Definition and production
Perceived as an essential part of Slavic identity, vodka as we know it today was strongly influenced by the technological progress of the industrial revolution. Consumed in Eastern Europe since the 15th century, it was not until the 1930s that it entered the wider world as a ‘table spirit’, following widespread use of the column still.
Alcohol made from the distillation of a fermented mash, produced from grain (wheat, barley, rye, corn), sugar beet molasses, potatoes, or any other raw material of agricultural origin. Vodka, containing 96% alcohol, is then diluted to between 35 and 50% by the addition of spring water. Regarding agricultural raw materials, the European Union now requires that the nature of these raw materials be mentioned on the label, and that the vodka obtained contain at least 37.5% alcohol.
Step 1 – Raw materials & their processing
The grain (rye, wheat, barley, corn) are sprouted and the potatoes are cooked, so as to transform the starch that they contain into sugar. Once their starch has been transformed, these raw materials are crushed, or ground, and mixed with water to extract the fermentable sugars and produce a mash.
Fermentation then takes place in a stainless steel vat, in order to avoid any contamination of the mash by bacteria that could affect the aromatic range. The yeasts used by distillers are usually selected for their high ethanol yield and their low impact on the production of flavours. When fermentation has finished, the alcohol is transferred to a still for distillation.
Step 2 – Distillation & filtration
Most vodkas are produced using continuous distillation in a column still. However, some distillers still prefer traditional pot stills, which produce very flavourful vodkas. In this case, the spirit may be filtered through activated carbon to remove its flavours.
During the distillation phase, the master distiller decides when to make the cuts (between the heads, middle cuts and tails of the distillation) with a view to avoiding any contamination of the middle cut by the heads that are rich in methanol (presenting notes of solvents and varnish) or by the tails, that are equally toxic since they are saturated with fusel oils. This is repeated several times (usually 4 to 8); the successive distillations enabling the alcohol content to be raised to 95-96% and the extraction of a maximum of aromatic compounds.
Step 3 – Filtering & bottling
After distillation, the alcohol is filtered through activated carbon to remove any aromatic residue and render it as neutral as possible. Dilution is carried out with successive additions of distilled or demineralised water, until the desired alcohol content is obtained. A final filtering step is then carried out, before the alcohol is left to rest before bottling.