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Vodka Brands Emphasize Water Source, But Does It Matter?

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We’re accustomed to vodka producers touting the base ingredients used to make the spirit (single-vintage potatoes! upcycled whey!). They even boast the elaborate distillation and/or filtration methods used in pursuit of pristine quality. And increasingly, vodka-makers are emphasizing the water source used to make, dilute and “finish” their product. But, do these water sources make a difference, or is it marketing, pure and simple?

Among the recent vodkas reviewed for Wine Enthusiast, label highlights included “deep ocean mineral water” (Ocean Vodka); “glacier-fed spring water from Mt. Hood” (Timberline Vodka); “Appalachian mountain water” (P1 Vodka); and “artesian spring water from West Louisiana” (Louisiana Tradition). But, what do these really mean? We took a deep dive into the waters to find out.

How Is Water Used in Making Vodka?

For starters, it’s important to know that water is used at least twice in vodka production. (For more, check out our guide to how spirits are made).

The first step in making vodka is fermentation, explains Tony Abou-Ghanim, author of Vodka Distil led. In this step, water is combined with raw ingredients—whether grain, grape, potato etc., creating a mash. The addition of heat and yeast, which feed on the sugars in the raw materials, induces fermentation.

The fermented mash is then distilled, which concentrates the alcohol. In brief, the mash is poured into a still and heated to a boiling point, so vapors rise. Those vapors are then cooled and condensed into liquid form. After the distiller removes the “heads” and “tails” (removing unwanted impurities), the remaining portion (the “heart”) may be re-distilled (sometimes multiple times, in pursuit of so-called purity and/or neutrality).

At this point, the alcohol level may be as high as 96% alcohol by volume (abv) (192 proof), so a considerable amount of water is added to dilute the concentrated distillate to a palatable level, usually around 40% abv (80 proof).

An important distinction is that the water used in fermentation isn’t always the same as that used to dilute the spirit after distillation. Many producers deliberately select water from a particular source for dilution; some refer to that usage as “finishing” the vodka.

“Most producers insist on using the best quality of water in their vodka,” says Abou-Ghanim. Some use distilled water, or local tap water that has been filtered and purified, he explains. Still, others obtain water from proprietary sources claimed to be free of any pollution to begin with–such as wells, protected reservoirs, springs, lakes, glaciers or pristine mountain run-off.

“Regardless of [the] source, water added to the spirit must be free of minerals, impurities and other contaminants,” Abou-Ghanim notes. “Otherwise all [the] time, money and effort spent producing a quality distillate are wasted.”

How Important Is Water Quality in Vodka?

In general, an estimated 60% of the volume inside a bottle of vodka is water. Based on that percentage alone, water quality is obviously important.

“If that’s terrible water, it will be a terrible product,” warns Caitlin Bartlemay, head distiller at Oregon’s Clear Creek Distillery and Hood River Distillers. For example, she warns against using “stale” water that’s been sitting in a tank for days. “Even water in a glass on your night table can taste stale by morning,” she says.