The spirit is traditionally neutral in taste, color, and odor. In America, at least, that's no longer required.

By Mike Pomranz
May 05, 2020
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Vodka has long had a contradictory sales pitch: Brands all promise that their vodka is the best, but according to the official government definition for the spirit, vodka was “to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” So does that mean that the best vodkas have the least character, aroma, taste, and color? And if so, what the heck are consumers paying for?

A renewed interest in craft spirits—including craft vodka—has helped prove that assertion wrong. Clearly, vodka can have character, and it’s not just connoisseurs that have taken notice. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) also realized it may have been misrepresenting the neutral spirit. And as of yesterday, vodka has been set free—with the TTB’s new, amended definition of vodka officially taking effect.

Jan-Stefan Knick / EyeEm/Getty Images

Formerly, the TTB’s standards of identity 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.” It was short and a bit ambiguous.

The new definition is both more specific but also more encompassing. “'Vodka’ is 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,” the revision begins. “Products to be labeled as vodka may not be aged or stored in wood barrels at any time except when stored in paraffin-lined wood barrels and labeled as bottled in bond... Vodka treated and filtered with not less than one ounce of activated carbon or activated charcoal per 100 wine gallons of spirits may be labeled as ‘charcoal filtered.’”

As the Federal Register reveals, vodka’s official identity was already on the rocks. The TTB wanted to change vodka’s “standard of identity” because multiple federal rulings had already necessitated some tweaks. And apparently, since they were already planning to change it anyway, the TTB also “sought comment on whether the current requirement that vodka be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color should be retained and, if this requirement is no longer appropriate, what the appropriate standards should be for distinguishing vodka from other neutral spirits.”

Funnily enough, the TTB said it received 12 comments—and a decisive zero of them had to do with their plan to update the definition to fit previous rulings. Instead, all 12 comments were about the whole no taste thing, with ten of those people saying it should go. The TBB specifically highlighted a comment from Altitude Spirits which stated that the requirement “is no longer appropriate given the variety in base ingredients, flavors, and flavor profiles found in the diverse vodka category.”

Meanwhile, only two commenters said the definition should be unchanged—suspiciously “without explanation,” according to the TTB. And interestingly, two of the commenters who wanted the definition changed believed the TTB should go even further and finally allow vodka to be aged in wood.

“Based on its review of the comments, TTB agrees that the requirement that vodka be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color no longer reflects consumer expectations and should be eliminated,” the agency wrote in its decision last month. “Vodka will continue to be distinguished by its specific production standards: Vodka may not be labeled as aged, and unlike other neutral spirits, it may contain limited amounts of sugar and citric acid.”

All that said, don’t expect any major changes to vodka as we know it. It’s still defined as a “neutral spirit” that must be “produced from any material at or above 190 proof”—meaning brands are still starting with essentially pure alcohol. Instead, the change to vodka’s identity only confirms what vodka snobs already knew: Vodka may not be the most diverse booze on your shelf, but different bottles can and should be allowed to be, well, different.