Figuring Out Exactly What Makes A Great Vodka Great


Let’s talk about vodka for a moment. Up until the whiskey boom of the last decade, one out of every two bottles of booze sold was vodka. The neutral spirit has been a go-to alcohol for centuries, but because of its clear, unadulterated nature, it often gets dismissed as uncomplicated, basic, even simple. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The fact is, vodka has a long and storied history and has undergone little changes over the centuries. It’s made with wheat, rye, potato, or any other cereal or grain. When a whiskey distillery distills a batch of rye, it can technically become vodka when it comes out of the still. The aging in barrels is what makes it whiskey. And just like the quality of a great whiskey is found in the quality of the distillate made, a great vodka is about premiere grains, the best mineral water, and a filtration system that turns every aspect of the spirit into something… pristine.

We sat down with Brent Lamberti recently to talk about what it takes to make a great vodka. Lamberti is the current ambassador for Stolichnaya’s Elit Vodka. He’s also worked for Hennessy Artistry and Casa de Don Julio Tequila — so the man knows his way around a distillate. He was the perfect person to ask about how this spirit can be elevated beyond our hum drum expectations.

Let’s talk a little about the history of Vodka. There’s a long debate between Poland and Russia having invented vodka. What’s your take on that?

Both countries lay claim to being the originators of woda (Polish) or voda (Russian) but many of the historical references are conflicting. For me, it’s really not important who came first. What’s more important is where we are headed.

Do you think the debate over vodka’s birthplace is important, or should we all just be enjoying it instead?

We should definitely be enjoying the debate… over some martinis!

Stolichnaya got its start in Moscow State Wine Warehouse No. 1, can you walk us through the beginning?

In the Russian Empire, the state monopoly for production and the sale of alcoholic beverages was implemented in 1896. In 1901 Moscow State Wine Warehouse No.1 was opened. It was the largest and most productive distillery in Russia. Many distilled beverages were produced at this facility throughout the years, one of them being Stolichnaya. Since 2009 Stoli has been distilled at Talvis, our distillery in the Tambov region of Russia.

When did the current blend of wheat and rye distillate arrive?

The Stolichnaya blend of 97% wheat and 3% Rye has been produced since 1938.

Okay, so… broad question here: What makes vodka special?

It all starts with the grains. The wheat used in the production of Elit comes from a unique pocket of land on the Raduga estate. That’s 620 hectares (1,532 acres) in a protected environment zone of Tambov. It’s surrounded by Kershinskoye lake and the Novolyadinskoye, Strolovskoye, and Platonovskoye forests, meaning this land is completely isolated from towns, roads, and industry. This creates an idyllic natural environment for raising the ultra-high quality wheat demanded by the distillery.

It must be hard growing wheat in a place where winters are so long and harsh.

Tambov has a moderate climate, with warm summers and cold winters. Average temperatures drop below freezing for five months. In these challenging conditions, the Raduga farmers grow both winter wheat (sown in the autumn and harvested in late spring / early summer before the heavy summer rains) and spring wheat (planted in the spring and harvested in early autumn).

Soft grain wheat is the best for making alcohol and Darya winter wheat grown in Raduga is one of the best.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, part of the process moved to Riga, Latvia. Why?

Since 2009, the raw alcohol used in the production of our vodka is distilled our distillery in the Tambov region of Russia in Talvis. That raw alcohol is then transported via train to Latvijas Balzams, our facility in Riga, Latvia. At Latvijas Balzams, the spirit is blended with pure spring water from our own artesian wells, filtered, and then bottled.

Why is the artisanal water in Riga so important?

Water takes up 60% of an 80 proof bottle of vodka. Vodka is the ‘naked spirit.’ There are no botanicals added. There’s no wood aging. So what you are left with is the distiller’s use of the raw ingredients blended with the water of their choice to retain and support the character of those raw ingredients.

So, when the distillate arrives at Latvijas Balzams, the spirit is rested in stainless steel tanks before being blended with spring water. The water is drawn from artesian wells 200 meters below Latvijas Balzams. This water is purified by reverse-osmosis before being given the perfect mineral balance to accentuate the clean taste and exceptional purity of the spirit.

