The origins of Vodka can be traced back to Eastern Europe. Both the Russians and the Poles lay claim to its discovery although the word Vodka seems to come from the Russian word "Voda", meaning water.
Vodka distillation techniques have evolved through time. At one time Vodka was a product of a single distillation but later was re-distilled and even elaborated using honey to improve on the taste. It was in the 18th century that charcoal was first used to filter the distillate in order to obtain a more neutral spirit.
Vodka can be made using cereals (sorghum, maize, and rye), root vegetables (potatoes, beetroot), molasses, soy beans, grapes, rice and believe it or not some commercial vodka may even be produced as by products of the oil refining industry or wood pulp. Water is a fundamental ingredient of vodka as it constitutes 60% of its total volume. In Russia, crystal clear river water was used initially for producing Vodka but was then later purified in order to acquire purity similar to that of distilled water although distilled water is not used as it turns the vodka opaque.
The stages of vodka production are as follows: fermentation, distillation, rectification, filtration, dilution, and bottling.
When using grains to make vodka, these are soaked in water and preheated to encourage the conversion of starches to sugar - so essential in the fermentation process. This wash is then drained and the liquid retained for fermentation. Potatoes are first mashed before preheating. During fermentation the yeast present convert the sugars in the wash to alcohol. After fermentation the alcohol volume of the wash will not be higher than 15% so we will need to proceed with a distillation in order to concentrate the alcohol further.
Long before distillation processes were employed the alcohol was separated from the water and impurities by freezing during the cold East European months taking advantage of the fact that water freezes at higher temperatures than alcohol. A traditional way of distilling vodka was to distil it twice before adding milk to remove impurities preceding a third distillation. Before a final distillation, water was added to dilute the solution together with flavouring agents. As distilling techniques evolved continuous distillation techniques invented in the 20th century using fractional or reflux columns, allowed for an increase in purity and alcoholic volume.
During rectification undesirable components such as methanol are removed. Using a traditional alembic still (Soldered Union Alembic still or Riveted Union Alembic still) these impurities may be removed by discarding the heads and tails from the final distillation (see Basic distillation Rules). To avoid having to do double or even triple distillations using the traditional alembic you may opt for the Reflux Column Alembic with which you can obtain a purer and higher concentration of alcohol in a single run. If you wish to use your vodka as a base for liqueurs you may wish to consider acquiring the Complete Alembic Set with Reflux Column. This set includes a complete traditional alembic and the detachable reflux column. So you may distil your vodka using the reflux column and then add a flavouring agent performing a normal distillation using the traditional swan neck and condensing recipient.
After rectification the vodka may be filtered with activated charcoal to neutralise and remove any trace of impurities that may have remained in order to obtain a colourless and flavourless distillate of the highest purity, up to 95% a/v. This is as close to pure ethanol as you can get.
Depending on manufacturers' methods, water may be added before or after filtration to dilute the vodka to acceptable alcoholic levels.
To flavour vodka red chilli peppers, ginger, vanilla, chocolate, cinnamon and various other fruits and spices may be used. Generally vodka is bottled immediately although some vodkas may be allowed to age in wooden casks before bottling.