The techniques for distilling/re-distilling vodka are crucial factors in the quality of the drink, but other considerations also play an important role. All wine originates from grapes, whereas all vodka does not necessarily originate from grain. The base materials in this alchemical brew can be surprisingly varied – even outwardly disconcerting!
Rye and wheat-based vodkas are generally considered to be of the highest quality, although corn and sorghum (a group of grasses used for fodder and grain) are also utilised. Nothing
too bizarre there. Moving further ‘outward’; rice, grapes, soybeans and molasses can be used for the initial distillation, and for a more ‘rustic’ approach: potatoes and sugar beet. Interestingly, some Polish vodka is produced from the fermented products of yeast and sugar alone, but decidedly unpalatable source materials may also be employed – not necessarily by the Poles of course.
It’s hard to speculate on exactly what prompted some experimenters to start with the by-products of wood-pulping or even oil refining in their vodka production; but they did, and still do. Not being a prolific (or even desperate) drinker, I just can’t wrap my head around such concepts. Horror stories abound of moonshiners going blind (or dead) on liquor derived from wood-alcohol (methanol) are apparently not enough to stop people from trying it, perhaps in the same way that smokers know about lung cancer. That’s assuming of course that the consumer knows about the source material used in the production process. We still have tales of dangerous fake vodka surfacing in UK, and other world markets; usually derived from methanol or other industrial alcohols and reaching an annual peak around the Christmas and New Year celebrations.
But, back to the process itself. Essentially it boils down to the action of yeast on starches and sugars. As the yeast consumes the above, it excretes alcohol and carbon dioxide – as any home brewer will no doubt tell you. If starchy materials are used as base, then active enzymes are added to break the starch into fermentable sugars on which the yeast can work. An extra step in the process. Malted grains do not require extra help however as they are already enzyme-rich by comparison to ‘regular’ varieties. Starchy materials also require ‘gelatinisation’ for the enzymes to work (envisage heating the raw materials into goop, usually around the 66ºC mark). Any higher and the enzymes themselves will start to be destroyed. Something of a balancing act, then.
Contemporary vodka production – at least on a commercial scale – is more science than art, although the process is in essence simple enough for anyone to have a go, belying it’s relatively simple beginnings. Intriguingly, one aspect of vodka that adds to it’s variety started out as a ‘fudge’ to hide imperfections in what was originally a rather crude and primitive process. This of course was the practice of adding colour to the tainted brews with flavourings in the form of fruits, herbs and spices. The ‘aromatising’ of vodka became quite expansive with the addition of absinthe, acorn, birch, raspberry, horseradish, calamus root, sorrel, cherry, chicory, lemon, dill, ginger, hazelnut, juniper, mint, peppermint, sage, wort and a whole raft of other substances.
So, the concealment of impurity evolved into a style of production in it’s own right – in fact, something to be flaunted! Vodka remains one of the most popular types of souvenirs that tourists take home with them from Russia. While Russian vodka will forever be a popular drink, since the fall of communism the number of alcohol related deaths in Russia have increased dramatically – so with this in mind, please drink responsibly!
[Photo by weloo]