A Clear Look at Vodka

Vodka is the most popular spirit in the United States. New bottlings hit retailers’ shelves on a regular basis. How do you decide which brand to buy?

Some vodka aficionados favor rye-based vodkas, others find that wheated vodkas are more to their taste, while still others shun anything made from grain, preferring potato vodkas. For another subset of vodka drinkers, the base ingredient doesn’t matter at all—but they will only buy vodkas made from pure glacial water or insist that their vodka be filtered through diamond dust.

Don’t recognize yourself in any of these profiles? That puts you in the majority. Even sophisticated vodka drinkers buy this clear, unflavored, yet still-mysterious spirit based on price, packaging or habit. To these people, the fine points of how vodkas are made don’t matter. But should they? Do these methods, in fact, make any significant difference in the way most people perceive their flavors?
We decided to take a look at vodkas new to the U. S. market since the beginning of last year. We asked the distillers of each vodka about the importance of their water sources, the base ingredients used and their filtration methods. Not surprisingly, these technicalities matter a great deal to the distillers themselves.

It Starts With Water
Why do vodka producers keep boasting that the water they use to make their spirit comes from ancient springs, glaciers and century-old wells? We thought these were little more than marketing ploys. After all, doesn’t distillation remove everything but H2O and alcohol? Apparently not. According to almost everyone we interviewed, certain aspects of the source water can make a big difference.

“The hardness of the water, caused mainly by the presence of calcium and magnesium, is relatively easy to alter by a number of methods, and soft water is important to the process,” says Pat Couteaux, master distiller of Shakers. Elements such as sulfur, iron and nitrates are very difficult to eliminate from water, so it’s important that these aren’t present in the source. Zinc, potassium and a few other minerals, however, are important to the fermentation process. In essence, the water shouldn’t be completely devoid of minerals—just the ones that would result in offensive tastes and odors.

Monsell Darville, vice president and group marketing director of Bacardi U.S.A., and a representative of Türi Estonian Vodka, agrees. “It is important to start with a very good, clean and odor-free water,” he says. “Compared to waters around the world, the water in Estonia is among the purest on the planet. [Although certain processes] can remove carbonates and other minerals, if there is a mustiness, or sulfur compounds that cause an off odor, the [processes] will not remove all of these smells.”

Water isn’t responsible for the character of individual vodkas, says Alexandre Gabriel, producer of Citadelle. What’s important is what isn’t in the water. “We distill our water to soften it,” he says. “If you start with bad-quality water, some of those elements will go through and alter the taste [of the vodka].” The source of the water, then, is very important indeed.

Spuds, Grains, Fruits
Since vodka comes out of the still at a very high proof—around 90 percent of the spirit is pure alcohol—you might think that its primary ingredient doesn’t matter very much. After all, pure alcohol is pure alcohol, right? But it isn’t that simple. Different kinds of vodka have their own individual characteristics. For example, potato vodkas seem to have a hint of sweetness not present in most grain-based vodkas, though no one seems to know why.

At St. George Spirits, in Alameda, California, distiller Lance Winters makes the very unusual Hangar One vodka from a base of both wheat and grapes, both of which are actually identifiable in this bottling. Winters claims that the raw material is, to all spirits, the most important factor. “Some flavor components have threshold values in the parts per million range [and] this was the rationale behind using the Viognier grape as part of our vodka,” he explains. “The wheat that predominates the vodka provides a clean, neutral backdrop onto which we layer the fine top-notes that aromatic white grapes provide.”

Darvill also believes that the base product is important and suggests that our palates be our best guides. His Türi vodka definitely has a rich spiciness that you might expect to come from a spirit made from 100-percent rye grain (think about the difference between rye bread and white bread). Though some distillers minimize the impact of the base ingredient on the final product, we tend to side with the majority on this point—the base product seems to be very important.

Diamonds, Charcoal, Sand, Chips
We have all heard vodka producers’ hype about their filtration process: “We filter our vodka through diamond dust/silver-birch charcoal/sand/oak chips,” and each company seems to have its own idea about which process yields the best results. Does the filtering agent really matter? The process of filtration suggests that there is an impurity in the vodka that needs to be strained out, which happens to be true of all vodkas. But it’s more true of some bottlings than others. Shakers vodka, for instance, is filtered through charcoals made from birch, coconuts and peat. This of course removes some of the character of the spirit. You might think that that is a bad thing, but Couteaux says that charcoal mixture was carefully selected to remove some elements and retain others: “We want to retain all the fruity esthers, and rid the vodka of all other characteristics,” he explains.

Representatives of Cîroc vodka pointed out that there are two types of filtration used in vodka production: “All vodkas must be filtered to make sure that it is crystal clear, known in the trade as a ‘light’ filtration. ‘Tight’ filtration, through media such as charcoal, can neutralize the character of the spirit. Cîroc is put through only a light filtration.”

Marko Karakasevik, apprentice to his father, Miles, who is the master distiller at Domaine Charbay distillery in Napa Valley, has his own views of why the subject of filtration is so hotly contested, says Karakasevic.

“All these vodkas that say they filter with diamonds or charcoal, are filtering because their distillation method is poor . . . it strips body and mouthfeel,” he says. “We lightly filter Charbay vodka to make sure it has a professional, brilliant appearance—it’s like putting a polish on.”

A vodka’s water, its base ingredient and filtration method are all important to its character. And some vodka producers seem to go to great lengths to individualize their products by differentiating their methods from those of other producers. That being said, though, the final word must come from the glass. Do you like spicy vodkas, fruity vodkas, sweeter vodkas, or vodkas with as little character as possible?

In the cocktail world—and let’s face it, most vodka ends up being mixed with other ingredients—vodka is viewed as a blank canvas onto which other flavors are painted. You aren’t likely to distinguish the nuances of a vodka’s filtration when it’s in a cosmopolitan. But if you like to sip your vodka neat, at room temperature, chilled in the freezer or in, say, a dry vodka martini, you might want to experiment with various bottlings until you find a style to suit your taste.

Published on June 1, 2003

The latest wine reviews, trends and recipes plus special offers on wine storage and accessories