On the face of it, making vodka sounds terrifically easy. Take almost anything edible, add yeast and water to make a mildly alcoholic soup, and then boil - and maybe filter - it into clear, smooth oblivion. No casks, no botanicals, no rules*.
And yet, with nothing creating the final spirit character bar the base ingredients and production process, there really is nowhere to hide. Great vodkas, which this series celebrates, are tangible proof of a distiller’s skill, artistry and passion. Dive in and learn about the base ingredients available to the distiller and what each contributes to the finished vodka.*There are actually quite a few rules governing the production of vodka. Sorry.
Along with the various forms of grain, the potato is one of the most traditional vodka ingredients — although it only came to prominence in the UK in 2008 with the launch of Chase Vodka, created by the founder of Tyrrells Crisps. Potatoes can add subtle earthy, nutty and vegetal notes to a vodka but, importantly, also create a rich, creamy texture within the spirit.
While we might think of potatoes as full of starch, they actually have significantly less energy density than grains. This means that, while they are incredibly easy to grow, you need a lot of them to produce vodka — about 16 tonnes per 1,000 litres of 96% ABV spirit, in fact.
Portobello Road British Potato Vodka
(£36.07 per litre)
Aval Dor Cornish Vodka
(£49.93 per litre)
Edwards 1902 Vodka
(£49.93 per litre)
Chase Original Potato Vodka
(£52.79 per litre)
Arbikie Tattie Bogle Potato Vodka
(£52.50 per litre)
Chopin Potato Vodka
(£54.21 per litre)
Wheat is a very common vodka ingredient and brands such as Ketel One and Grey Goose are particularly proud of producing theirs using winter wheat: wheat planted in the autumn and harvested in summer. Winter wheat makes up most of the world’s overall wheat crop and typically has higher yields than spring wheat, which is useful to a distiller with orders to fill.
Wheat can add a subtle sweetness to a vodka, as well as creating notes of lemon zest, pepper and anise. Wheat vodkas tend to be on the lighter, crisper side of the spectrum, and many distillers are passionate about where their wheat comes from as they believe the terroir has an impact on the final product.
Whisky drinkers will be very familiar with the fennel, mint and spice notes present in whiskies made with rye grains. Given the very different production processes it’s no surprise that rye vodka is a very different experience, but there can still be hints of some of those trademark flavours. Rye vodkas tend to be lean and dry, with subtle notes of pepper, brazil nut, baking spices and rye bread.
Barley is another vodka ingredient which is generally considered to add a subtle sweetness to the final spirit. Many distillers use only malted barley, a familiar concept to Scotch whisky lovers, and much like those using wheat the producers are often very specific about and very proud of the region their barley is sourced from.
Barley vodka is usually considered to be lighter and more acidic than other styles of vodka and tends to produce spirits with subtle notes of bread and nuts.
Grape vodka can either be made by distilling fermented grape juice (otherwise known as wine) or, as is also very common, by distilling the skins, seeds and solids left over from wine production. Grape vodka can be silky-smooth, with a sweet character and notes of freshly-pressed grapes and grape stems.
Grape vodkas are – unsurprisingly – often made by winemakers, and perhaps the most famous of them all is Ciroc, which was founded in 2003 by Jean-Sébastien Robicquet, whose family legacy of winemaking and distilling stretches back to the 16th century.
While milk is a much less common base ingredient for vodka, it can be seen as the continuation of a millennia-old tradition which has seen fermented milk consumed as a very traditional alcoholic beverage in some parts of the world.
Milk-based vodka sprang to modern prominence through the English brand Black Cow, which was the first in the world to make vodka from the whey left over from cheese-making. As you might expect, milk can add a creamy texture to vodka, alongside subtle notes of dairy, white pepper and chocolate.
Given that vodka can be made from almost any carbohydrate-rich substance of agricultural origin, it’s no surprise that vodka producers are experimenting with the unconventional. From rice and agave to honey, food waste and even Dutch tulips, there’s no limit to what can end up in the still.