Why Good Vodka Doesn’t Have To Be Expensive


I recently spoke with the actor Ted Danson, the new spokesperson for Smirnoff vodka, and asked him: “Is it permissible for a gentleman to drink a vodka Red Bull?”

“The vodka yes. The Red Bull, I’m going take out of the equation. Isn’t that basically a speedball?” he said. “A reckless teenager maybe. Not a gentleman.”

Never mind that when I asked him if he takes his martini shaken or stirred, his only reply was, “with a crapload of olives,” Danson’s point is well taken. At its essence vodka is all about purity. In this way, vodka is the opposite of pretty much every other form of hard alcohol.

No, seriously. Hear me out.

The main idea when producing most spirits is to distill a highly-concentrated alcohol, leaving in a select few impurities that lend the spirit its unique complexity, infuse it with new flavors and dilute it with just the right amount of water. So, you take a bunch of barley or some other grain, ferment it, distill it into pure grain alcohol, then infuse it with juniper berries and other herbs, and you’ve got gin. Or you take a bunch of corn, ferment it, distill it into what — if made in an illegal pot still in a West Virginia holler — you’d call moonshine, then let it sit for awhile in a charred oak barrel, and you’ve got bourbon. This is grossly oversimplifying things, of course, but you get the point.

The process to make vodka is almost exactly the opposite. It’s the Russian reversal—that old joke format, “in Soviet Russia, law breaks you!”—applied to booze. Which is why in the world of vodka, like in the old Soviet Union, some of the normal rules don’t apply.

Instead of aging it in a charred oak barrel, you might take the same moonshine that became bourbon a paragraph ago and run it through a charcoal filter. Then run it through a charcoal filter again. And again. And again. And eventually, after diluting it with pure water, you’ve got vodka.

In fact, that is exactly what happens with the best-selling vodka in America: Smirnoff. Corn from American farms becomes a fermented corn mash that gets distilled in Indiana into highly-concentrated corn alcohol. From there it gets transported to a 600-employee facility in Plainfield, Illinois, just outside of Chicago, where it gets passed through a charcoal filter ten times over, diluted and bottled for sale.

The whole point of vodka is to filter grain alcohol so many times that it is stripped of everything but ethanol, with the resulting beverage being pure as the driven snow and as tasteless and odorless as possible. Thus, in the process of making vodka, you reach a point of diminishing returns fairly quickly. If you don’t believe me, go make a pot of coffee, then make another one using the same filter and coffee grounds. Then do the same thing again. Your second pot will produce pretty lame, watery coffee and before long your coffee grounds won’t have anything left in them. No matter how many times you run water through them, you’re not getting much of anything out.

This is why vodka is the perfect base for so many cocktails—because by itself it’s as close to a clean canvas as a spirit can get. It’s why when, in the 1940s, a bartender at the Cock n’ Bull on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles needed to get rid of surplus ginger beer, he combined it with Smirnoff vodka to invent the Moscow Mule. It’s why there are so many different flavored vodkas on the market and so many fewer flavored whiskies. Whether you like birthday cake-flavored vodka or not, it’s a lot easier to imagine than birthday cake flavored whiskey. (Please, spirits producers, I beg you: do not take this as a challenge).

Bad vodka, filtered too few times, and diluted with impure water, can be very bad indeed—there’s a reason moonshine gets turned into bourbon. But good vodka, filtered enough times and diluted with crystal clean water, can be pretty damn good, if vodka is your thing. Certainly, there are methods of filtration that produce cleaner vodkas than others. And the purity of the water used in dilution can make a big difference. But the difference between a vodka filtered 10 times and a million times is effectively non-existent — every distillation hits a diminishing returns point, once the impurities are gone there’s nothing left to filter out, no many how many times you run water through that coffee filter.

While the difference between bad vodka and good vodka can be as stark as the difference between a martini and a vodka Red Bull, due to the nature of the beast the difference between very good vodka and an absolutely great vodka ain’t much.