Vodka is an alcoholic beverage distilled at a high proof from a fermented vegetable or grain mash. Proof is a measurement of the alcohol content. Each degree of proof equals a half percent of alcohol. Thus, 100 proof is that which contains 50% alcohol, 90 proof contains 45%, and so on. Because distilled vodka can have a proof as high as 145, all taste and odor has been eliminated, making vodka a neutral spirit. Water is added to bring the proof down to a range between 80 and 100.


The practice of allowing certain grains, fruits, and sugars to ferment so that they produce an intoxicating beverage has been around since ancient times. Fermentation is a chemical change brought about by the yeast, bacteria, and mold in an animal or vegetable organism. In the production of alcoholic beverages, yeast enzymes act on the sugars in the mash (usually dextrose and maltose) and convert them to ethyl alcohol.

It was in the tenth century writings of an Arabian alchemist named Albukassen that the first written account of distillation was found. Distillation was also said mentioned among the writings of the thirteenth century Majorcan mystic Ramon Llull. Distillation is a heating and condensing process that drives gas or vapor from liquids or solids to form a new substance. Distilled spirits are also known as ardent (Latin for burn) spirits.

There is disagreement among Russians and Poles as to which country was the first to distill vodka. Most historical references credit Russia. In any event, the drinking of vodka has been documented since the fourth century in eastern and northern Europe. In those regions, it was common to distill alcoholic beverages to a very high proof, eliminating any aroma or flavor.

Vodka remained primarily an eastern and northern European preference for centuries. It was not until the 1930s that it began to gain popularity in Western Europe and North America. A 1930 British publication, the Savoy Cocktail Book, was the first to include recipes for vodka drinks. The "Blue Monday" combined vodka with Cointreau and blue vegetable juice. A "Russian Cocktail" called for the addition of creme de cacao and dry gin to the neutral spirit.

One the primary vodka producers, the Smirnoff family distillery began business in 1818 in Moscow. A century later the distillery was churning out one million bottles daily. However, after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the family lost control of the business. In 1934, a Russian immigrant named Rudolph Kunitt, bought the American rights to the Smimoff name. Kunitt opened a distillery in Bethel, Connecticut, and struggled along for five years, at best only producing 20 cases a day. He sold his business to the Heublein Company in 1939.

Heublein executive John C. Martin found that vodka was especially popular in the California film industry and he cultivated those customers. In 1946, he met the owner of a Los Angeles restaurant, the Cock 'n' Bull, who was trying to unload an overstock of ginger beer. Since one of vodka's attributes is its ability to mix with almost anything, the two men experimented with a vodka and ginger beer concoction. They added a slice of lime, called their invention the "Moscow Mule," and had an instant success on their hands.

By the 1950s, New Yorkers were drinking vodka too. From 40,000 cases sold in the United States in 1950, vodka sales jumped to just over one million in 1954. The following year, 4.5 million cases were sold. By the mid-1960s, vodka nudged out gin; by 1976, it surpassed whiskey. By the end of the decade, the martini was more likely to be made with vodka than with it original ingredient, gin. At the close of the twentieth century, vodka accounted for 25% of the distilled spirits market.

Until the middle of the eighteenth century, vodka production was essentially a home-based, one-pot operation called batching. Heating potatoes or grains until the starch was released and converted to sugar made a mash. The resulting liquid matter was allowed to ferment, and then heating it at a high temperature to release the intoxicating vapors distilled the liquid.

Louis Pasteur
Louis Pasteur

Louis Pasteur was one of the most extraordinary scientists in history, leaving a legacy of scientific contributions which include an understanding of how microorganisms carry on the biochemical process of fermentation, the establishment of the causal relationship between microorganisms and disease, and the concept of destroying microorganisms to halt the transmission of communicable disease. These achievements led him to be called the founder of microbiology.

After his early education Pasteur went to Paris, studied at the Sorbonne, then began teaching chemistry while still a student. After being appointed chemistry professor at a new university in Lille, France, Pasteur began work on yeast cells and showed how they produce alcohol and carbon dioxide from sugar during the process of fermentation. Fermentation is a form of cellular respiration carried on by yeast cells, a way of getting energy for cells when there is no oxygen present. He found that fermentation would take place only when living yeast cells were present.

