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Good Question: How Is Vodka Made?

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(credit: CBS) Jason DeRusha
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By Jason DeRusha, WCCO-TV

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – It is the most popular liquor in the United States, with more than 700 million bottles sold in 2010. One out of every three bottles of liquor is vodka, but how is it made?

“You can actually make vodka with anything that contains sugar or starches that can be converted to sugar,” said Jim Aune, director of research for Phillips Distilling in Minneapolis.

Phillips makes Prairie Organic Vodka, Phillips Vodka, and UV Vodka. Prairie is made of 100 percent organic corn from Benson, Minn.

“All the corn is Minnesota-grown corn, three family farms provide the corn for us,” said Dean Phillips, President and CEO of Phillips Distilling.

His family started making vodka in 1949, before it was legal to buy in Minnesota.

“In Minnesota it was illegal until 1955. It was perceived as hard to detect on the breath. People smarter than us decided it should be against the law until 1955,” he said.

Vodka starts with a starch: Corn, rye, and potatoes are some of the starches used. For Prairie Organic vodka, the corn is harvested in Benson, and then taken to a distillery in town.

The corn is ground up and fermented. Then it’s put into a mash with water, yeast and enzymes.

“One molecule of sugar becomes two molecules of alcohol, two molecules of carbon dioxide,” Aune said.

Next, that alcohol is put into a still, which is heated to boil the alcohol out of the mash.

Prairie is distilled six times to remove all the color, flavor, and odor from the concoction.

When the distilling process is completed, all that’s left is a distilled alcohol that’s 191 proof. No one, however, could drink that, so Prairie adds water. Thus a bottle of vodka is 40 percent alcohol, 60 percent water.

If all it is is alcohol and water, is there really a difference between brands?

“I know my competitors will be upset. There is almost no difference between the least expensive and most expensive vodka in terms of what goes into it,” Phillips said.

“Vodka has become very much a fashion item, like a handbag that costs $10 or $1,000. A lot of it is in your mind,” he said.

The cheapest vodkas, which are primarily made in the U.S., are blended with a small amount of citric acid and sugar. By mixing that in, distillers can get a tax break on federal alcohol excise taxes.

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