Vodka is a neutral, colorless and mostly flavorless spirit with a worldwide reach, both in terms of production and consumption. US regulations require that vodka produced in the US be "neutral" and be sold "without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color". Although it can very much be enjoyed neat, it’s also perfect for infusions and combined in cocktails. Vodka originates from Eastern Europe, although pinpointing a specific country and an accurate starting point seem to very controversial topics. So, let’s not get into that. The fact that it does not need ageing and that it can be made from a variety of common ingredients makes vodka easy and cheap to produce, in a relatively short amount of time. So, why not put your pretty copper pot still to good use and make some homemade vodka of your own?
Starting with the ingredients: what to make it out of? Most vodka today is made from grains such as wheat, rye, barley or corn – rye and wheat vodka is generally considered superior. But grains are not mandatory, as you can also make your vodka from potatoes, molasses, grapes, rice or sugar beets. The important thing is that the base ingredients are rich in starch and sugars. There are, of course, many possible mash recipes and, depending on the source you choose, different techniques might apply. So prepare your mash, strain it and let it ferment. Add your yeast of choice and make sure you keep the mash at the right temperature, about 80-85F for a good, efficient fermentation. If you’re not so lucky with natural temperature, you can always use a heating belt.
Next step: distillation. Transfer your fermented alcoholic wash into your copper pot still and fire it up. After the wash heats up, alcohol and other substances vaporize and condense in the water-cooled area of the still. Remove the heads – maybe discard around 2oz of liquid to 5 gallons of wash. After that, your pot still will contain ethanol, water and some other compounds. Watch your copper still closely through the rest of the distillation process and don’t forget to also remove the tails towards the end. Vodka gets its clarity and purity through its many distillation stages. That’s why it’s necessary to run it through your copper pot still at least three or four times. This leads to a high purity distillate with high alcohol content. Heads and tails need to be removed each time you redistill.
Something which sets the process of vodka production apart from other spirits is the extensive use of filtration, which takes away the roughness, making it smoother. Filtering can be done in the pot still, during distillation, as well as afterwards, when the distilled vodka is filtered through a carbon filter to absorb certain unwanted volatile substances and flavors. For the home distiller, this can easily be done through a funnel, with a cotton ball at the bottom. Add some activated carbon and pour the distillate into a bottle. You can repeat this as many times as you see fit. Traditional Eastern European producers prefer to use very accurate distillation and minimal filtering, as they aim to preserve the flavors and characteristics of the initial product.
The next step is diluting your vodka. Because of the high alcohol percentage obtained through repeated distillation, vodka is one drink which needs diluting in order to be safely enjoyed. You can add purified water to the distillate to reach a desired strength. An alcoholmeter is necessary to help you measure the alcohol percentage. Commercial vodka is usually bottled at a minimum of 30% ABV in the US and 37.5% ABV in the EU.
That’s it, your vodka is ready to drink neat or flavored. Vodka puts your copper pot still to good use, it’s fast and relatively easy to make, but most importantly, cheap. You can choose from a wide range of ingredients and then mix the final product with anything you like, either by infusing it with flavorings or simply being creative with some cocktails.
Posted by Jason Stone on