Homemade Vodka

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Grandpa Orlov's Vodka Recipe

...When it comes to food, waste is a fact of life. Almost always, there is fruit left rotting on the vine or on the ground, and it usually goes straight into the compost. But there is something more useful that can be done with it: it can be made into alcohol. Anything that has sugar in it can be fermented and distilled.

For years, my father made vodka in our kitchen in an apartment in Leningrad, using the technique I am about to describe. This made him a popular man: he would pour it into brand-name bottles and bring them to parties. Most people probably just wondered how he managed to get his hands on such fancy imported booze. Due to certain official restrictions, the fact that it was moonshine was communicated on a need-to-know basis. And since the substance in question was effectively identical to the brand-name substance (alcohol is alcohol) plausible deniability was maintained.

Store-bought alcohol, with the possible exception of certain low-grade products, is made from high-quality inputs: grains, grapes, and so forth. But here is the shocking good news: you can make excellent quality vodka, something you can proudly serve in a martini glass, out of stuff that would otherwise go into compost. The key fact is that vodka is just alcohol diluted with water; the better the vodka, the more pure the alcohol. Its good taste does not come from the ingredients that were used to make it but from the complete lack thereof in the final product.

To make it, whatever it is you can get your hands on (rotting apples, pears, grapes, berries, and so forth) is mashed and soaked in hot (but not boiling) water to dissolve out the sugars. The result is strained, to get rid of the solids, then boiled to kill everything in it and poured into a large bucket with a tight-fitting lid. After it cools to luke-warm, yeast is "pitched" into it and an airlock (bubbler) is placed on top. Any book on making wine or beer will tell you how to measure and adjust specific gravity, to make sure that wild yeast (which can cause runaway frothing) is kept out, and that fermentation has a chance to runs to completion before the yeast gets too drunk to do its work.

After the bucket is allowed to sit for some weeks in a warm place, the result can be distilled. Distillation requires some equipment, such as a pressure cooker fitted with some sort cooling apparatus (glass or metal tubing submerged in cold water) to turn alcohol vapor into condensate before it escapes. Again, there are plenty of resources, on the web and in the library, on how to do this.

Now, here is the magic step that turns cloudy, stinky, low-grade moonshine into something that is indistinguishable from Stolichnaya, Finlandia, Absolut, or any other high-quality commercial vodka. Sprinkle in potassium permanganate crystals (available in bulk from pool supply stores) and agitate until the liquid turns slightly pink. Label it "Poison!" to make sure nobody drinks it, and let it stand overnight. (It won't kill you if you drink it, but it will wipe out your intestinal fauna and give you really bad diarrhea, so it's important to make sure that nobody drinks it at this stage. If some fool does drink it, just feed him some yogurt or acidophilus tablets, plus something for the fierce hangover.)

A day or so later, the solution will no longer be pink (or toxic), but it will be cloudy, and there will be some dark precipitate at the bottom. Take a funnel, pack it with cotton, lay down a layer of charcoal (either commercially available activated charcoal or wood charcoal knocked off a partially burned log), and pack it down tight. Drip the distillate through the filter, changing the stuffing every gallon or so. The result will be clear and have no taste or smell other than the taste and smell of alcohol. Add water to bring it to 80 or 100 proof, and consume responsibly.