Making vodka has many variables: the combinations of the ingredients used in the mash, the purity of the water mixed with it, even the type of still, not to mention what kind of cocktail the finished product lands in. The vodka creation process is essentially a matter of picking and choosing the combination that yields the best product. But unless the vodka is meant to be sipped straight, it’s unlikely anyone will notice.
Still, the element of texture—for those drinking it neat—is remarkable and worth paying attention to. What’s happening on the palate (aka the mouthfeel), is a direct result of filtration, a method of removing any impurities, typically by using activated charcoal. Much like the types of stills used to make vodka—plus water quality, pumps, storage, etc.— a filter can impact the texture of vodka, resulting in a thinner feel (from being extra-filtered), heavier and thicker (almost creamier, possibly a result of using a metal filter) and in between (standard charcoal filter). Some vodkas are filtered again and again; some not at all.
Take Belvedere Unfiltered, billed as a luxury vodka distilled four times and not filtered. With a toasted bread scent, the spirit is rich in taste and is smooth but not necessary creamy. Then there’s Square One Organic vodka, made with rye and filtered without the use of chemicals or charcoals, utilizing a micron paper filter, adhering to the company’s mission of sustainability.
Some brands elect for fancier method. After being distilled four times, Crystal Head vodka is filtered three times through quartz crystals known as Herkimer diamonds, named such for their resemblances to the faceted stone. (With vodka makers utilizing precious metals like gold for filtering in Russia, is filtering through diamonds next?)
Reyka vodka is made with glacial water from Iceland that’s filtered through lava rock beds (from Icelandic volcanoes). The porous lava rocks act as a sponge or a filter, and the impurities stay in the rock, leaving a cleaner liquid behind. The rocks are cycled out the way periodically—similar to changing out a carbon filter (a la Brita), in a water pitcher at home.
When Chris Seithel, one of the founders of Loaded vodka, wanted to create a vodka suitable for sipping, he felt he had to do use something different than charcoal. “Vodka is about refining refining refining,” he says. His small-batch spirit starts with clean water that’s flowed through a coconut carbon filter, made from coconut husk. Once the water has been filtered and gone through reverse osmosis, the distiller pumps the water through its proprietary filter 10 times, removing anything it may have missed in the first two steps and purifying the water even further.
Seithel even sells the water so that people can taste the difference between batches before, during and after the process. “I want to educate the general public about how important water is to make a great vodka,” he says. After the vodka has been distilled, the almost-finished product is run through the husks again, further refining.
Using coconuts to filter vodka, while eco-friendlier, is not easy on the wallet. “It comes at a cost,” says Seithel, noting that the Loaded team changes the husks more frequently than necessary. “But it’s important to me that we’re serving its purpose; it’s important to me that we’re going after that flavor profile.”
While many popular brands opt for carbon filtration, some opt for different pumping techniques, like Effen, or a post-filtration step, like elit by Stolichnaya. Inspired by the Russian tradition of leaving casks outside on frigid temps, the final stage in crafting elit is to chill it down to 18 degrees Celsius to slow down the liquid moving through the carbon filter.
“I’m not on the technical side, but I would say the less it’s filtered—if the distillation is solid and you remove what you want to remove and leave in what you want to leave in—then filtration almost seems like it might be unnecessary,” says Tony Abou-Ganim, the author of Vodka Distilled. “The more we filter something, the more neutral it gets. It doesn’t just take out the unwanted elements; it also take out the things that contribute flavor and character to the vodka.”
Echoing those sentiments in product form is Aylesbury Duck vodka. The maker, The 86 Co., states: “We’re sorry that we don’t have a fun story about filtering through carbon, diamonds and crystal, etc., but we felt the spirit from the still was good enough without this extra step.”
Much like water, the components of filtration—what to use, how many cycles, if to filter at all—not only vary but also are up for debate. What isn’t up for debate is the popularity of vodka, and bartenders have only recently come around to supporting the spirit on cocktail menus. Whether it’s cool or not could be a topic of debate as well. But who cares? It’s a top-selling spirit, with numbers to prove that it’s a hit with the masses, and customers look for it on menus when they’re out. As for the serious sippers? They notice too.