TLDR: “Number of times distilled” on any bottle of Vodka is almost certainly a marketing gimmick. Keep reading for the science-y answer.
If you’re expecting an answer like: “Distilled six times for exceptional quality and a smooth finish”, you won’t find it here.
That tag line took me exactly 24 seconds to come up with – I timed it. While it makes for great marketing, the technical basis for the claim is weak. In fact, there’s no way I – or any other distiller – can prove how many distillation cycles our product(s) actually go through.
To get to the root of this marketing spin, let’s first start with the question: what is a distillation cycle? Most consumers believe the tag line above represents the number of times a batch is run through a still. The more times distilled, the more pure the vodka must be, right?
There’s a big difference between a distillation cycle and a distillation run. Advertising gimmicks play on this difference, hoping the average consumer takes the bait. A distillation run is just that, one batch run one time through a still. A distillation cycle actually occurs countless times during a run – thousands and thousands – by creating “reflux”.
Simply put, reflux is a fancy term indicating a torturous path for the ethanol to get out of the still. The more reflux created, the purer the product comes out. When ethanol (alcohol) is heated up to a gas for the first time, it brings some “impurities” with it – water, other alcohols, etc. To break those bonds, the ethanol needs to re-distill many, many times during one distillation run – that’s reflux. After going through enough reflux, a distiller can get to almost-pure ethanol. For all of our Houston fans, this is the same principle used in oil refineries.
In reality, the maximum ABV any distiller can achieve on industry-standard distillation equipment is approximately 96% ABV. Once you reach that level of purity, running the batch again increases the electric bill, but adds no additional value to the product.
Starting with a batch of distiller’s beer at 8-12% ABV, distillers can achieve 96% ABV in two distillation runs on standard equipment: a “stripping run” and a “finishing run”. So, why would a distillery run a batch “6 times”?
How do you know every molecule of your premium vodka was distilled 6 times?
Funny enough, the manufacturer won’t know either – it’s impossible to calculate. The number of times distilled marketed on the bottle likely comes from one of two sources: the number of plates in the column (see photo) or the marketing manager’s imagination.
Thanks to a revision of the TTB’s standards of identity in 2020, the number of times distilled advertised on the bottle must now represent the number of distillation runs; however, many producers are still working through labels already in circulation.
So, how many times distilled is our Texas Vodka? I don’t know the number, but it’s at least as many times as your favorite vodka.