What is Vodka? To understand what vodka is, we need to first understand distillation. The basic idea of distillation is to take a beer or wine; something with an alcohol, and boil it until the ethanol turns into a steam vapor. In a pot still (the least efficient way of distilling) this vapor will travel up the still and once at the top cascades down a side pipe (line arm) this piping is then cooled by a cold water on the outside of the metal causing the vapor inside the pipe to condense back into alcohol.
In a column still (super efficient way of distilling) the beer or wine is poured from the top of a long tube column. Hence the name. Inside this column is multiple plates with little holes. The bottom of a column has steam rising up through these plates. What this does is cause each plate to be a different temperature. Once the beer or wine meets the vapor it strips out the alcohol. The reason why this is so efficient is unlike a pot still you only need one run to make high proof, low oil spirit. To make Vodka by the United States standards and definition we need to distill a spirit up to 190 proof and dilute to 80 proof to bottle.
We built this city on cheap NGS
Neutral grain spirit (NGS) is defined as a grain spirit that is distilled to such a high proof that very few oil congeners end up in the final product. This lack of oils is a very important part of vodka. Oils can possess both good and bad taste and are very apparent in whiskeys and tequilas. By definition Vodka is made from a neutral grain spirit with almost no flavor. When I say ‘almost’, that means that a little less than 5% water and oils will travel into the final product. Distilleries frequently claimed that the mash bill plays an integral part in the taste of their vodka. I personally have a hard time finding it, but if very subtle may still be evident to experience vodka connoisseur.
(side note) Vodka can be made from any sugar not just grain . The only thing is it needs to hit the same level of proof as a NGS to be Vodka.
Consumers are not ignorant. We are aware that there is a difference between premium vodka and plastic bottle vodka. The main problem that most consumers experience, from my own exploration of vodka and discussions with other vodka drinkers, is an understanding of what the differences are between the two. It’s easy to point out that one is cheap and the other is expensive, so quality differences based on appearance must also be the standard for production. I live in a world of hard definitions and this to me is not enough to be able to explain the differences. I hope within the next couple lines I can help you understand the true difference.
We need to look at the root of plastic bottle vodka. The producer understands that they’re making a mass-produced product that needs to be inexpensive to make and sell. Most plastic bottle vodka is produced by a major industrial distilleries. This is the simplest explanation of how plastic bottle vodka is made.
- Step one: Produce natural grain spirit in the column still
- Step two: Dilute to 80 proof with water
- Step three: Bottle in a inexpensive plastic bottle Vodka
Premium producers understand ethanol produces a burn in your mouth and throat, which on its own does not tend to be enjoyable. The same Premium producers understood that they had to change this to cater to an upscale market. This is the steps to produce a premium vodka product:
- Step one: Producing neutral grain spirit in a column or hybrid pot still. You also need to understand that most producers purchase this neutral grain spirit and don’t make their own.
- Step two: Filtration either by charcoal or other filtering materials. This step is a wonderful way to help pull out the last 5% of the oil congeners giving you a cleaner and crisper spirit.
- Step three: Sugar or citric acid is legal in the United States to be added to a vodka spirit. Adding this to your bottle of vodka will drastically tame the ethanol in the spirit. Glycerin is added in every other country outside the United States. You will frequently hear people talking about vodka products being made poorly in America because of the lack of glycerin.
- Step four: Diluting the product down to 80 proof
- Step five: Bottle in an extravagant bottle. The most important part of the premium market is always going to be marketing. The first thing you always see with premium vodka products is the bottle. The majority of consumers pick products based off of the bottle alone. This is just a disheartening statistic and one we have to work with. Packaging is not a sign of quality; it is just a sign of creativity. Once you break the two apart you will become a connoisseur instead of a consumer.
It’s extremely important for consumers to understand the products that they are purchasing. I know it’s a difficult thing to ask of you as a consumer, and I’m trying my best to help you understand the products without you having to put in a lot of legwork. I think it’s important for people that are vodka connoisseurs to get all the facts on the brands they love. In conclusion if you like buying an $80 bottle of vodka no one should be telling you that it’s a poor investment. It’s your money and you should spend it on the things you like. It’s my job to help you understand why you like it.
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