So what is Vodka, anyhow? Most people don't realize that Vodka can be made from something "other than" potatoes. In fact, Vodka can be distilled from the alcohol of any fermented sugar, regardless of whether those sugars came from: potatoes, grains, vegetables, or, yes, even grapes!
Okay...so what it is?
Short answer: Vodka is alcohol that has been distilled to 95% purity, AND passed through a charcoal (carbon) filter. So, as far as the US is concerned, as long as it's distilled to 190 proof (95% alcohol) and charcoal filtered, you can call it Vodka.
The US Code of Federal Regulation ("CFR") dictates what a spirit may, and may not, be called in the US based on specific criteria. This mainly has to do with: (a) what the spirit was made from (the source ingredient such as corn, barley, or grape); (b) how it was distilled (and who distilled it - more on this later); and (c) how it was aged (if at all).
The CFR hierarchy breaks the definition of different spirits down into two main fields: "CLASS" and "TYPE".
According to this breakdown, Vodka then is actually a kind (type) of spirit in a class of spirits known as "neutral alcohol" or "neutral spirits".
So there you have it - and that's all she wrote...right?
Ah, but the story doesn't end there.
What if the distillery started with say, someone else's Neutral Alcohol (a "CLASS"), and then re-distilled and charcoal filtered it into Vodka (a "TYPE" of Neutral Spirit)? Enter the "Commodity Statement" .. and this is where things get sticky.
According to the government, there are two primary ways of distilling:
According to the CFR, if the distillery used someone ELSE'S alcohol and re-distilled it for the purpose of making vodka, it has to have a special commodity statement to identify it as such. In other words, the fine-print on the label would need to read something like
How, and why, does this matter?
Well, if say 50 distilleries are buying Neutral Spirit from the same manufacturer, redistilling it and charcoal filtering it, they're still starting with the exact same base components as the rest of the distilleries that purchased the Neutral Alcohol from said supplier. Which means that their final product differs only in which parts of the original spirit they kept, and which parts they discarded or distilled/filtered out.
Whereas a distillery that begins with grains, potatoes, or - in our case - grapes, is going to begin with a completely unique base "distillers beer" or "wine". This base alcohol is going to reflect the fermentation expertise, the unique flavors and aromas, of the beer or wine. And, upon distillation, the final spirit will be completely different from one distillery to another: they both began with different base alcohols with different characteristics, and from that, distilled completely different spirits from one another.
Where do your spirits come from? Here's a hint:
If the label reads "Distilled from Grape" or "Distilled from Corn", that means the distillery began with (grape, corn, etc.), fermented it themselves, then distilled it themselves.
Questions? Leave a comment or reach out via email!
Gold For Grand Opening!
I'm so excited to announce that we've just been awarded TWO Gold medals from the Denver International Spirits Competition - right in time for our Grand Opening (April 14th/15th)!
That's right - our Vodka and our Brandy (American Char#1 barrel-finished) have both been awarded top scores, garnering GOLD medals on the international stage. Our "unaged" Brandy also received a Bronze medal in the "eau de vie" category. Considering that these are our first batches ever, I'm THRILLED to be able to say "...and we're just getting started!"
Click here to see the full press release
I'll have more updates coming soon, keep an eye out for our official announcement about our Grand Opening, scheduled for April 14th & 15th.
We're now serving four products in the distillery store: Vodka and a series of three different Brandies: "un-aged", Tawny "Port" barrel-finished, and American Char#1 finished.
Oh, and if you're wondering why the Tawny finished didn't medal...we only made about 15 cases of the Tawny Barrel Finished, and we won't be able to make more till next year's tawny is removed from barrel, so we didn't really think we had enough to justify sending it off to the competition. In hindsight...oops...maybe we should have!
I've gone through about 400 gallons of wine, which I divided into 5 batches in our 100 gallon still, followed by a 6th batch where I re-distilling everything I collected from the first 5 batches. In the first distillation (the first 5 batches), the focus was to "strip" the alcohol from the wine, only getting rid of the "worst of the worst" bits - the super nasty. Then on the second distillation - the 6th batch where I re-distilled the "stripped" alcohol - the focus was on making very precise, careful "cuts" (separations). This act of dividing the alcohol coming from the still into individual portions allows me to isolate the various components and blend them together to achieve the best spirit possible - aromatic, smooth, and rich.
See, the very first stuff to boil off the still and collect (the "fores" or "heads") are mostly higher-alcohols (in short, a bunch of stuff you don't want to drink such as acetaldehyde, acetone, methanol, ethyl acetate and ethyl formate). Since they boil off at lower temperatures than most everything else, they come at a rush in the beginning. The tricky part? Most of the good aromas are boiling off with them. So, how to get rid of the nasty stuff and keep the yummy smells? This is where this second distillation comes into play - the first distillation (again, those first 5 small batches) is just to get everything together so we can manage it, and in doing so, ditch a very small percentage which is entirely "bad" ... leaving the final cut between "nasty" and "good aromas" for the second distillation. Think of it like this: the first run through the wine is "surgery by chainsaw", and in the second run, we're using a scalpel.
So now we're into the second run (the 6th batch AKA second distillation). This time, we make a really precise cut after the "heads", ditching the nasty stuff and keeping the aromas at the end. That's where we get to the middle portion ("hearts"), and its here where the majority of alcohol for our spirit is coming from. But these hearts aren't much more than ethanol - straight booze - and it's pretty much odorless and tasteless. On its own, not too interesting. But with the aromas that we captured earlier, and some of the goodies from the next section, we find magic! So here in the hearts, we're basically collecting a smooth, fairly neutral, clean bulk of our spirit. Then we rely on the slim cut from before the hearts for aromas, and a similarly slim cut from after the hearts for flavors.
Finally, the last bit - the tails. The tails ...oh the tails. 1-Propanol, Butyl alcohol, Amyl alcohol, Fusel alcohols/oils, Acetic Acid, Furfural, and more. Lovely, yes? But as I mentioned, this portion is where a ton of the flavor is found. If you want a rich spirit, you need to collect a fine sliver from here. Otherwise, you're left with a spirit that smells great and tastes thin (not enough tails), or something that burns like...well. It burns a lot (too much tails). Now again, we're dealing with specific boiling points and temperatures here: "pure" ethanol (the good stuff in the hearts) boils at a lower temperature than some of these rougher-nasties in the tails. But it's not that easy. Have you ever added salt to water to slow down the boil? That's right - same thing; you change the mixture, and you change the boiling point. And at this stage in the process, we've pulled off so much of the ethanol that we're left with a very different mixture than we started with - which means that to keep getting ethanol to boil out, we're going to have to raise the temperature...and that means raising it to a point where these fusel oils start to boil off with it. What to do? Ah. That's the secret.
A bit of Art. A bit of science. A bit of tasting. A bit of smelling. And more tasting.
Find the "sweet spots" where you've collected clean aromas in the beginning, smooth booze in the middle, and rich flavors near the end: then make the cuts. Do it right, and you've got an aromatic, smooth, rich spirit ready for barrel. Mmm.
Next up? Vodka. Stay tuned!