Monday, December 28, 2009

Vodka Myths and Facts

More often than not, the first reaction to our Single Malt Vodka is "there is no such thing as a Single Malt is made from potatoes, not malt". Some people are downright incredulous, insisting that our product is not vodka and we are misleading people in calling it that. In fact, less than 1% of all vodka made worldwide is made from potatoes. Vodka is, essentially, a mix of ethyl alcohol, water and some amount of impurities from the distillation process. The alcohol is distilled from a fermentation, most often, of grain although it can be made from just about any substance with natural sugars such as potatoes, beets, grapes or molasses.

Vodka has become one of the most popular spirits worldwide. In North America, the vodka market has seen double digit growth in recent years, no doubt due to its versatility in mixed drinks. Since it usually has little, or at least very subtle, flavour and aroma, it makes an ideal alcohol additive to mixers ranging from the sweet to the savoury. In this respect, the objective of most producers is to make as "pure" a product as possible, meaning as high a percentage of ethyl alcohol off of the still. In practice, it is impossible to achieve 100% ethyl alcohol and some impurities always remain. In fact, it is the impurities that give  the vodka its characteristic taste and aroma. Therefore, you'll find that the material(s) used for the fermentation and the method of distillation are responsible for the differences in vodka from one producer to another. (Marketing tends to play just as important a role in the vodka market as the product itself, but I will discuss that sometime in the future.)

Most standard vodkas (i.e. the lower priced products) are made from a combination of grains. Most notably, corn, wheat and barley. The combination is usually dictated by cost of materials. Some premium and ultra-premium brands also use a combination of grains, although at the higher end of the market you will find a tendency to stick to a single ingredient such as wheat, grapes or potatoes. For fermentation to occur, yeast must be used and, depending on the ingredient, artificial enzymes must be added. Barley contains these enzymes naturally, and so is often added to the mix. In any case, the vast majority of vodkas are produced in large continuous column stills capable of producing very large quantities of very pure ethyl alcohol. They are industrial plants. After distillation, most vodkas are filtered to make sure they are as clean as possible. Chill-filtering also removes some of the congeners (impurities) making it even purer. The legal requirement in Canada is to use charcoal filtering.

Still Waters Distillery has chosen to use 100% malted barley as its sole ingredient. We do not need to add artificial enzymes to aid in the fermentation. We convert the starch in the grain to sugar by steeping the grain, then add the yeast to allow it to ferment. Like many micro-distilleries, we then use a pot still to distill the vodka. Since it is less efficient than a large continuous column still, we need to distill three times in order to achieve 95% ethyl alcohol, ultimately, from the still (which is an American legal requirement). Distilling additional times is of little or no use since our equipment will not allow us to achieve much higher percentage alcohol. 

So, the material(s) used and the method of processing (fermentation, distillation, filtering) are responsible for the uniqueness of different vodkas. Nevertheless, most people would have problems telling one vodka from another. Though the premium and ultra-premium vodkas tend to be a little smoother, the differences in taste are, for the most part, very subtle. We believe that Still Waters Single Malt Vodka stands out because of its 100% malted barley origins and the artisan techniques used to distill it in small batches. Our goal was to produce a vodka that would work well in mixed drinks but also could be enjoyed by sipping it straight, either at room temperature or on ice.


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Jay Schiller said...

These are indeed exciting times. I have been reading about the resurgence of micro distilling in the U.S, particularly farm distilleries across grain growing states, for some time now. I am a lover of single malts, craft beers and dreamed that this would come to Ontario. The biggest hurdle, imho, being the LCBO and the monopolistic tendencies of this particular province. Now that there are rumblings of the possibility of privatization, or selling off of provincial assets to pay down the deficit, the extreme hurdles that exist in getting a product to market in this province could begin to diminish. I'd be interested to know what your thoughts are about the current system of distributing spirits in Ontario, what you believe the de-regulation of liquor sales would mean to the quality/prices/selection of spirits in Ontario...and I would understand if you would prefer to correspond by email. Cheers.

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