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December 2008
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  • Vodka: Does distillation = quality?

    In the last 10 years there has been an explosion in the number of premium and super-premium vodkas available.  All of the new brands in the marketplace claim to be distinctive in their own way, but there is continuous debate over how distinctive one can be with vodka. 


    According to the United States Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Bureau (TTB) the standards for vodka are: that it is a neutral spirit distilled from any material at or above 190 proof, reduced to not more than 110 proof and not less than 80 proof and, after such reduction in proof, so treated as to be without distinctive character, aroma, or taste. Although there is no explicit definition of the term “distinctive” it is generally agreed that vodka is to be as tasteless and odorless as possible.


    There are three general components to vodka can that affect the quality, smoothness, and overall “distinctiveness” of the final product: the raw ingredients, the distillation process itself, and the water added at the end to bring the vodka to the correct proof.    This time we look at the distillation process.

    Distilling is a very simple process that relies on a gift that Mother Nature gave us called the Boiling Point.  Water turns to vapor at 212 degrees Fahrenheit; Alcohol turns to vapor at a mere 176 degrees.  Because of the differing boiling points, if one regulates a heating element underneath a mash of fermented grain (beer) or fruit (wine), collects the alcohol vapor as it rises, leaving the water behind, and then cools it to condense it back into liquid, they are left with distilled alcohol. This process, while simple, requires machines that can do all three of the steps: heating, collecting and cooling, and do it in a way that pure, drinkable alcohol (often called the “heart”) can be separated from the higher alcohols (“heads”) and lower fusel oils (tails).


    In theory the more times you send the alcohol through this process the ‘smoother’ it will be.  The reasoning being that each distillation removes impurities and harmful ingredients.  Actually it is the action of removing the ‘heads’ and ‘tails’ of each distillation that makes vodka smoother.  The heads are the first portion of liquid that condenses out during distillation and the tails are the last part yet to be distilled.  These two sections of the process contain the highest percentage of impurities (it is the impurities that help make that hangover the next morning unbearable).  Removing too little of the heads and tails leaves more impurities in the final product.  Depending on the type of still employed determines how those impurities are removed.


    There are three types of stills that can be used; a pot still, a column still, or a combination still. 


    A column still is shaped much like it sounds—a column.  The raw ingredients are put in the still at the bottom and heated. The vapor rises through the column and the vapors are collected and forced up a ladder of chambers that allow the alcohol to bubble through when it reaches a certain degree or “proof”.  These “bubble plates” concentrate the alcohol in an efficient manner and are utilized when making spirits that are to be a high proof, like vodka.  Column stills are usually made out of stainless steel and are very tall- 50’ to 150’ in height as they require the stacking of many plates to get the finished product at 190 proof in one fell swoop. The heads and tails in a column still aren’t necessarily removed, but are reduced by being redistilled in the process.  This “continuous distilling” method is highly efficient at distilling pure high proof alcohols out of fermented products, but some argue that it doesn’t necessarily make the smoothest of products.    


    Pot stills are typically made of copper and shaped much like an onion from your garden; bulbous at the bottom, and tapered at the top. Unlike the complex process of the column still, this still simply heats, collects and cools the fermented base product and each time the product goes through the still, it rises in proof.  In actuality, each chamber of the column still is essentially comparable to one run of product through a pot still.  Pot Stills are fantastic for making lower proof spirits such as cognacs, whiskies and liqueurs as they allow the distiller to have lots of control over the process.  On each run, the distiller can decide when to keep the alcohol and when to discard it.  This process, called “making the heads and tails cuts” really brings out the art of distilling and the personal style of the distiller.  


    A Combination Still is very simply a combination of a pot and column still.  It has the rounded pot and the bottom but then has a column attached to the top and/or connected to the side. In the column is a series of chambers with bubble plates, and the distiller can either open or close the plates depending on what type of product he/she is distilling.  Cognac would have the plates open; vodka would have the plates closed.  Combination stills allow the fermented base product to be distilled to a higher proof more readily than a pot still, but they still allow the distiller to make the heads and tails cuts.  For most artisanal distillers, the combination still is the best way to make really great spirits. 


    Vodkas will often be labeled with the number of times it has been distilled. Now that you know how distillation occurs, you can understand how these claims can be quite meaningless.  In a column still, each time the vapor passes a bubble plate it is considered “distilled up to a higher proof.  Others claim that “times distilled” is how many times it passes through the still itself, or how many “runs” it has- so pot still might be numerous times, combination stills might be three or four times, and column stills are often once. Also, an inefficient still might need more runs, while a highly efficient still might need only one or two- does that make one better than the other?  Not necessarily. 


    Most large spirits brands are made with Column Stills- Grey Goose, Absolut, Shakers, and Belvidere are examples.  Smaller brands such as Death’s Door, Hanger One, Charbay and Parallel 45 use combination stills.  True pots stills are not typically used in vodka production, but are sometimes used in finishing flavored vodkas.    

    Next time you are at your local Cellars store visit their vodka section and try the amazing spirits from Death’s Door, Hangar One, Charbay, or Parallel 45…you will not be disappointed.

    Special thanks to Brian Ellison from Death’s Door Spirits for editing this article.

    Thad Norlinger

    -Cellars Wines & Spirits