So, I'm not terribly savvy when it comes to marketing and whatnot, but if you heard a radio ad and want to learn more, the relevant links are hyperlinked in line with the relevant text below. Read no further unless you want to learn some stuff.
The readers digest version is this, most indy distillers have 16+ plate stripping columns for vodka. That means that most independant distillers run their vodka through 16 distillations, it's 6+ for gin and single (pot) stills for whisky/brandy/etc. The reason for this is that ideally, vodka should be made up of NOTHING BUT ethanol (what we call alcohol) and water. In order to get that level of purity, we've got to distill the same fluid over and over and over just like how clean rooms will have a series of filters in order to remove 99.99% of particles in the air.
Yes, the federal government totally poisoned people during prohibition. I've linked to the article waaaaaaaaaaaay at the bottom of this article, but you can just google it if you want.
Oh, and gluten is a protein. Proteins can't be vaporized and recondensed like water and alcohol can. They just get real hot in the boiler, denature, and become schmoo. I don't know of any distillers that use the schmoo. It's gross.
If you don't want the readers digest version then prepare yourself for a wall of text.
Why shouldn't I consider number of distillations or gluten content when buying vodka?
Distilling is the process of purifying and concentrating the ethanol and possibly other tasty compounds in a fermented beverage. When you ferment, what you're doing is using special yeasts to turn sugar in some fluid into ethanol. Now, yeasts are living things. Like all living things, they are tempermental and only mostly predictable under certain conditions. If you treat your yeast very nicely and give it a good pH buffered home with lots of sugar and not much competition from other microbes, they will almost exclusively eat sugar and poop out CO2 and Ethanol. If, however, you let their home get too hot or cold or any condition that gets them all pissy, then they'll start to make more and more mistakes. Generally speaking, mistakes taste bad and are composed of all sorts of compounds like acetone, formaldehyde, and a whole group of randos that we just call fusel alcohols.
The first step to good distillation is good fermentation, but even an ideal fermentation will produce some fusel alcohol. In beer or winemaking, the goal is to limit that production with good technique so that their presence is undetected by even the snootiest of critics. In distilling we have the same goal, but since spirits are so concentrated we actually need to take them out. This is why the rate of distillation and the number of distillations matter. When you distill at an appropriate rate, all of the vapors (water, ethanol, individual fusel alcohols) will become separated and organize themselves by density in the same way that oil and water do. The faster you run the still, the more turbulence is created and thus, the vapors get more mixed up. If the vapors are mixed, when you condense them back into liquids, that liquid won't be as pure as it could have been. When you drink a spirit (neat and warm is the ideal way to really taste all the flavors and find mistakes, by the way) and it burns your throat, that's a mistake. When it tastes like acetone, that's a mistake. When it tastes like wet cardboard or like bananas or apples, that's a mistake.
Oh, if you find yourself in the company of a spirits dork, you'll hear them use jargon terms for the above. Here are some vocab words so you don't feel lost.
- Feints: This is what dorks call the collection of fusel alcohols that boil at a MUCH lower temperature than ethanol. They include acetone and formaldehyde. They're the first thing that you collect during a distillation and should be completely removed and thrown away. Also, they're super flammable which means you can use them to power a lamp or make flaming tire tracks for your Back to the Future cosplay.
- Heads: These are the alcohols that come next, they taste harsh like acetone and will be completely disgarded by an experienced and careful distiller.
- Hearts: This is the good stuff. Made up almost exclusively of ethanol, drinking this in a vodka distillation will not burn your throat. For me they have a neutral to slightly sweet taste and feel warm when they hit your stomach. Mmmmmmm.
- Tails: This is possibly some more good stuff! Tails is where the fusels and flavors from your fermentation come through. You'll start to taste tails come in and they'll be rich and flavorful at first. As the distillation progresses, the flavors will vary at first before eventually fading into a bitter 'wet cardboard' like flavor.
- Cuts: This is the art of distilling. The rest is all science. When a distiller is monitoring the process, they're using their tools and experience to determine the line between the feints, heads, hearts, and tails. A good distiller will completely remove the feints and heads, keep all the lovely hearts, and only the tails that they want in the flavor profile they're building. In our case, I would cut the feints myself, then I'd call my old man outside and we'd take turns sampling until we were both satisfied to cut into the hearts. Like all things, do this every week for four years and you'll get good at it.
I'm sorry that there's so much science up there, but distilling is a science. It isn't an art, especially when you're talking about vodka. When a producer says 'triple distilled' or 'gluten free' or 'made from French wheat', that doesn't really mean anything. When distilling vodka, the WHOLE POINT is to do it slowly and with enough repetitions to isolate nothing but ethanol and water. In my opinion (and this is arguable ONLY in the case of 'tasting vodka' for people who like sipping vodka neat), vodka that tastes like what it came from is a mistake because you're going to mix it with orange juice. Any tiny leftover good flavor will get covered up, and many leftover bad flavors will make it taste worse.
Okay, what about other spirits?