What does it take to make a great vodka?

The quality of ethanol distilled in Russia that becomes vodka is governed by a series of qualities, each of which defines the amount of methanol that can be present. The highest grade, called Alpha spirit, allows a maximum of 0.003 percent methanol to be present in the spirit. By 2012, the distillers at Talvis had perfected their methods of distillation to such a fine level that traces of methanol were reduced to 0.00021 percent, fourteen times less than the Alpha grade level of purity.

How’s that level of purification reached?

Once the distillate arrives at Latvijas Balzams, the purification is achieved by seven stages of filtration and conditioning. First, we optimize the spirit temperature. We cool or warm the spirit in a heat exchanger to exactly 15˚C (59˚F), the optimal temperature for activated charcoal filtration.

Before charcoal filtration, the spirit passes through quartz sand to remove any tiny particles left over from distillation and blending. Each grain of sand is between 1.6mm and 3.2mm to trap even the smallest impurities between the hard edges of each grain.

Next is the traditional Russian method of vodka filtration. The spirit passes through an activated charcoal of Russian birch for this vital part of its process. This is an extraordinary material. The charcoal is activated in an oxygen-free environment by water steam at temperatures of over 800˚C (1,472˚F). This gives the charcoal an exceptionally porous structure and every gram has a surface area of 500 square meters, an area greater than a basketball court. This allows the birch charcoal to work extremely effectively to remove virtually every trace of impurity.

Okay, how does that work?

The spirit is fed into the bottom of a single 4.2-meter (14 foot) column at a flow rate of 300 liters (80 gallons) per hour. The width and length of the column and the flow rate are precisely calculated to optimize the removal of impurities by the charcoal without the filtered spirit becoming tainted.

Filtration through carbon is a complicated process with two main reactions — oxidation and adsorption. This activates molecules (through a molecular process called van der Waal’s force) that latch onto minute traces of unwanted compounds such as congeners, fusel oils, and tannins that would affect the vodka’s taste and aroma and contribute to hangovers.

That’s heavy. What happens next?

After charcoal filtering, the spirit is once again filtered through quartz sand — this time to remove any minute particles of charcoal that might have been collected. The fifth stage is to pass the liquid through an ultra-fine membrane before it’s ready for the final purification.

Several batches of our vodka are combined in a resting tank for the final filtration. Over a period of 16 hours, 7,500 liters (1,981 gallons) of quartz and charcoal filtered spirit are collected and chilled down to -18˚C (-0.4˚F) through a heat exchanger. The liquid is stored at this temperature for no longer than eight hours to avoid any damage to the molecular structure. At this temperature, the liquid becomes denser and this decreases the solubility of the final impurities.

This unique process uses advanced technology to remove the very last imperfections. The dense, super-chilled spirit is passed at an ultra-slow velocity through positively charged Zeta Plus filters with pores between 0.5 and 0.7 microns in size.

Wait, what’s a “micron” and what is that doing?

One micron is one-millionth of a meter. These filters attract the negative charge of the very last impurities that remain in the vodka.

That’s a massively complex process to get a bottle of vodka. So, when we’re tasting vodka, what characteristics should we be looking for?

It really varies depending on which type of vodka you are tasting. However, here are a few things that are standard — aroma, palate, and mouthfeel.

What should we be looking for with Stolichnaya’s Elit?

The aroma is green bell pepper, fresh citrus, vanilla, white pepper, mint, and marshmallow. The palate has notes of toffee, vanilla, citrus, and butterscotch. And, lastly, the mouthfeel should be luxurious, clean, and crisp.

What makes a great vodka great?

Raw ingredients, impeccable distillation, flawless filtration.

What makes a bad vodka bad?

Inferior ingredients, money saving short cuts in distillation, masking agents.

How do you love to drink vodka?

My favorite way to enjoy vodka is straight out of the refrigerator, not the freezer. I feel the freezer makes it too cold and I can’t experience all the subtle, pleasant aromas and tastes.

What’s your favorite vodka cocktail?

In London at Dukes Hotel. The Vodka Martini made by the master Alessandro Palazzi!