Vodka is vodka, right? Not anymore

 It was in Ian Flemings second James Bond book (Live and Let Die, 1954) that 007 ordered his first “vodka martini.” By the time Bond made it to the big screen in 1962’s Dr. No, three things had changed: Bond drank exclusively vodka martinis, vodka had become much more popular, and the actual definition of what vodka could be was codified by the Federal government.

The original 1962 definition of vodka put in place by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) read, “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.”

And for nearly 60 years that was the case. Then just a few months ago with virtually no fanfare, all of that changed. In May 2021, the TTB quietly changed vodka’s legally definition to read “neutral spirits which may be treated with up to two grams per liter of sugar and up to one gram per liter of citric acid,” and removed the qualifier “without distinctive taste” etc. Vodka for the first time in half a century could (legally) taste differently.

“We believe the original TTB vodka definition was dated and not reflective of current vodkas and the multiple ingredients that they are made from today,” says Brandon Hanson, one of the owners and operators of the family owned Hanson of Sonoma Distillery (with a tasting room in Sausalito).

“In the early days of the development of Hanson vodka, we did blind taste tests with vodkas distilled from different ingredients and mash bills,” Hanson says. “Although some were more neutral than others, there were clear indications of taste profiles reflective of the base ingredients. As a result, we chose to distill our vodka from 100% grapes.”

Vodka can be made from any fermentable base material and is the purest of spirits. Distilled to 190 proof (the highest possible proof attainable in traditional continuous stills), three things affect its final taste: the original source material, the 60 percent of water added after distillation, and additives. The biggest change in the new regulations is defining how much and what additives can be used.

“It is widely known amongst industry insiders, if not consumers, that many of the larger brands – at all price points not just the bottom shelf brands – have relied heavily on adding sugar, glycerol and/or citric acid to their vodka to improve the smoothness and perceived viscosity of the spirit on the palate,” says Allison Evanow, founder of Square One Organic Spirits (launched, and formerly headquartered in Novato).

It has been long known that vodkas definitely do taste differently, so changing the law to reflect that reality should be a good thing. The codification of additives might not be. The two additives listed; sugar and citric acid, seem benign, until one considers that sugar can easily be high fructose corn syrup and that 90 percent of commercially produced citric acid is made from a strain of black mold. And that none of that has to be listed on the bottle (except in the unique case of organic products.)

 “If we didn’t believe we could achieve a unique flavor profile to our Square One, we would have never used 100% organic rye in our vodkas as it is much more costly to produce than many other raw materials used in vodka production,” says Evanow. 

A business point echoed by Hanson (which produces its organic vodka from grapes) and from Susannah Souvestre of Novato’s Alamere Spirits, which produces a vodka made from French wheat.

 “Distillers put so much thought and effort into the taste and feel of their vodka, but before the change, all of that effort was reduced to having it be defined as a spirit ‘without distinctive character, aroma, taste,’” says Souvestre. “At Alamere Spirits, we worked so hard on making a distinct vodka that’s different from our competitors, having it called tasteless and neutral was just untrue. All craft distillers are producing something different.”

Distinctive taste is what signifies quality, and smoothness is the opposite of that. In fact, smooth and generic was what the original 1960’s definition was all about. It has been the modern consumer who has fueled the change by seeking out vodkas that did taste differently. “Wagging the dog” until finally forcing a change in the governmental definition.

“With today’s consumers seeking more transparency in the products they buy, by changing the legal definition of vodka to also specifically call out that producers can use those additives, it will actually help push producers to be more transparent about what is included in their final bottled spirit,” hopes Evanow.

60 years of product history has just changed. Which also means that your James Bond martini has changed along with it. Where’s Ian Fleming when you need him?