Staring at a bottle of your favorite vodka, you could be forgiven for thinking that there may not be much going on there. As a spirit that is by definition (and regulation) tasteless, odorless and colorless, what could possibly be so complicated about it? Well, the fact of the matter is that there’s plenty of things happening, even if they’re happening at the parts-per-million level.
So what exactly is in that bottle?
Ethanol: The building block of vodka, Ethanol is the type of alcohol produced through distillation. Basically, this is what makes you feel so good when you drink it. Though a lot of marketing goes into talking about the ingredients that are used to produce this ethanol (grains, potatoes, fruits, honeys, you name it), the truth is that ultimately the end result of a good distillation – no matter the ingredients or processes used – is going to be tasteless, colorless, odorless ethanol. You have to look at the next element if you want to know what truly makes or breaks your vodka.
Water: Though most vodka marketing would have you believe that it’s the grains, potatoes, fruits or various other ingredients that give the spirit its flavor, most scientists have agreed that ultimate it’s probably the water you’re tasting. Factors like origin, natural filtration, and mineral content all contribute to the ‘taste’ you experience when you sip. There’s also a scientific element to this explanation, since water molecules have been found to ‘bond’ with ethanol to form hydrate compounds. Researchers argue these compounds stimulate our taste-buds more than simple alcohol or water alone ever could.
Citric Acid: Permissible by the FDA in vodka at up to 1,000 parts per million, regulations call this “a smoothing agent to correct objectionable tastes”. Other distillers ruefully point out that the addition of citrified ethanol changes certain taxes, meaning that vodka can be made more cheaply. Ultimately, the presence of citric acid is mostly found in your discount brands as a way to mask the use of poor quality ingredients or the use of highly-treated or mineral-heavy water.
Glycerol: Another signature of cheap vodka, this is allowed in nominal amounts to act as a ‘smoothing agent’. It effectively tricks your senses into perceiving a sweetness or earthiness in the vodka where you might otherwise taste the impurities within.
Sugar: Like so many things we eat and drink, the addition of sugar is a surefire way to make it appeal to our senses. Countless low-end vodka brands add sugar to their product to make it taste sweeter without needing to use more expensive distillation processes. For those who are worried about the added calories, take solace in the fact that the FDA limits the amount to 2 parts per million. So though it won’t add many discernible calories to your spirit, it will trick you into thinking it tastes better than it is.