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Making sense of vodka terms: Your complete guide

You'll finally learn everything you wanted to know about vodka

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If you’re a vodka drinker, there’s a good chance you’ve enjoyed a vodka-based cocktail, a few shots, and maybe even a sip or two neat or on the rocks over the years. But what do you know about vodka? This seemingly flavorless, simple, mixable spirit is much more complicated than you think.

In the most basic sense, vodka is a clear, neutral spirit that’s un-aged and has very little aroma or flavor. And while distillers do their best to make vodka as neutral, flavorless, and smooth as possible, it does carry some flavors based on the ingredients it’s made from.

Vodka is made up of two things: water and ethanol. The ethanol is created by fermenting sugars from various grains and fruits with yeast and while you might think all vodkas are made from potatoes, this isn’t even close to true. Vodkas are made from many different ingredients including the aforementioned potatoes, rye, wheat, corn, and other things.

While vodka is distilled several times and filtered to remove impurities and flavors, wheat vodkas are still soft, rye vodkas still carry a little extra spice, potato vodkas are still creamy, and corn-based vodkas are still sweeter.

Vodka’s long history

Absolut Vodka
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Like many traditional spirits, the history of vodka is shrouded in mystery. Some experts claim its origins can be traced as far back as the 8th century while others say it was first introduced in the Middle Ages. Still, some believe the closest version to modern vodka was created in a country you might not be expecting.

While Russia is most famous for its vodka, the spirit was likely first invented in Poland in the early 1400s and widely made on homemade stills throughout the country. There was no documentation of any vodka being produced in Russia until the 1700s. The name even comes from the Polish word ‘wódka.’ Originally, like many spirits, it was distilled for its medicinal purposes.

Everything you ever wanted to know about vodka

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Now that you know a little bit about what vodka is, how it’s made, and its history, it’s time to take a deeper dive into this timeless spirit. Below, we’re going to delve into the various terminology you need to know about vodka. Keep scrolling to see them all.


A neutral spirit is an ethanol or ethyl alcohol that was distilled to be extremely concentrated. It’s a high-proof spirit made from various grains like corn, wheat, rye, grapes, barley, and more.


The alcohol compound found in spirits like vodka that makes you feel buzzed and flat-out drunk is ethanol (also known as ethyl alcohol). It’s created by fermenting the sugars from grains, fruits, and other ingredients with yeast.


The mash is a mix of grains and water. Sometimes called the mash bill or grain bill, it can be comprised of many different grains including wheat, barley, corn, millet, and other grains. Once the grain is combined with water, it’s heated and then fermented.


You can’t make alcohol without fermentation. The most basic step in creating vodka (and all spirits), fermentation, is the chemical breakdown of sugar into alcohol from the use of yeast.


If you don’t know what rectification is, you might know it by its other name: purification. It’s a way of removing unwanted congeners, odors, and flavors from the vodka. Some vodka distillers rectify more than others, hence the smooth, almost flavorless profile of many vodkas.


Like with any spirit, filtering is the process by which distillers remove odors, flavors, and impurities from the vodka. Charcoal is common, but other filters are also used. Iceland’s Reyka Vodka even uses volcanic rock to filter its popular vodka.


You might see the word “premium” written on your favorite bottle of vodka, and while it’s a nice buzzword that makes you think of quality, you might not know what it means. The term means that the vodka was distilled multiple times to make it smooth and filtered multiple times to remove impurities. The process of creating premium vodka is more labor-intensive than non-premium vodka.

Double distilled

As the name suggests, double distilled means the vodka was distilled two times to mellow and smooth out the final product. You might see triple distilled and beyond. The idea is to make the vodka as smooth and neutral as possible because that’s what most consumers are looking for.

Bottom line

Vodka bottles
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If you read through this whole article, perhaps you have a better understanding of what it takes to make vodka. It’s not simply a clear, flavorless spirit designed for mixing. There’s so much more going on.

Christopher Osburn
Christopher Osburn is a food and drinks writer located in the Finger Lakes Region of New York. He's been writing professional
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