Americans like their vodka. According to statista.com, consumption of the distilled alcoholic beverage in the United States surpassed 76 million cases in 2018. That works out to about 920 million 750-milliliter bottles of the clear spirit, or 3.5 liters — just under a gallon — annually for every U.S. resident age 21 and older.
And vodka’s popularity exceeds all other liquors: Sales represent a full one-third of all distilled spirits, per parkstreet.com’s 2016 story “Alcoholic Beverage Market Overview.” That’s nearly as large a market share as whiskey and rum — its nearest competitors — combined.
In many ways, the runaway success of vodka is remarkable. Because even in the midst of the craft cocktail boom, when all manner of clever and unique spirits are gaining popularity, the colorless and essentially flavorless spirit is by definition wholly lacking in character. (We’ll cover flavored vodkas in a future story.)
It’s worth considering just how that definition came about. As Fred Minnick wrote in “Vodka Versus Whiskey,” an essay for bourbonplus.com, as Russian-imported spirits began getting noticed in the U.S. in the 1950s, “whiskey distillers lobbied the government to create a definition that would surely defeat its popularity.” So per the Code of Federal Regulations, vodka “is neutral spirits so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.”
The whiskey distillers got their way, but it didn’t seem to hurt vodka’s popularity. Whether used as the basis for a bloody mary, cosmopolitan, Moscow mule or the classic dry martini, vodka is second to none. Perhaps its widespread use in drinks is due precisely to its general lack of a discernible character of its own; it plays well with others, one might say.
But it isn’t completely without taste, notes Lisa Burke, co-owner of the DeSoto Lounge and The Malvern, two popular West Asheville bars. Even after triple (or more) distillation and filtration, “there are still volatile organic compounds,” she says. “So while it’s going to be relatively neutral, it’s still going to have some flavor, mouthfeel and bite.”
Vodka is most often distilled from grains — wheat, corn and rye are popular examples — or potatoes. But as humans discovered many thousands of years ago, nearly any organic matter can be distilled to create an alcoholic beverage. And today some of those ingredients are used to create a vodka that, contrary to its traditional reputation, does, in fact, have a hint of character.
Burke mentions a vodka made from sweet potatoes by Covington Distillery in Snow Hill, an hour’s drive southeast of Raleigh. While it doesn’t taste a lot like the tuber from the nation’s leading sweet potato state, it doesn’t quite fit the government’s joyless and restrictive requirements.
Many distillers, though, buy their neutral grain spirit from large conglomerates. As Chuck Cowdery wrote in a provocative 2017 article, “The Truth About Tito’s and All Vodka,” two of the most popular brands — Tito’s and Smirnoff — source their base product from ethanol, a commodity purchased from Archer Daniels Midland or other large-scale industrial producers. So consumers should view phrases like “handcrafted” with healthy skepticism. “Once you get past a few distillations, you’re paying for marketing and beautiful packaging,” says Burke.
There are exceptions, though. Top of the Hill Distillery’s wheat-based Topo Vodka, made in Chapel Hill, comes from the only certified organic and fully local distillery in the South. And locally, Adam Dalton Distillery in Asheville’s South Slope handcrafts its own distilled spirit, Araña Blanca.
“We won’t use anybody else’s distillery to make our products,” says Dalton. A vodka made from agave, a plant most closely associated with the making of tequila and mezcal, his vodka has a flavor faintly reminiscent of those Mexican spirits.
In line with the craft approach to distilling, Dalton’s copper pot distilling process, which uses 55- and 300-gallon vessels, is human scale. “And our bottling process is extremely handmade, too,” he says, showing off a setup that would be familiar to home brewers or winemakers. “We cap it, seal it and label it right here.”
Dalton says that when it’s time to put the labels on the bottles, one of his employees “gets their earbuds on, finds their groove, and eight hours later we’ve got a pallet done.”
Most vodkas are distilled at 190 proof (95% alcohol), and then water is added to bring their final product down to 80 proof, or 40% ABV. That water doesn’t add appreciably to the spirit’s character, so no matter what anyone tells you, most vodkas score low on the complexity scale.
But quality still matters; better vodkas often have less “burn” and fewer of the sort of impurities that lead to hangovers. Burke recommends Social House Vodka, another North Carolina product. Noting that it has a price point similar to Tito’s, she discourages spending money on more expensive vodkas. “Don’t throw your money away,” she advises. “Because you have about an ounce and a half of the liquor, and then what do you do? Mix it with cranberry juice or tomato juice! What vodka is going to win out over those flavors?”