteenth century Majorcan mystic Ramon Llull. Distillation is a heating and condensing process that drives gas or vapor from liquids or solids to form a new substance. Distilled spirits are also known as ardent (Latin for burn) spirits.
There is disagreement among Russians and Poles as to which country was the first to distill vodka. Most historical references credit Russia. In any event, the drinking of vodka has been documented since the fourth century in eastern and northern Europe. In those regions, it was common to distill alcoholic beverages to a very high proof, eliminating any aroma or flavor.
Vodka remained primarily an eastern and northern European preference for centuries. It was not until the 1930s that it began to gain popularity in Western Europe and North America. A 1930 British publication, the Savoy Cocktail Book, was the first to include recipes for vodka drinks. The “Blue Monday” combined vodka with Cointreau and blue vegetable juice. A “Russian Cocktail” called for the addition of creme de cacao and dry gin to the neutral spirit.
One the primary vodka producers, the Smirnoff family distillery began business in 1818 in Moscow. A century later the distillery was churning out one million bottles daily. However, after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the family lost control of the business. In 1934, a Russian immigrant named Rudolph Kunitt, bought the American rights to the Smimoff name. Kunitt opened a distillery in Bethel, Connecticut, and struggled along for five years, at best only producing 20 cases a day. He sold his business to the Heublein Company in 1939.
Heublein executive John C. Martin found that vodka was especially popular in the California film industry and he cultivated those customers. In 1946, he met the owner of a Los Angeles restaurant, the Cock ‘n’ Bull, who was trying to unload an overstock of ginger beer. Since one of vodka’s attributes is its ability to mix with almost anything, the two men experimented with a vodka and ginger beer concoction. They added a slice of lime, called their invention the “Moscow Mule,” and had an instant success on their hands.
By the 1950s, New Yorkers were drinking vodka too. From 40,000 cases sold in the United States in 1950, vodka sales jumped to just over one million in 1954. The following year, 4.5 million cases were sold. By the mid-1960s, vodka nudged out gin; by 1976, it surpassed whiskey. By the end of the decade, the martini was more likely to be made with vodka than with it original ingredient, gin. At the close of the twentieth century, vodka accounted for 25% of the distilled spirits market.
Until the middle of the eighteenth century, vodka production was essentially a home-based, one-pot operation called batching. Heating potatoes or grains until the starch was released and converted to sugar made a mash. The resulting liquid matter was allowed to ferment, and then heating it at a high temperature to release the intoxicating vapors distilled the liquid.
It was soon discovered that multiple distillations produced a spirit of a higher proof and of greater purity. In 1826, Robert Stein invented the continuous still that allowed for repeated recycling of steam and alcohol until all of the spirit has been extracted. Aeneas Coffey improved Stein’s design. Modern continuous stills usually contain three primary sections: still heads (where the vapors are collected), fractionating columns (where the ethyl alcohol is broken down), and condensers (where the vapors are reconverted to liquid).
Louis Pasteur’s development of pasteurization began when a French distiller asked him for advice on fermentation. Pasteur’s research led him to the discovery of lactic acid and its role in fermentation. Today, lactic acid is used as an inoculation against bacteria in the production of vodka.
At first, charcoal filtration was the universal procedure used to purify the vodka. Then at the beginning of the twentieth century, the process of rectification was developed. In rectification, the spirits are passed through several purifying cylinders designed to eliminate dangerous imperfections such as solvents, fusil oil, and methanol.
Vegetables or grains
Because it is a neutral spirit, devoid of color and odor, vodka can be distilled from virtually any fermentable ingredients. Originally, it was made from potatoes. Although some eastern European vodkas are still made from potatoes and corn, most of the high quality imports and all vodka made in the United States are distilled from cereal grains, such as wheat. Distillers either purchase the grain from suppliers, or grow it in company-owned fields.
Water is added at the end of the distillation process to decrease the alcohol content. This is either purchased from outside suppliers or brought in from company-owned wells.
Because vegetables and grains contain starches rather than sugars, an active ingredient must be added to the mash to facilitate the conversion of starch to sugar. These particular converted sugars, maltose, and dextrin respond most effectively to the enzyme diastase that is found in malt. Therefore, malt grains are soaked in water and allowed to germinate. Then, they are coarsely ground into a meal and added during the mash process.
A microscopic single-celled fungus, yeast contains enzymes that allow food cells to extract oxygen from starches or sugars, producing alcohol. In the manufacturing of alcoholic beverages, the yeast species Sacchasomyces cereviseal is used. It is purchased from outside suppliers.
In the latter part of the twentieth century, flavored vodkas became popular. Thus, herbs, grasses, spices, and fruit essences may be added to the vodka after distillation. These are usually purchased from an outside supplier.
- The grain or vegetables are loaded into an automatic mash tub. Much like a washing machine, the tub is fitted with agitators that break down the grain as the tub rotates. A ground malt meal is added to promote the conversion of starches to sugar.
Sterilization and inoculation
- Preventing the growth of bacteria is very important in the manufacture of distilled spirits. First, the mash is sterilized by heating it to the boiling point. Then, it is injected with lactic-acid bacteria to raise the acidity level needed for fermentation. When the desired acidity level is reached, the mash is inoculated once again.
- The mash is poured into large stainless-steel vats. Yeast is added and the vats are closed. Over the next two to four days, enzymes in the yeast convert the sugars in the mash to ethyl alcohol.
Distillation and rectification
- The liquid ethyl alcohol is pumped to stills, stainless steel columns made up of vaporization chambers stacked on top of each other. The alcohol is continuously cycled up and down, and heated with steam, until the vapors are released and condensed. This process also removes impurities. The vapors rise into the upper chambers (still heads) where they are concentrated. The extracted materials flow into the lower chambers and are discarded. Some of the grain residue may be sold as livestock feed.
- The concentrated vapors, or fine spirits, contain 95-100% alcohol. This translates to 190 proof. In order to make it drinkable, water is added to the spirits to decrease the alcohol percentage to 40, and the proof to 80.
- Alcoholic beverages are stored in glass bottles because glass is non-reactive. Other receptacles, such as plastic, would cause a chemical change in the beverage. The bottling procedure is highly mechanized as the bottles are cleaned, filled, capped, sealed, labeled, and loaded into cartons. This can be done at rates as high as 400 bottles per minute.
Although tasters draw off quantities of vodka for sampling throughout the distilling process, most of the controls on vodka quality come from local, state, and federal governments. At the federal level, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms issues strict guidelines for production, labeling, importation, advertising, and even plant security. For example, charcoal-filtered vodka imports are not permitted. Flavored vodkas must list the predominant flavor (pepper, lemon, peach, etc.) on the label. The relationships between suppliers and producers are strictly regulated as well.