Vodka production: Raw ingredients

Words by Simon Difford

Vodka can be distilled from pretty much anything that can be fermented to make alcohol, but its mostly produced from potatoes, sugar beet molasses and cereal grains. Obviously, what ingredients are used to make a vodka will substantially influence its flavour.

Some crops grow better than others in certain climates and traditions and tastes have dictated that farmers and distillers in different countries favour different crops. The Poles use mostly rye to make their vodka, the Finnish favour barley and the Russians and indeed most other nations tend to use wheat.

Raw ingredients and the typical flavour profiles they impart to vodka

Wheat: subtle aniseed and pepper, lemon zest.
Rye: nutty sweetness, rye bread, brazil nuts.
Maize/corn: buttery, corn-on-the-cob.
Barley: bready, lightly nutty, brioche sweetness.
Potato: creaminess of texture and fuller flavour often slight vegetable notes.
Grape: strangely, Cîroc, the leading grape vodka has a slight lemon zest character.

Grain, especially wheat, dominates vodka production as the preferred base with the use of potato also well established. So predominant is the use of grain that the latest EU regulations (No. 110/2008) stipulate, "To take into account consumer expectations about the raw materials used for vodka, especially in the traditional vodka producing Member States, provision should be made for adequate information to be provided on the raw material used where the vodka is made from raw materials of agricultural origin other than cereals and/or potatoes." Meaning vodkas made from grape and other non-traditional ingredients must declare this on their labels.

Potato varieties used for vodka production are specifically chosen due to their high starch content, typically 25% compared to 17% for eating potatoes. Small potatoes are favoured for distilling, as they are higher in starch than bigger potatoes which are swollen with water. Even with these high starch varieties, it takes 16 tonnes of potatoes to make 1,000 litres of spirit at 96.4% alc./vol.

A good bar should offer customers a real choice of vodka styles. Offering five different Polish rye-based vodkas but no wheat or potato vodkas would as crazy as stocking five different Irish stouts for your entire beer range.