Vodka: What’s in this anyway?

Vodka: Almost anything!

Vodka as defined by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) is a spirit distilled from any material at or above 95% alcohol by volume and bottled at no less than 40% alcohol by volume.

Let’s break that down. Any material? Not really any material in order to produce alcohol we need sugar for the yeast to eat. Yeast eat the sugar and expel CO2 and alcohol. Let’s take a moment and raise our glasses to yeast, the unsung heroes bringing us great times.

So, we know we need sugar, but we don’t really want to just dump a load of sugar into a bucket and let the yeast have at it. It’s an effective way to produce alcohol, but only useful for cleaning wounds. Our other options are grains, root vegetables and fruits.

The grain route is nearly identical to making beer. We cook the grain to release the starches, use enzymes to convert the starches to sugar and then let the yeast do their thing. Grains have their advantages from a production stand point. They are easy to get and easy to store. Most vodka you find on the shelf will be made from grains. Although technically vodka should be neutral in flavor, each grain gives a little bit different characteristic. Grey Goose is distilled from wheat, and Tito’s is distilled from corn. At first taste, they may seem the same, but give them a side by side taste test and you’ll smell, taste and feel slight differences. There is no right or wrong way, each has its benefits when creating a great cocktail.

Fruit and root vegetables (primarily potatoes) are a little more difficult, mostly because they rot. With grains you can have on hand as much as you can store. Fruit may come in many forms: pure juice, pulp, whole etc. Either way it is much more perishable than grains. The upside is you don’t need to convert all those starches to sugar, fruit is ready to ferment. In fact, rotting fruit will ferment without any of your help if a few yeast spores find it at the right time.

What a distiller chooses as their sugar source usually comes down to what is available in their area. Edwin Coe Spirits is in Northeastern Indiana, corn country. Yes, our vodka will be made from corn grown just a few miles from the distillery. In the fall, we may get some apples from our neighbors in Michigan and try some fruit vodka or brandy. The distillery’s location will have a big effect on what ingredients are used to produce their spirits.

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Joe C.

Written by Joe C.

Joe is the founder of Edwin Coe Spirits.