The history of the distillation process of vodka and other spirits is not entirely clear. The majority of historians conclude that the 13th-century is the most likely time period in which people began to distill alcohol.
Wine and beer are historically linked to early technological advancements such as the cultivation of crops. Fermenting happens easily with little to no human interference; it sometimes even occurs accidentally. While fermentation is the only process required in the production of wine and beer, liquors such as vodka require an additional important step: distillation. This distillation process has been more so developed than it has been discovered as advanced technology and materials are required for the process. As technology progresses, the distillation process evolves.
Charles Michael Vaughn is the President and Founder of LeSin Vodka, based in New York, New York. With over two decades of experience in the distilled spirits industry, he knows what it takes to make the perfect vodka.
The History Behind Distillation
The history of distillation is actually linked with that of alchemy. At its core, alchemy focuses on the understanding of the nature of substances. Distillation requires very specific intentions that stemmed from the experimentation of alchemists such as Albertus Magnus. Magnus was the first to describe the process of distillation, which made it possible to manufacture distilled spirits.
Charles Michael Vaughn explains that distillation works to separate liquids from non volatile solids. In the case of spirits, alcoholic liquors are separated from fermented materials.
There are two methods of distillation:
Alembic, or “pot distilling” originates from alchemical practices. The alembic pot is where the liquid – a mixture of hot water and mash (a fermented fruit or starchy base) – is heated through. The ethanol (alcohol) then evaporates from the water and travels into a cooling tube. It then travels through another vessel to cool and condense. Additional compounds evaporate during the distilling process, which affects the flavoring of the final product.
Column distilling is a continuation from the success of alembic distilling. As time progressed to the 19th-century, most distillers were looking for a faster method. In column distilling, the mash mixture is continuously flowing into the large column. Steam that is programmed to be the perfect temperature meets the wash and strips away the alcohol. This process discards the unnecessary compounds. The column does not need to be cleaned, which allows for more efficient distilling.
Distilled spirits, otherwise known as liquor, are all alcoholic beverages in which the concentration of alcohol has been elevated from the original fermented mixture. Some examples of distilled spirits include vodka, whiskey, and rum.
Where Did Vodka Come From?
Just as the origins of distillation are unclear, the emergence of vodka is also mysterious. Prior to the 16th-century, vodka was mainly used as medicinal purposes. Over time, vodka became a popular liquor as it is versatile and can be mixed with a variety of other substances. It became a popular spirit across Europe and eventually made its way to North America. It can be consumed in mixed drinks, enjoyed on its own or used in cooking.
How Did Vodka Get Its Name?
Vodka has been around for centuries and its name is an accurate representation of the drink itself. Originally, the term wódka was in reference to any chemical compounds like medicines or cosmetics’ cleansers. The word gorzałka was taken from the Old Polish verb gorzeć, which means, “to burn.” Charles Michael Vaughn says that this is a very appropriate name for the liquor as it is known to burn on the way down.
Charles Michael Vaughn says that although the history of vodka isn’t clear, it is important to learn about the distillation process. It is a complex one that demands knowledge and patience to get the flavoring of any distilled spirit just right.