Most of us have had vodka in one of the many popular drinks that features the spirit. But where does vodka actually come from? In the video above, we headed to the Absolut distillery in Sweden to see how one brand of vodka is made.
It all starts with a fermented substance — vodka can be made with everything from potatoes to rye, but premium vodkas are now most commonly made with wheat. The wheat is brought into the distillery and milled down into a coarse flour; the source of the wheat depends on the particular vodka, but at this distillery all the wheat is local.
Once the wheat has been milled, a mash is then made with hot water, enzymes, and the wheat to begin converting the starches to sugars. The mash then moves to a fermentation tank where yeast is added and then the mixture sits for days, allowing the yeast to convert the sugars into alcohol. At this stage the mixture is like a strong, unpleasant beer with only about an 8 percent alcohol content.
To turn this mash into a spirit requires distillation using stills. The stills concentrate the alcohol and purify it — a vodka like Absolut is made using continuous distillation to create a spirit that is about 85 percent alcohol. At this stage it's not particularly tasty!
But all of that is just to make raw spirit, which many distilleries don’t even do themselves. The distillery we were visiting for Absolut actually does make their own raw spirit, so we were able to see the full process.
The real differentiator in turning the raw spirit into vodka is in the rectification process. With rectification comes greater purity and control over the flavor by removing undesirable elements. The raw spirit passes through columns, each removing various impurities like fusel oil and methanol. Each company’s particular rectification process is unique and is often the secret to their success. When rectification is complete, the spirit is 96 percent pure alcohol, so water is added to bring the alcohol content down. In Absolut, the alcohol content is 40 percent ABV (also know as 80 proof) by the end.
All of these elements in the process differentiate different brands of vodkas — from the grains, to the rectification to the quality of water. Absolut in particular takes pride in their one source of grains, water, distilling, and rectification. And by getting a look inside, we are able to better understand one of our favorite spirits.