How Vodka is Made: Spoiler, Not from Potatoes

We know, your first thought was “potatoes.” There is a pervasive myth that the primary ingredient in vodka is potatoes.

Not to burst your proverbial bubble, but that’s not true.

So how is vodka made?

Read on and you will learn all the secrets to making vodka.


What is vodka?

Both Russia and Poland claim to be the birthplace of this spirit. But the word “vodka” is derived from the Russian word voda, which means “water.” And that is exactly how vodka is supposed to be: flavorless, odorless, and colorless. Serve it ice cold and you’ll be drinking vodka the way it is meant to be drunk.

As a spirit, it likely surfaced in the 700s CE. Before distillation was common practice, it would have been used medicinally. However, vodka similar to what we know today wouldn’t appear until the 1800s. That’s when continuous distillation came on the scene.

The only requirement for vodka is that it is a clear spirit distilled to 190 proof. That’s it. Unlike bourbon or Scotch, there is no long list of requirements for a spirit to be considered vodka. Is it clear? Yes. Is it distilled to 190 proof? Yes. Then you have a vodka.


Vodka is three ingredients

Grain, yeast, water. That’s all it takes to make vodka.

Because the definition of vodka is so lenient, the spirit can be made with any product that contains sugar or starch. That means that this alcohol can be made from barley, rice, corn, wheat, rye, fruit, and yes, even potatoes.

But almost no one makes vodka from potatoes. The most popular vodka brands like Absolut, Smirnoff, and Grey Goose are made with wheat, whereas Belvedere is made with rye. Not a potato in sight. 

Once you have your grain, you add yeast. The yeast acts as a starter for the fermentation process, which is followed by distillation.

The final ingredient, water, is used to dilute the alcohol down to a drinkable spirit.

But how do you take those three ingredients and make vodka? How is it actually made?


Step 1: Make the Mash

The first step in the vodka-making process is making mash.

The grain of choice is put into a huge masher into which malt is added. This begins the process of breaking down the complex starch in the grain into the simple sugars essential for fermentation.

The mash is then transferred to sterilization vats where it is heated to a temperature that prevents the growth of bacteria.


Step 2: Ferment the Mash

Now it’s time for the yeast to get busy.

In the fermentation process, yeast is added to the mash. Then the mixture is stored in stainless steel vats which have been sterilized. Sterilization is key throughout this process. Bacteria can ruin a whole batch of vodka before it even sees the light of day.

Once the yeast is activated, it begins to convert the simple sugars in the mash to ethyl alcohol. This fermentation process can last anywhere from a day to a week depending on which grain is used in the mash.


Step 3: Distill. Then Again. And Again.  

The yeast did its job, the mash has been fermented, and the sugar is now alcohol. Now, you have to get that alcohol out of the mash.

The liquid is generally distilled in a column still, which is a piece of equipment that allows the alcohol to be heated and therefore vaporized. This separates the liquid – the good stuff, from the solid – the bad stuff. The purest vodka is supposed to be free of flavor, which is why it is heated into a vapor and distilled many more times than other alcohol. The substance returns to its liquid state when cooled and then is filtered.

This distillation process produces a neutral-flavored alcohol, which is only steps away from the vodka we drink out of the bottle. After the liquid is distilled, the alcohol volume can be up to 95 percent – much too high to be bottled for consumption.

To find out if the spirit is ready, distillers test the vodka to ensure that it is high enough proof, or that it has enough alcohol in it. There are many ways to do this, but the most interesting way is to light the spirit on fire. Seriously, distillers do this. If it catches on fire, then it is ready for the maturation process. However, if it does not catch on fire, it is deemed too weak and distilled again.

After distillation, the alcohol is filtered through activated carbon. This helps to remove any impurities that add flavor to the vodka. Again, the goal is a colorless, flavorless spirit, and any impurities in the alcohol will impede that.


Step 4: Hydration and Flavoring

So, now you have a 95 percent ABV spirit. What do you do with that?

You hydrate it or dilute it so that it becomes palatable. The concentrated spirit is diluted with water until the desired AVB is reached, typically around 40 percent.

Now, of course, the purists out there will throw a fit about what comes next. And fair enough. But vodka does come in flavors, so we have to dedicate some space to it.

Though pure vodka is supposed to be colorless, odorless, and flavorless, flavored vodkas have gained popularity. These are vodkas infused with fruit, spices, or extracts, which give the drink different flavors and colors.

No maturation is necessary for vodka. This sets it apart from whiskey and wine, which require maturation before selling. The majority of vodka can be bottled and shipped immediately after hydration and flavoring.

However, some vodka is left to mature in casks, typically oak casks, which are stored underground. This maturation process imparts an amber hue to the vodka and gives it a distinctive flavor.


Step 5: Bottle or serve

That’s it. Chill the vodka down to the lowest temperature you possibly can, open the bottle and drink it straight or in any of your favorite vodka cocktails.


How do you like to drink your vodka? Were you surprised it wasn’t primarily made from potatoes? Comment down below.