By the Illuminated Distillers at Pleasant Land Distillery
“I began to think vodka was my drink at last. It didn’t taste like anything, but it went straight down into my stomach like a sword swallowers’ sword and made me feel powerful and godlike.”
Vodka is one of my absolute favourite drinks. Versatile, engaging, fun, and at its best a textural delight. The word is slavic in origin, meaning “little water”. I am not going to get into “who invented vodka” because, unlike the spirit, the history is decidedly murky and despite the name, people were producing similar spirits around the world at the same time. Typically it is a product of surplus which was something that really came to the fore in the USSR. With centralised agriculture, there were some years where there was an abundance of produce. Unfortunately food doesn’t last and, at the time, the best way to preserve it indefinitely was to ferment it and distil it.
I think the best way to start is by defining what a Vodka is. According to Regulation (EU) 2019/787, which of course is still the framework for British regulations post 'Brexshit', Vodka is as follows:
Vodka is a spirit drink produced from ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin obtained following fermentation with yeast of either: potatoes or cereals or both, or other agricultural raw materials, distilled so that the organoleptic characteristics of the raw materials used and by-products formed in fermentation are selectively reduced.
This may be followed by additional distillation or treatment with appropriate processing aids or both, including treatment with activated charcoal, to give it special organoleptic characteristics. Maximum levels of residue for the ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin used to produce vodka shall meet those levels set out in point (d) of Article 5, except that the methanol content shall not exceed 10 grams per hectolitre of 100 % vol. Alcohol.
The minimum alcoholic strength by volume of vodka shall be 37.5%.
The only flavourings which may be added are natural flavouring substances or flavouring preparations that are present in distillate obtained from the fermented raw materials. In addition, the product may be given special organoleptic characteristics, other than a predominant flavour.
Vodka shall not be coloured.
Vodka may be sweetened in order to round off the final taste. However, the final product may not contain more than 8 grams of sweetening products per litre, expressed as invert sugar.
'Anything of Agricultural Origin'
In simple terms, vodka can be made from anything of agricultural origin. Nowadays we associate vodka with either potatoes or grain, but that is largely because of big brand marketing. It may surprise some readers to learn that Smirnoff is made with whatever the cheapest raw material is at the time of production, closest to their respective factories. This means it is made differently around the world ranging from sugar beet through to maize and wheat. In the UK, the “craft gin” movement has resulted in hundred of brands creating a product with the cheapest commodity neutral spirit available because it is incredibly easy to do. You buy in a neutral grain spirit (GNS), mix it with water and stick it into a bottle. Maybe they flavour it or filter it, but at its root it is all made with the same base spirit. Top tip, anyone without a 20+ plate column still is buying in commodity spirit, rather than making it themselves.
It requires no expertise or knowledge, which is why there are now so many of them to be found. Unfortunately buyers have become wise to this, and all these “Distilleries” following the herd are now struggling because the only competitive point they have is price - and companies like Diageo will always be able to beat you. Produce Smirnoff quality, expect Smirnoff pricing. This strategy works if you are able to lose money on your product for the next 20 years, but most of us are not in that position.
To me, I see the parallel between building a brand and designing a chair. If you start by saying “How cheap can I make a chair” it is never going to be the thing you dreamt of. Worse still, buying a commodity spirit is like buying a chair from Ikea and slapping a bit of paint on it, hoping customers don't notice.
At Pleasant Land Distillery over the past 2 years of business, we have consistently been working on a wide variety of contract vodka projects. These include vodka from Jersey Royal Potatoes, regeneratively farmed wheat vodka, vodka made from strawberries, and of course our own vodka made from heritage apples. We find that a successful, complete ferment on the raw materials is essential in order to effectively carry complex, light flavours across into the final spirit, especially when distilling up to 96%.
And of course, we have also found filtration (of various kinds) can offer a lot with regards to alcohol and flavour integration, alongside texture.
In my opinion, vodka should be distilled to at least 95%. This is to ensure that it has the style or characteristics associated with a vodka. The law used to set a minimum of 96% ABV but that has been changed to enable the production of vodka with a little more character which I think can only be a good thing.
In order to do all the things that a vodka needs to do, it must be “Vodka-ey”. Light, relatively neutral in aroma, clean and smooth. At it’s best, it is a silky smooth treat that is the perfect blank canvas for a cocktail, or refreshingly served from the freezer as a viscous shot. I am not even going to go into vodka at it’s worst, I am sure we all have a regrettably memorable hangover. The important thing is to make sure that your customers can use the product in the way that it should be used.
My recommendation on this is to start with an exceptional quality product, even more so for product like vodka, as there is nothing to hide behind. Get great branding, and an authentic liquid that is hard to replicate. Aim for a higher pricing bracket that will give you the margin to sustain yourself and grow your business. If you do it well then you will have laid solid foundations for success.