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  1. #1
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    Let\'s Talk About Vodka

    The "Pet Peeves" thread has taken a turn toward vodka, so I thought I would give it a thread of its own. As noted, most vodka is made from grain and although there are a few potato vodkas out there, mostly from Poland, the vast majority of the vodka consumed is from grain. The potato brands are not big sellers.

    Most domestic vodka is made from corn. Imports may contain some percentage of wheat or rye, but corn is pretty popular there too. Although market prices can vary, corn is generally the cheapest grain in terms or its alcohol yield.

    Most domestic vodka is made in one plant in Iowa and shipped by tanker to various bottlers. Some imports are actually buying this U.S. grain neutal spirit (GNS), diluting it with their water and selling it here as an import. I can't necessarily say which ones because it varies. The international GNS trade is a little like the oil trade. It's a commodity. You don't necessarily know where it originates.

    GNS typically leaves the still at 195 proof. In other words, it is as much pure alcohol as it is practical to make it. Alcohol is alcohol. All alcohol (that is, all ethyl alcohol) is the same. It has no taste except the "taste" of alcohol.

    I have been told that some imported vodkas distill out at less than 195 proof, which means there could, conceivably, be some taste difference in the final distillates.

    However, no vodka is sold at 195 proof. Naturally, it is most efficient to ship the bulk GNS at its maximum proof and to dilute it to its sale proof at the point of packaging. Here again, a lot of domestic vodkas are exactly the same because the same company is bottling them and using the same water to dilute them. Heaven Hill, for example, "makes" a number of vodkas, for themselves and other marketers. I put "makes" in quotes because all they do is pump it from the tanker into a tank, dilute it with water to the apppropriate proof, and bottle it.

    The point is that the extent to which one can taste the difference between one vodka and another is because there are differences in the water used to dilute it from 195 proof down to 100 or 80 or whatever it's sold at. In other words, the most expensive bottled water in the world is the water component of imported vodka. The only caveat to that would be those vodkas that are distilled out at less than 195 proof which may retain some flavor in the distillate, but no one can tell you which ones those are.

  2. #2
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    Re: Let\'s Talk About Vodka

    Chuck,

    Thanks for the info. Now I know that the whole vodka biz is an even bigger scam than I've always suspected.

    Do you know anything about the composition of the 2.5% of 195 proof vodka that isn't alcohol? Could it be that it contains some flavor components?

    Yours truly,
    Dave Morefield

  3. #3
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    Re: Let\'s Talk About Vodka

    Excellent points all. I choose vodka, generally, not by brand or price but by the advertised number of distillations (i.e., fewest possible). I find those that are triple and quadruple-distilled tend to be bland. The double-distilled brands seem to be much better but so are some triple-distilled vodkas. Thus, Zytnia, a Polish rye-based vodka, is tasty albeit thrice put through the still. I think I can detect some rye tangs. In the 1800's, Monongahela rye whiskey was usually white whiskey (little-aged). I'd like to think there is some connection between that old Mon whiskey and some of the tastier modern vodkas including especially the modern rye vodkas. Clearly, modern distillation will bring the spirit off at a higher proof (thus, cleaner taste) than in the 1800's but still I think there is a connection between the old and new white spirits. Maybe this explains the (otherwise startling) uptick of Russian vodka in America from the 1940's until today. In other words, aged whiskey, while ostensibly better, was not (in the end) acceptable to much of the drinking public and when the old "white lightning" came back in the form of Russkie vodka the folk memory was jolted. People turned again to the white liquor their ancestors (mostly) knew.

    Cy

  4. #4
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    Re: Let\'s Talk About Vodka

    I never cared much for vodka, hence, I never knew much about it. Thanks, though, for the very enlightening post. I enjoyed it.

  5. #5
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    Re: Let\'s Talk About Vodka

    </font><blockquote><font class="small">In reply to:</font><hr />
    Do you know anything about the composition of the 2.5% of 195 proof vodka that isn't alcohol? Could it be that it contains some flavor components?

    [/QUOTE]

    From chemistry in college, I remember that when alcohol is distilled, a little bit of water comes along with it, due to the incredible solubility of water in alcohol (and vice versa). Thus "pure" distilled alcohol is about 98% alcohol and 2% water. It is possible to make 100% alcohol, but not through a standard distillation process.