Establishing himself as a serious, hard-working chemist, Pasteur was called upon to tackle some of the problems plaguing the French beverage industry at the time. Of special concern was the spoiling of wine and beer, which caused great economic loss and tarnished France's reputation for fine vintage wines. Vintners wanted to know the cause of I'amer, a condition that was destroying the best burgundies. Pasteur looked at wine under the microscope and noticed that when aged properly the liquid contained little spherical yeast cells. But when the wine turned sour, there was a proliferation of bacterial cells which were producing lactic acid. Pasteur suggested that heating the wine gently at about 120°F would kill the bacteria that produced lactic acid and let the wine age properly. Pasteur's book Etdues sur le Vin, published in 1866 was a testament to two of his great passions—the scientific method and his love of wine. It caused another French Revolution—one in wine-making, as Pasteur suggested that greater cleanliness was need to eliminate bacteria and that this could be done with heat. Some wine-makers were aghast at the thought but doing so solved the industry's problem.

The idea of heating to kill microorganisms was applied to other perishable fluids like milk and the idea of pasteurization was born. Several decades later in the United States the pasteurization of milk was championed by American bacteriologist Alice Catherine Evans who linked bacteria in milk with the disease brucellosis, a type of fever found in different variations in many countries.

It was soon discovered that multiple distillations produced a spirit of a higher proof and of greater purity. In 1826, Robert Stein invented the continuous still that allowed for repeated recycling of steam and alcohol until all of the spirit has been extracted. Aeneas Coffey improved Stein's design. Modern

continuous stills usually contain three primary sections: still heads (where the vapors are collected), fractionating columns (where the ethyl alcohol is broken down), and condensers (where the vapors are reconverted to liquid).

Louis Pasteur's development of pasteurization began when a French distiller asked him for advice on fermentation. Pasteur's research led him to the discovery of lactic acid and its role in fermentation. Today, lactic acid is used as an inoculation against bacteria in the production of vodka.

At first, charcoal filtration was the universal procedure used to purify the vodka. Then at the beginning of the twentieth century, the process of rectification was developed. In rectification, the spirits are passed through several purifying cylinders designed to eliminate dangerous imperfections such as solvents, fusil oil, and methanol.

Raw Materials

Vegetables or grains

Because it is a neutral spirit, devoid of color and odor, vodka can be distilled from virtually any fermentable ingredients. Originally, it was made from potatoes. Although some eastern European vodkas are still made from potatoes and corn, most of the high quality imports and all vodka made in the United States are distilled from cereal grains, such as wheat. Distillers either purchase the grain from suppliers, or grow it in company-owned fields.


Water is added at the end of the distillation process to decrease the alcohol content. This is either purchased from outside suppliers or brought in from company-owned wells.

Malt meal

Because vegetables and grains contain starches rather than sugars, an active ingredient must be added to the mash to facilitate the conversion of starch to sugar. These particular converted sugars, maltose, and dextrin respond most effectively to the enzyme diastase that is found in malt. Therefore, malt grains are soaked in water and allowed to germinate. Then, they are coarsely ground into a meal and added during the mash process.


A microscopic single-celled fungus, yeast contains enzymes that allow food cells to extract oxygen from starches or sugars, producing alcohol. In the manufacturing of alcoholic beverages, the yeast species Sacchasomyces cereviseal is used. It is purchased from outside suppliers.


In the latter part of the twentieth century, flavored vodkas became popular. Thus, herbs, grasses, spices, and fruit essences may be added to the vodka after distillation. These are usually purchased from an outside supplier.


The Manufacturing

Mash preparation

Sterilization and inoculation


Distillation and rectification

Water added


Quality Control

Although tasters draw off quantities of vodka for sampling throughout the distilling process, most of the controls on vodka quality come from local, state, and federal governments. At the federal level, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms issues strict guidelines for production, labeling, importation, advertising, and even plant security. For example, charcoal-filtered vodka imports are not permitted. Flavored vodkas must list the predominant flavor (pepper, lemon, peach, etc.) on the label. The relationships between suppliers and producers are strictly regulated as well.

Where to Learn More


Grimes, William. Straight Up or On the Rocks: A Cultural History of American Drink. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Grossman, Harold J. Grossman's Guide to Wines, Beers and Spirits. 7th edition, revised by Harriet Lembeck. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1983.


Lancut Distillery. (March 9, 1999).

Mary McNulty

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