What is vodka? And do you get less hangover?

November 11, 2012

There are all kinds of different vokdas. Image from The Fifty Best.

There are all kinds of different vokdas. In the United States, Vodka went from nowhere 50 years ago to being the most consumed spirit today. But what makes something vodka? And does it really give you less of a hangover?

Vodka is a distilled spirit made from anything that contains sugar. The most common things to use are grains like wheat, rye or corn. Potatoes are also used as well as beet sugar. But anything that has sugar or can be turned into sugar can be used as the base of vodka. Grey Goose vodka uses grapes to get its sugar. The resulting sugary slurry from the base, called a mash, is fermented to create the alcohol. The mash is then processed into vodka.

By definition, vodka is a neutral spirit, and the distillation and fractioning process will remove much of the chemicals and flavors. So even though vodka can be made from many different bases, the results will be similar. Vodka brands like to boast about their distillation process and how pure they are. While each pass of distillation will increase the alcohol content, what increases the purity is a process call frationing and filtering. Using an apparatus called a still, non-essential compounds are “fractioned” or “filtered” to create a pure consistent liquor.

Conversely, when making spirits like whiskey or bourbon, these impurities are purposely left in to create their unique flavors. Higher quality vodka brands claim more sophisticated distillation processes to remove more of the impurities. In practice, though, most brands over a certain threshold are difficult to tell apart. Since vodka is a neutral spirit you can find dozens of flavored varieties at any liquor store. These flavorings allow the spirit to take on tones that other liquors could never achieve like citrus-y flavors, pepper flavors, and many more.

So what’s it mean to me?

You may feel cool popping for that bottle of Belvedere, and that could be worth it to you, but don’t expect it to make your cocktail better. Vodka is a regulated neutral spirit and unflavored vodkas from any respectable vodka brand will preform identically when mixed. In general, if you avoid the plastic bottle, you’ll be fine.

Flavored vodkas can provide a nice “all-in-one” base for a cocktail and make the mixing process easier by adding flavor notes without having to keep a full stock of bar spices and bitters. And yes, the distillation process for vodka removes compounds like ethyl acetate and ethyl lactate, which can exacerbate certain parts of a hangover for certain people. So if you had to pick an alcoholic beverage that was least likely to give you a hangover, it would be some vodka-based low-sugar non-carbonated salty drink. Vodka info and reviews from Tastings.com Some history from Wikipedia Have a favorite vodka or some other opinion? Share it in the comments.