To make vodka, fractional distillation equipment along the lines of that discussed in a later chapter must be used. The strong (190 proof), pure alcohol so produced is diluted with water to 40% to give vodka.
In sharp contrast to all other spirits, most vodka, particularly the vodka made in N. America, is made from pure alcohol, i.e. alcohol from which all the heads and tails have been removed. The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (BATF) defines vodka as "A neutral spirit so distilled as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color".
If the BATF definition is taken literally, it would mean that there should be no difference between vodkas made from potatoes, grains, wine, milk or any other fermentable sugar. Why then is there so much advertising hype about the unique qualities of a vodka from, say, Sweden, or Poland, or Russia, etc., etc.? If there's no difference, why then all the talk about triple distilling, carbon filtering, and so on? Or the difference between vodkas made from potatoes and grain? The following quotation from the London Daily Telegraph of June 14, 1997 is interesting in this connection, "Aleksander Orekhov, the Russian-born owner of Red, a Soho bar that offers some 40 different vodkas, makes no apology for saying that the best vodka is one that has no real flavour at all". In line with this thinking it may be noted that some manufacturers choose to use the lactose in milk to make vodka, not just because it is available locally but also because it gives no flavour to the vodka.
The fact seems to be that most vodkas, at least outside N. America, do have a slight flavour. They are lightly flavoured by the manufacturer using certain grasses or herbs, so delicately that it can barely be detected, in which case the source of the flavouring is not mentioned. Or glycerine is added to give the vodka smoothness and body. The use of such additives is allowed to remain a subtle mystery in order to tempt the palates of vodka aficionados around the world. Recently, however, more strongly flavoured vodkas have been introduced into the market, with flavours which include raspberry, strawberry, peach, vanilla, lemon, vanilla, coffee, cinnamon, pepper, and so on. No mystery here — they are advertised as lemon vodka, etc. Such practice makes eminent sense — use pure alcohol, add a natural flavouring (of which there are hundreds, if not thousands) and you have a unique and pleasant drink with no congeners, no methanol, no fusel oils, nor (as will be discussed in the next chapter) any headaches or hangovers.
Another, more traditional way to make a delicately flavoured vodka, is to carry out a slightly "imperfect" fractional distillation so that very small amounts of the natural flavours in the original source of carbohydrate — potatoes, grain, etc. — are retained. This is much more tricky than making a pure, unflavoured alcohol because it involves a subjective judgement on the part of the distiller on what constitutes a pleasant taste when traces of the heads and tails are retained. The acquisition of such judgement requires many years of experience combined with constant feedback from satisfied or dissatisfied customers.
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