10/20/2023 Update: Originally posted in December, 2020, this post quickly became the number 1 search result when users searched Google for “number of times distilled vodka”. At that time, no other blogs or articles existed challenging this age-old marketing gimmick. There are now dozens of blogs and articles from publications and other distillers echoing our below sentiment. While we won’t take all the credit for bringing awareness to this “big alcohol” scheme, we like to think we had a small part in bringing consumer closer to the truth . . . if a brand markets number of times distilled, it is depending on an uninformed consumer to respond to flashy numbers.
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.