  6. #6
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    Re: Let\'s Talk About Vodka

    Just to continue a bit, my thoughts on what the 1800's white rye whiskey was like lead also to the Dutch and Flemish style of spirits known as "genever", geneva gin or Hollands. Everyone knowns Dutch gin is a pungent concoction that is the antecedent to the later, more elegant style that developed in England called London Dry Gin. How can geneva therefore be related to American rye whiskey? In fact the relationship is a close one. In his 1875 distilling text, F. Byrn, writing in Philadelphia, PA gave a recipe for grain whiskey as distilled from a mash of 80% rye grist (i.e., raw grain) and 20% barley malt. The barley malt would saccharify the starch in the rye. (Byrn said this approach was preferable (in terms of yield of alcohol, his primary concern) to using malted rye for the unmalted, which is interesting). In discussing European distilling in Northern Europe (globalisation is not new) Byrn states that geneva gin also was made traditionally from the same mash of 80/20 rye to barley. (Just as in America and England, cheaper spirit was coming on stream from mixed grains or molasses but he was giving the traditional recipe). He said often the genever-makers added juniper berries to the liquor to mask off-flavours in the spirit. Likely these flavours resulted not from the use of rye as the main grain but from lower distillation proofs than today and less sophisticated ways to get the congeners and other "impurities" out of the liquor. (Americans were using charcoal leaching and other methods and were starting to see, ditto the Scots, that long barrel aging would oxidise the congeners and other flavour impurities). Byrn said that juniper was not always used, though, sometimes it was replaced by coriander or anise (think Rock and Rye) and other times flavouring was simply omitted. To this day in the Flemish regions of Europe geneva gin is made that still uses the standard Monongahela recipe of 80%/20% rye to barley malt. Some is unflavoured or only very little flavoured with juniper. I corresponded with a venerable French house in the far northern belt (near Belgium) called Loos/Wambrechies (note Flemish spellings) that assured me their geneva gin uses the 80/20 rye/barley malt recipe and the rye portion is unmalted. They use juniper but relatively little, a few pounds to a few thousand litres of spirit I understand. Some other makers, e.g. Filliers in Belgium, use no juniper whatever in their rye-based spirit. I aim to get my hands on some young Filliers one day. I have enjoyed their aged product, which indeed resembles modern rye to a degree (e.g. Old Overholt's and some Canadian ryes) but I feel their white spirit (most geneva makers offer a young unaged product in their line-up) would most closely resemble the everyday versions of rye whiskey known up and down the Monongahela river in the 1800's.

    It is interesting that young corn liquor has survived to this day, the white lightning or white dog that is the commercial version of moonshine whereas young rye whiskey died out completely (Michter's made a white "quarter whiskey" in the 1970's that might have been a Mon river-type rye). No doubt the taste of young rye whiskey was quite pungent and most people ultimately turned away from it as they did even from the aged article, ie. as a widely consumed product, since fine aged rye as we know has made something of a comeback.

    In North America today, the youngest whisky made by Alberta Distillers (which uses a mostly all-rye recipe), the Polish rye vodkas and the Fritz Maytag whiskeys may be the closest readily available equivalents to 1800's young rye spirit. Probably that original rye was more pungent than today's versions (although Maytag's whiskeys offer a good tang that may be close to the original rye).

    Linking rye whiskey to Northern Europe is not really a stretch because rye historians note that German-Americans were distilling rye in Pennsylvania in the Revolutionary era. Allied to the distilling practices of the Scots-Irish (Ulster Scottish immigrants to America), that gave rise to American rye whiskey, antecedent of course to Bourbon. This is why Byrn looked back to what was happening in Northern Europe, he knew the distilling of rye whether in America or Europe was part ultimately of the same tradition, and I would say vodka is too. Vodka was made from a more diverse range of starches and further afield of course than the hinterland of geneva gin but is part (as is Scotch whiskey) of the northern European, grain-based distilling heritage that transplanted to our shores.

    Cy

  7. #7
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    Re: Let\'s Talk About Vodka

    Great post! Very informative!

    &gt;In his 1875 distilling text, F. Byrn, writing in Philadelphia, PA gave a recipe for
    &gt;grain whiskey as distilled from a mash of 80% rye grist (i.e., raw grain) and
    &gt;20% barley malt. The barley malt would saccharify the starch in the rye. (Byrn
    &gt;said this approach was preferable (in terms of yield of alcohol, his primary
    &gt;concern) to using malted rye for the unmalted, which is interesting).

