Vodka: the sweetest science
Vodka is usually credited with being derived from the Polish word ‘Woda’, meaning water. Which is ironic, given it must be distilled to a minimum of 96% ABV to be legally classified as vodka in the EU. What our Eastern European friends really mean, we guess, is that vodka is the least characterful spirit on the backbar. The Switzerland of the drinks world. Neutral, expensive, mixes well with everyone else.
Given its neutrality you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s an easy spirit to produce. In actual fact the journey from grain to glass for any ‘from scratch’ vodka has many twists and turns, is highly technical, and we think you should know about it. After all, you want to know what you’re drinking, right?
So here it is. The process that goes into making our LoneWolf Vodka.
The Brew House.
Milling & Mashing.
It all starts in the milling room. Our LoneWolf Vodka is made from a blend of 50% malted wheat and 50% malted barley. We chose these grains on account of the flavour they bring to the final spirit, an icing sugar sweetness and a subtle vanilla note. LoneWolf vodka’s signature. The malted wheat and malted barley are milled, turned to grist and mixed with warm water in the mash tun to create the mash. Milling breaks open the grains to allow the starch to make contact with the water. This warm water is the perfect environment for the enzymes within the grain to begin breaking down the large sugar chains, including the starch. This process converts these large sugars into smaller, more manageable sugars which will be eaten by the yeast when it is added later in the process.
Lautering & Kettle.
Once the mash is complete it is transferred into the lauter tun. We want to keep the sugars formed in the mash process, but we don’t want the leftover grain so this is held back in the lauter tun. Imagine a big sieve that lets the sugary water through and keeps hold of the leftover grains. These spent grains are sent off to make animal feed and the sugary liquid, now called wort, is moved on to the kettle. Here the wort is heated, helping to remove sulphurous compounds and also killing any bacteria in the process. A quick heat transfer cools it down to 18⁰C, and our house yeast strain is added in line as the wort travels to the fermentation tank. Any warmer and there is chance the yeast will be killed, any cooler it will work less efficiently.
The wort then sits in tank for four to five days to ferment. This is when the sugars in the wort are eaten by the yeast and alcohol is produced creating what is know as the ‘wash’. Once fermentation is complete the wash is then passed through the centrifuge which removes all solids, including the yeast, leaving us with a nice, clear 10% ABV golden ‘wash’. In effect an unhopped beer.
From here the wash is piped across from the brewhouse to the distillery, where the stills take over.
Once the wash arrives in the distillery it heads straight for our triple bubble still. This is where the alcohols are ‘stripped’ from the wash, concentrating it up to a 90% ABV hi-wines. The triple bubble is shaped the way it is to maximise reflux. Vapour rises from the heated base of the still, hitting areas of low pressure at each bubble. This forces vapour outwards to make contact with the cold copper. The cold contact makes the vapour return to liquid and fall to the base of the pot, and the process is repeated. That’s reflux. By the time it has battled its way out through the three bubbles, the vapour has had a large amount of copper contact which reduces the sulphur compounds in the spirit.
From the the triple bubble the spirit passes through the adjoined 8 plate column. This makes the job of removing the more volatile alcohols easier in the next stage, the rectification column. The 18 metre column concentrates and separates out the alcohols at each of its 60 plates. The plates are shaped like a hollow mushroom cap. The cap captures the rising vapour which condenses and falls back onto the plate, until it vaporises again and passes up onto the next plate. The most volatile compounds – acetaldehyde, acetone and methanol – vapourise first and are captured in the ‘heads’, the first part of the spirit we don’t want. Next up is ethanol, which we do want, called the ‘hearts’. Finally, the ‘tails’ which are again discarded. The spirit that comes off the top of the column are at 96.4% ABV and is collected in a vessel.
The penultimate step is to run the hearts through the demethylisation column. Although methanol vapourises before ethanol, its boiling point is only 8.5⁰C lower so some methanol will still travel across, even with a 60 plate distillation column. This is where shoddy distillations can have serious consequences – methanol in high concentrations can blind or even kill. As the name implies, the demethylisation column further separates the remaining alcohols to strip out the methanol from the ethanol. The EU standard for vodka is to have a maximum of 120 parts per million (ppm). This is deliberately set well below the safe level for consumption. LoneWolf Vodka comes off the demeth column at 36.7ppm.
For a final polish we run the vodka through a small homemade carbon filter, to remove certain flavour compounds that we do not want. Some brands will have you believe that filtering is what making vodka is all about. That three, ten, fifteen times filtered is somehow a byword for quality. We wholeheartedly disagree. What these brands are trying to tell you is that they haven’t bothered to do all of the steps before this properly. Just buy in some neutral grain spirit from somewhere. Filter the hell out of it through some enormous tanks of carbon to remove any character. Stick a posh label on it. Sell it to you for an enormous premium. Over filtering kills flavour. We want the icing sugar and vanilla signature of LoneWolf to remain.
Vodka should be subtle, but it shouldn’t be dumb. There are nuances to vodka that our Polish and Russian friends know all about. While we drown it in mixers, they prefer to drink it neat, as we would a whisky. That way, the quality of the distillation and the underlying characters can have their voice.
It’s time to cut the crap. When it comes to selling vodka, let’s expose the corporate marketing departments that have truly gone to town over the years. Three times filtered through diamonds. Infused with Bison urine. “Success Distilled”. The latter being Trump Vodka, of course. Now out of business. Success distilled unsuccessfully.
Rather than “woda”, we prefer the thought that the pioneering Polish distillers were actually joining the words “slodka woda” – sweet water – and naming it wodka. Sweet because that’s how it should subtly taste. Water because it should be pure. The shortcut in the wording is the only shortcut we think they’d be happy with. And we’re no different.
LoneWolf Vodka. From scratch.
70cl – 40% – £32
Crisp, smooth and self-assured. Subtle sweet grain with vanilla is followed by just a hint of icing sugar. A velvety-smooth mouthfeel precedes a warming finish.
Get yours here.