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Production Reality Check


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Howdy all. I have been cruching some numbers and was hoping I could get some feedback.

Looking to produce 2,000 liters of Vodka a month.

Requires 1,000 liters of 80% ABV distilate. (80 proof product)

Looking to actually run the still 10 days a month

That means I need to produce 100 liters per day 80% ABV distilate.

Assuming a 10 hour run thats 10 liters/2.5 gallons per hour

Requires a 200 liter / 50 gallon boiler / 6 inch column

Requires 2,000 liters of 50% low wines

Requires 10,000 liters of 10% wash / 2,500 gallons

1,250 gallons of fermenter capacity (two batches a month)

Just hoping I could get someone with some experience to check my math/assumptions and make sure I am not way off.



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If you're only distilling to 80% it won't be vodka.

Also, doesn't look like you inputed still time to get to low wines.

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Forgot to mention I am assuming a separate pot still for stripping runs.. --not included in these calculations just to keep things simple..

With my current (small) setup I am getting 94% ABV but I assume that would drop with most larger (6" ish) plated columns.. Any idea what ABV most of the commercial artisan vodka makers run at?

Thanks for the response as well!

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Reading some more on this thread about some of the challenges people have getting up to 95%. I thought I read somewhere you should not charge your still with higher than 40% wash.. It sounds like that might not be a hard and fast rule? What are the concerns with loading a still with a higher charge? How high can you reasonably go?

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Wow, you better keep on crunching. Starting with the TTB legal requirement for producing vodka from min. 95% ABV.

That would be an error with my knowledge and not my crunching.. Swap adult beverage for vodka in my original post and then it seems I am not far off? right?

Seems you're putting the cart before the horse.

I am not exactly looking to buy a cart (or even a horse) at this point.. Just asking for some feedback on the beginners forum. The title of my thread did include 'reality check' after all :)

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Sounds close, but ridiculous unless you're making whiskey/brandy/rum. What are you fermenting to make vodka and why? Thats where the ridiculousness begins. Unless you have free fermentables, it's gonna be impossible on the scale you're talking about to make a competitively priced product. You don't need to ferment and you don't need real "low wines." You start with spirit that has already been rectified to 95% or so, then theres no concern about how high it comes off your still, it's way cheaper and it's just how it's done. Why try to put more character (and cost) into a characterless product (legally speaking, not harping on vodka)? The stuff gets distilled and filtered through charcoal to remove taste/flavor, not enhance it.

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Fermenting potatoes/beats/sugar to make vodka - not sure I can really say why; I guess I like vodka? I used the term "low wines" perhaps that's not right.. I was referring to whatever you want to call the product of an initial stripping run to get the ABV up to 50% ish.

BeerPilgrim, I really appreciate your response, I am just not sure I am following. You will have to excuse me if I am asking stupid questions.

It sounds like your saying most small vodka shops would not bother to distil their own product, but would purchase 95% spirit (presumably from a larger enterprise) and then run that through their still? I am clearly missing something as I am not sure why someone would charge there still with something that is already at 95%.

Why is scaling down vodka any different from scaling down other spirits if someone wants to start small? Is it primarily an issue of getting up to 95% and the time effort that requires? I know there are other shops producing vodka (fermenting from scratch), so other than my calculation of 80% and not not the required 95% for vodka what am I missing?

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You don't have to charge at 95%... dilute that to get your vodka "low wines".

Just run the numbers to see why small distilleries (and even big ones) might not be making their "craft" vodkas from scratch. Anything with enough sugar to be worth fermenting is gonna cost you a lot more to ferment, strip and spirit run than the $6 or $8 per gallon you'll pay for your 95% neutral spirit (which you will be diluting with water). The fermentables themselves will make the product more expensive than the NGS, then you add in the time, labor, power, etc it takes you to actually make it and youre now having to charge the same price for this vodka you would for the rum or grappa you should have made. These products already command the higher prices, people understand the "value added" in them, you don't have to come up with a marketing spiel about how you make your flavorless odorless spirit only from dwarf albino beets harvested under a blue moon, crushed under the feet of umpalumpas in willy wonkas wonderland, Yadi yada and the intense marketing budget to continue to convince people they're not wasting their money on your expensive product.

Not saying this is law, but in my opinion craft, and small, producers can compete (with the big guys) in the marketplace by offering products that the big boys can't or won't (commonly niche products driven by a sense of place or region). Vodka sales are driven by huge marketing budgets. Small distilleries can't compete with big boy marketing dollars.

Not that you can't produce a vodka that is superior to the big boys, but your new, unique and interesting product can and will be obscured by the dozens of seemingly unique and interesting bigger money vodkas that they churn out (which people will likely have already heard of through adverising even before they can walk into the liquor store and learn of your products existence).