    My guess is that the growing rye endosperm uses up some of the sugar
    during malting, thereby reducing total yield. I suppose it's also a matter
    of how good a maltster you are. There's an interesting article at
    http://www.brewingtechniques.com/lib....3/hayden.html
    about using rye... apparently barley malt has slightly more diastatic power
    than rye malt. Also of intereest from the article is:

    "
    Rye malt adds a distinct flavor to the brew. Malting modifies the rye grain in a way that eliminates some of the unwanted effects that are present when using unmalted rye. According to the authors of a study published in Crop Science, "Such a qualitative modification apparently cannot be accomplished by enzymes from the malted barley when they act on unmalted rye"
    "


    I wonder where the 80/20 ratio came from? Bourbons use less than 20%
    malted barley.

    &gt;...rye historians note that German-Americans were distilling rye in Pennsylvania
    &gt;in the Revolutionary era. Allied to the distilling practices of the Scots-Irish...

    It is my understanding that choice of grain for distilling was dependent mostly
    on what grew well in the area. Barley grew poorly, but rye grew well in
    Pennsylvania, and likewise, corn was the best grower in Kentucky.

    &gt;No doubt the taste of young rye whiskey was quite pungent and most people
    &gt;ultimately turned away from it as they did even from the aged article...

    Someone once told me that it was Prohibition that killed rye, in two ways.
    First, the rye distillers never went back into business after Prohibition,
    and second, cheap Canadian rye had given rye a bad name. Can anyone
    corroborate this?


    Tim Dellinger


  8. #8
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    Re: Let\'s Talk About Vodka

    Russia and the other slavic countries, Germany and the Scandinavian countries do have a slightly different distilled spirits tradition than France and the UK, although everyone has some "white spirits" tradition. The difference is that in France and the UK, they use barrel aging to improve the flavor, while in those other countries they use higher proof distillation and the addition of flavorings. Actually, that tradition exists in France (e.g., absinthe) and the Netherlands/UK (e.g., gin) alongside the aging-in-wood tradition. The flavoring of vodka/GNS is not a new phenomenon. Two familiar examples are the German Schnapps, which uses various flavorings, and the Scandinavian Akvavit, which traditionally uses caraway seeds.

  9. #9
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    Re: Let\'s Talk About Vodka

    Great stuff, Cy. Really enjoyed it.

    Mike Veach and others have often made the point that too much emphasis is placed on the Scots-Irish origins of the American distilling tradition and too little is placed on the German contribution. Few remember that the Beams were actually Germans (Boehm). The German tradition contributes rye distillation (the Scots-Irish used barley almost exclusively) and the emphasis on creating a potable spirit without long aging, through flavoring and other means.

  10. #10
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    Re: Let\'s Talk About Vodka

    </font><blockquote><font class="small">In reply to:</font><hr />
    Someone once told me that it was Prohibition that killed rye, in two ways.
    First, the rye distillers never went back into business after Prohibition,
    and second, cheap Canadian rye had given rye a bad name. Can anyone
    corroborate this?


    [/QUOTE]

    The first is a by-product of the second, which I have heard a little differently. It wasn't the Canadian product that was the problem. Its quality was adequate to good. The problem was with "bathtub" products, concoctions using crudely distilled spirits and flavorings that were typically misrepresented as something finer than they were. Since at that time the epitome of good whiskey was old rye, that's what the sellers said their product was. It was so bad that it gave rye a bad name and there was no real rye around to counter the literal "bad taste in their mouths." Some rye distillers did come back after Prohibition, but they found that the demand for their product just wasn't there. Bourbon was less tainted because it hadn't been that widely popular before Prohibition, at least not in the big cities where the "bad (fake) rye" problem was worst.

    The exact same thing happened to Irish whiskey. Before Prohibition, Irish was the most popular import (especially among the Irish immigrant communities of Boston and New York) and Scotch was vritually unknown. After drinking "bad (fake) Irish" for 13 years, people wanted none of it after the drought and Irish sales in the U.S. never really recovered. However, the industry didn't die because it still had its domestic market.

    Also at play was the fact that American drinkers had developed a taste for lighter whiskies, after drinking Canadian and Scotch during Prohibition. Bourbon suited that taste preference better than rye.

 

 

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