Good Question: How Is Vodka Made?

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.

More from Jason DeRusha
  • Randy

    Where the sugar comes from does affect the hangover and the quality of the water added affects the taste. And today, shipping can affect cost a little.

  • Mike Hawk

    Vodkas are not all pretty much the same & if you think that they are just sit down & do a taste test. Phillips isn’t any where near the best. In fact if you’re going to drink Phillips you may as well reach for the cheapest stuff you can buy. Of course you you shouldn’t be fooled buy marketing ei. “Absolute” either.

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  • M.

    Mmmmmmm Russian Standard. Now that’s some quality vodka!

  • Sgt

    Its all marketing. there are some pretty good vodkas out there, that dont cost a lot . the little liquor store that work at we sell alot of vodka, mostly the cheap brands. as people are buying down.

  • paul

    Yes, there is little different in what goes into the lion’s share of the domestic vodkas. It is because most domestic vodkas originate at a handful of massive facilities. Processing plants (hired by companies like Phillips) purchase, blend, flavor and package this alcohol. They process vodka. They do not produce it. It is easy to say “there is almost no difference between the least expensive and most expensive vodka in terms of what goes into it” when taking that into account.
    Fortunately, this is slowly changing with the emergence of small producers making vodka in their own facilities. These vodkas tend to have more flavor and do not need sugar and other additives.

  • Tom

    I was very disappointed that the sum total of this story seemed to be a 5 minute ad for Phillips. I guess I took away from it a lesson that that all Phillips vodka’s taste alike, regardless of price. However, the story was presented as if you were going to do an actual chemical analysis of different Vodkas, not just take a tour of the Phillips blending lab. You even had a bottle of a local, small batch vodka on the table in front of you that you never mentioned! It would have been a better story if you’d actually had several vodkas analyzed to compare chemical composition. Having done some blind tastings of various, small batch vodkas, I can assure you that there is a difference. Just one you won’t necessarily find from huge, bulk producers like Phillips.

  • JP

    He was right when he mentioned some vodkas add citrus acids to use a tax break to lower costs. This is a big mistake when quality and mixability come into play. As a bartender I can tell you a simple test to see this in a drink. Common mixed drinks that are altered by this citrus acid added vodka. White Russian (Vodka Kahlua Cream), Colorado Bulldog (Vodka Kahlua Coke and Cream), Iron Butterfly (Vodka Kahlua Bailys), These will all curdle up due to the citrus acids and Creams. A similar concept is noticed in a shot we make called a cement mixer which is a shot of Bailey Irish cream and Lime juice (citrus acid) which instantly curdles in your mouth. After 14 years of bartending Phillips Vodka is the only lower end vodka I have found that does NOT Curdle and leave chunks. The last thing I want in my White Russian is CHUNKS!!!

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