The Russians say that they invented vodka, the Poles disagree, however most historical references to its early production favour the Russian claim. Vodka is made from vegetable or grain mash which is then distilled to produce the high proof alcoholic drink that we know today; the proof determines its strength with each degree equalling a half of a percent of pure alcohol. Vodka, notoriously, has a high proof, sometimes as much as 145 – this is why the taste and odour is virtually eliminated, creating a neutral spirit. However at these sort of percentages, Vodka would not be safe to drink and this is why water is added, prior to bottling, to bring it down to between 80 and 100 proof.
Vodka is produced from a fermented grain or vegetable mash. It was quickly discovered that by using multiple distillations, a spirit was produced which offered a higher proof together with additional purity. Robert Stein, in 1826, invented a continuous still which allowed repeated recycling of both alcohol and steam, until, finally, all of the spirit was extracted. The continuous stills used today normally have three main sections: still heads which collect the vapours, fractionating columns that break down the ethyl alcohol and condensers which reconvert the vapours into liquid. The French microbiologist, Louis Pasteur, discovered and researched lactic acid and the part it plays in fermentation, which has led to it being used in vodka to prevent bacteria during production.
Due to its lack of smell and flavour, vodka can be distilled from most fermentable ingredients, including vegetables, (originally potatoes), and grains. Some vodkas produced in Eastern Europe are still made from potatoes or corn, however, cereal grains are now much more popular. Malt meal or similar is added to convert the vegetable or grain starch into sugars, such as dextrin and maltose, which react well to the enzyme diastase in malt. The malt grains are coarsely ground to form a meal which is then added to the mash whilst it is being processed. Flavourings are often added and are very popular nowadays: these include spices, fruit essences and herbs. The final ingredient is yeast, which contains important enzymes that help food cells to remove oxygen from both sugars and starches; this, in turn, produces the alcohol.
The Manufacturing Process
The automatic mash tub is fitted with paddles which, once the grains or vegetables have been loaded, will rotate and break the matter down into a mash. At this point the malt meal will be added to encourage starch to sugar conversion. The sterilization and inoculation process follows to prevent bacteria from entering the mix. The mash is brought to the boil, then injected with lactic-acid bacteria which raises the level of acidity to aid fermentation. When a certain acidity level is achieved, the mash is inoculated a second time. It is then poured into stainless steel vats, yeast is introduced, followed by the sealing of the vats, which are then left to ferment for two to four days.
Distillation and Rectification
This is where the process becomes more complex, as the liquid ethyl alcohol is transferred into columns of stills containing vaporisation chambers. The alcohol moves up and down these chambers, where it is heated by steam, leading to the release and condensation of the vapours. This process helps to remove any impurities as the vapours rise to the upper chambers for condensation. The extracted waste then flows down to the lower chambers where it is discarded. The good stuff remaining is the vodka, which then has water added to reduce the proof to 80 before bottling.