That's my two cents, and here's a grain of salt .

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Thanks for the elaboration and insight BeerPilgrim. Clearly I need to put some costs to my calculations and I imagine what you are saying should start to become more obvious. At least I know the production ratios I initially described are not that far off, and I can use those as a basis for scaling things up or down, or adjust for other liquors.

Two follow up questions:

Are there mandatory ABV levels for gin, or other legal criteria needing to be met to call something gin?

What would you guess is a more realistic monthly production level/capacity for vodka if you did want to go the from scratch route? Sounds like you might say you basically have to become a producer/supplier of GNS to even make it worth the effort.

Thanks again for taking the time to share your spare change; It tastes just fine lightly salted.

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This brings up some issues about "vodka" that have been bothering me recently. It seems to me that many distillers (and the TTB also) often flagrantly disregard the Code of Federal Regulations in regard to vodka.

For example, the CFR's definition of vodka (27CFR 5.22 a(1))

(1) “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.

Clear enough, right? If your distillate has any distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color, it is not vodka.

Now let's talk about how ridiculous that law is from the consumers' point of view. Many Vodka drinkers appreciate the subtle hints of grape, cane, wheat, rye, glacial runoff or whatever else their vodka was distilled from. True, some just want that "pure, clean, hangover free" azeotrope of ethanol and distilled water (like the dude from Dr. Strangelove who was afraid the Communists were draining his vital fluids), but they seem to be in the minority of vodka connoisseurs. Most vodka drinkers seem to like to be able to taste the difference between one vodka and another.

By law, Vodka must be distilled at or above 95% abv in this country. Whiskey, brandy, rum, etc, must be distilled below 95% abv. So... what is a grape distillate distilled at or above 95% abv that posseses a hint of the distinctive character of a grape eau de vie? A completely illegal beverage. Not a vodka, not an eau de vie, but a "distilled spirit specialty" at best - a class of spirit that, as I have pointed out before, does not even exist within the CFR's standards of identity.

Conversly, what is a grain spirit distilled at 40% abv and passed through a charcoal filter until it is completely without any distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color called? (this is possible, by the way. I was amazed at how much some charcoal cleaned the hop oils and every other flavor out of some low wines distilled from beer. It tasted just like ethanol). Is this not a vodka, even though it lacks "distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color"? According to the CFR it isn't, since it wasn't distilled above 95% abv. Also, it can't be considered a whiskey, since it is without any "taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to whisky" as required by the CFR. Again, an orphan spirit relegated to the illegal and fabricated category the TTB calls "distilled spirit specialty" for their own convienience. If they even deign to allow it in that category, that is.

Of course, the TTB would approve COLAs for either beverage as long as the distiller lied stretched the truth about the spirit. In the one case, the distiller would represent to the TTB that the spirit was, in fact, without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color. It's just a "hint" of grape flavor anyway, right? In the other case, the distiller would say "sure, I distilled that vodka to 95% abv..." just like those distillers who buy 95% abv ethanol, dilute it, and distill it to less than 95% abv do.

Why does the TTB allow distillers to stretch the laws like this? Because the laws are ridiculous! Could the TTB ever actually enforce all of the CFR's regulations? Of course not. There is no other government agency responsible for bringing in such a huge amount of revenue to the government on such a shoe-string budget as the TTB. I honestly feel sorry for the guys. But we distillers are an honest bunch, even if we bend some of the more ridiculous rules from time to time, so everything works out in the end.

Here's how I look at the TTB, the CFR, COLAs, and all of that nonsense: pay the government their taxes (every little penny), make an honest product that you can be proud of, and let the lawyers work the rest out. They're the only ones who are allowed to pretend that they understand the law anyway.


P.S. see my post in the government section for some info on gin, if you're interested. Also, everyone's favorite cliff-notes on the CFR, the Beverage Alcohol Manual, can be found here. You will find it easy to read and it will answer many of your questions. Incidenally, you're much better off reading the BAM than the actual law anyway, since the TTB can't seem to be bothered to read the law themselves and just use the BAM, or so it seems to me. If you want to play at being a lawyer, you can read TTB rules in the Federal Register here and TTB circulars here.

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  • 5 months later...

I realize this is an older post, but I thought it might be revealing to get responses to the question of how many of us are actually producing vodka ourselves and not buying GNS? From the above posts and my own conversations it seems maybe most actually don't distill their own vodka due to the economics of the process and equipment costs.

Also, among those who are doing it, are you always able to sell everything you produce? The market being so competive, is there always a ready market for the "craft" vodkas? I realize the answers may be based on local markets but I'm just trying to get the feel for what's going on in any locale with vodka.

Any additional insights beyond the above posts are always appreciated.

Thanks, Nickajack

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