Can You Over-Distill Vodka?

Ah, here we are again at what appears to be yet another topical question with only a nebulous response to show for the effort. Oh, you needed a real answer? The answer is maybe or maybe not.

I digress. The definition of vodka according to the TTB prior to May 4th, 2020 is stated as the following: “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.” Needless to say, for some consumers, this definition describes a spirit lacking any type of character whatsoever. Speaking on behalf of some flavored spirits enthusiasts, who want to drink a spirit that by the TTB definition tastes like nothing? And even further, how will I, the consumer differentiate between X brand of vodka and Y brand of vodka if the “without distinctive character” standard applies to all vodka producers? 

Can You Over-Distill Vodka?

For the sophomoric consumer, there are little to no meaningful descriptors beyond the proverbial “oh it’s so smooth”. And by the way friends, the smooth descriptor used in the flavored spirits world is at best only a backhanded compliment. It is the “I can’t think of anything descriptively good to say, so I’ll use the word smooth” compliment. All of you whiskey snobs know who you are.

Be that as it may, differences in aroma and taste can be differentiated among different brands as well as those vodkas made with different base fermentation ingredients. And to be as impartial as possible, there is absolutely merit in a finished spirit that quite frankly is the hardest of all spirits to produce because it simply takes more resources to scrub all of the alcohol molecules as clean as needed for a customary, purely clean vodka.

Recently, however, the budding craft distilling industry has been pushing the envelope of creativity in an effort to capture the essence of hand-crafted, small-batch spirits production and the TTB has taken notice.

Some of these more well-capitalized boutique distilleries do have a budget for a proper vodka column. Those that don’t have to find other ways to produce a vodka that satisfies the more customary “clean” alcohol vibe. 

Or more specifically, they have to send the finished product through the still more than once, or twice, or three times. Do you see where this is going?

But there is a middle ground that can be achieved with some skill. It is the space that defines a clean, yet silky mouthfeel that also allows a delicate amount of essence to be revealed on the finish. It is the space that typically would be relegated to a silver or bronze medal at the tasting competition but has sales that match or even exceed its gold medal-winning contemporary. It is the type of vodka that did not check all the boxes at the tasting competition but is a fan favorite. This is the vodka that whiskey drinkers are willing to spend money on. It is indeed the vodka that will slowly change the perception of what consumers will come to expect in premium vodka. As of May in 2020, vodka can indeed be distinctive with character so says the TTB revised definition.

What Does All of This Mean?

So, let’s get back on topic. Can you over-distill vodka? Well, if your customers don’t really like the taste of spirits, and would rather only taste whatever mixer that happens to be installed in their cocktail? Then no. You cannot over-distill. In fact, maybe you should distill more?

But, if your customers are looking for something that is otherwise hard to find and has a clean, delicate finish that faintly allows the base ingredients to be revealed, maybe distilling less is more?

Can you over-distill vodka? The better question is how well do you know your market?