Lets say you wanted to make brandy. Good brandy would ideally be made from the very best wine you could find, and then distilled twice at most. The reason for this is that you want the end product to taste like the wine it came from, but only the best parts. So what you do is do a single distillation without making any cuts at all, just collect everything. Now, do a second run where you slow the hell down and just collect the very tasty hearts and tails.
What you end up with is a clear distillate which you will put into a barrel and wait while it ages. By the way, everything that comes off of a still is clear. Color comes from barrels when your producer is honest, but may include additives if your producer is a jerk. Below a certain threshold, you don't have to list additives like glycerin or caramel color on the label.
By the way, since I get asked so much, lets define all the spirits.
- Vodka: It is meant to be neutral, can be made from ANY SUGAR SOURCE and really doesn't matter which one as the sugars/proteins/etc. of the starting material cannot be vaporized, and thus cannot make it through the still. It will often be distilled more than 16 times, can be charcoal filtered, and must come off the still at higher than 95% alcohol.
- Gin: Literally just traditional flavored vodka. You make vodka, then redistill that through a basket of tasty plant parts. The ethanol vapor dissolves the aromatic oils in the plant matter and you get gin. Traditionally gin would have had a strong pine tree taste from the juniper berries, but in the last few years many distillers have gone of the tracks and started making gin a pretty diverse category with lots of different and approachable flavors. Gin: It's not just for old ladies anymore.
- Whiskey: What you do for whiskey is go ahead an brew some beer, but don't add any hops. Ferment it, then distill it no more than twice. You'll be left with a white whiskey, which is pretty much what moonshine would have been. You put that into a charred oak barrel and wait, it'll come out all brown and oakey and can now be called Whiskey.
- Brandy: Take any fruit juice and ferment it. You now have fruit wine and if it's made from pears you call it 'pear wine', but if you make it with grapes you do not call it 'grape wine' unless you want to have people know that you're weird. Distill that wine and you get schnapps, put schnapps in a barrel and you get brandy. Go to a liquor store and ask for schnapps and they'll give you a high proof synthetically flavored liqueur because people are dumb.
- Rum: For rum you go to Haiti and cut down some sugar cane. If you don't cut enough to please your plantation owner, he'll cut your children's hands off, so make sure you do it quickly. Now, once the cane has been picked and pressed, the juice goes into a big vat that is heated up. As the water is driven off, crystals of white sugar begin to form and are skimmed off and further processed into table sugar. After all the easily refined sugar has been removed, you're left with molasses. The plantation owner can't sell enough molasses because it's really only good for poor people and animals. Thus, it's a waste product and gets dumped in some field. Go to that field. Collect up a bunch of molasses, put it in a watertight container and dilute it. The wild yeasts in the environment will ferment this into something that tastes like shit. Hatian prune-o. Distill your prune-o, you get rum. Sell it to pirates.
For the most part, we worry more about ingredients, the rate of distillation, and making good cuts more than anything. To say that something is triple distilled is the same as saying that you opened the oven door to look at your lasagna three times. It has no bearing on the quality of the pasta. It's just one of many variables.
But what's this about gluten?
Gluten as it turns out is terrible for people who have an autoimmune reaction to it, those people have Celiac Dx. There is now very good science verifying the fact that non-Celiac gluten intolerance is not real. I have no intention to insult you, only to inform you that if you think gluten is your problem (and you are not suffering from Celiac Disease), modern science disagrees with you. Probably you just feel malaise due to the fact that you're an adult. We just get worse with time.
Did the federal government really intentionally poison people?
Finally, I did a spot about the federal government poisoning the alcohol supply during the 1920's. It's totally true, but I'll go into the reasons that they vilified alcohol at a later date. What they did was obviously vile, but they very likely thought they were in the right. Best intentions/devil's workshop, etc.
One result of this is the common misconception that moonshine would make you go blind. Number one, and I'm going to yell now, MOONSHINE IS ALCOHOL FOR WHICH APPROPRIATE TAXES HAVE NOT BEEN PAID! IF YOU BUY A JAR AT A STORE WITH THE WORD 'MOONSHINE' ON IT, YOU ARE BUYING VODKA!!!!! Number two, alcohol made from grain will not make you go blind unless the FBI taints it with a neurotoxin which only blinded you if it didn't kill you. The other option would be incompetence on the part of the distiller. When prohibition came into effect, it drove alcohol production out into the wild. Random hillbillies with ten word vocabularies did a lot of shady shit including using car radiators as vapor condensers. Radiators at the time were braised with lead, which is a neurotoxin. Also, there were the famous 'bathtub' gin makers who pretty much used juniper and other botanicals to mask the flavor of the kerosene they cut the booze with. All of the toxic crap got drank by junkies (so called because they would bring junk to scrappers in order to feed their addictions) and caused something called 'jake leg'. This was a result of them fucking up their nervous system so badly that they permanently shook and sometimes had to drag one leg.
There! All done! Congratulations! You learned some stuff :D