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How ‘Handmade’ Is America’s Most Popular Vodka?

Tito’s Handmade Vodka proudly cultivates an artisanal, small-batch brand image, even as it’s recently claimed the mantle of America’s best-selling spirit

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If you are an alcohol-drinking American, you’ve almost certainly had Tito’s Handmade Vodka — mixed into the “signature cocktail” at a try-hard wedding, on a domestic flight with a decent airline, or at a bar where you just wanted a vodka that was a couple of steps above well. The brand, which calls itself “America’s Original Craft Vodka,” recently replaced Jack Daniel’s as the country’s top-selling spirit, with nearly $190 million in sales, making it the most statistically predictable thing you could possibly drink. Vodka is often compared to poison, as the cheapest, most abject form of alcohol, but Tito’s has largely avoided such sinister associations. It is vodka’s common denominator — the drink for people who care, if just barely.

Tito’s humble roots as “Texas’s oldest legal distillery” have always been heavily integrated into the brand’s mythos, down to the understated label, which was designed by Tito himself — real name Bert Butler Beveridge II — in a time before graphic design became a startup requirement. According to the official lore, in the mid-’90s, after brief careers in oil drilling and mortgage brokering, Tito single-handedly: taught himself how to distill vodka, down to reverse-engineering the pot stills he saw in archive photos of moonshiners; funded the fledgling vodka company with tens of thousands of dollars of debt spread across 19 credit cards; waged a war against Texas lawmakers to earn the right to sell his booze; and then personally distilled, bottled, labeled, and hawked his vodka all over the city of Austin.

In spirits, the notion of “craft” means the same thing we’ve come to understand in beer, coffee, chocolate, and potato chips. It can be generalized as “non-industrial,” but there’s also a moral component, a sense of trying to do good, whether that’s providing better premiums to farmers, or doing it the most inefficient way possible just for the sake of it; craft promises that the risk of buying something will be worth it, whether or not you actually enjoyed the thing. When Tito started his company, there weren’t many craft spirits to speak of — California’s St. George Spirits, which brands itself as “America’s original craft distillery” only dates back to 1982 — but vodka was having a serious moment: Brands like Absolut and Stoli dominated magazines and billboards with pop-art and new (at the time) flavors like vanilla, peach, raspberry, and strawberry. In comparison to other vodkas of its era, with their vaguely European cosmopolitan pretensions, Tito’s had three selling points, all right there on the label: It’s handmade, it’s pot stilled, and it’s from Texas.

Tito’s wants people to still think of it that way — as the small business of a guy with strong values, who offers a quality product at a fair price — even as it sells millions of cases of vodka per year. When criticized for being too big to be craft, Tito, who is now worth an estimated $5 billion, has claimed that he makes his vodka the same way he always has, “just with a lot more stills.” The brand holds on dearly to one word in particular to fortify that image: handmade, which remains fiercely emblazoned on the Tito’s label in a script almost as large as “Tito’s.”

But Tito’s isn’t “handmade” in the same way it was in the early days, when it was being produced on a single 16-gallon pot still by Tito, and it hasn’t been since at least the mid-aughts. Brad Plummer, editor-in-chief of Distiller Magazine and Director of Communications at the American Distilling Institute, is the founder of Coastal Spirits, which contract distills for private labels in addition to producing its own brand of spirits, Gin Farallon. He says that under the American Distilling Institute’s guidelines, a distillery’s production cannot exceed 100,000 proof-gallons (about 52,000 cases) of spirit per year and still be considered “craft”; most craft distilleries barely break 50,000. “If you’re making anywhere near 100,000 gallons, then you’re a giant distillery that has a team of 15 distillers and stills operating around the clock and are probably owned by multiple investors,” Plummer says, and a product at the scale of Tito’s is “made in a refinery essentially.”

Few know what actually goes on behind the doors at Tito’s Mockingbird Distillery — when Forbes visited in 2013, its photographer was directed “away from massive buildings containing ten floor-to-ceiling stills” — and the company is famously tight-lipped about its production process beyond what’s on its labels or website, like that its vodka is distilled from corn. Tito’s has been sued repeatedly over its claims of being handmade, however. In 2015, a consumer filed a class action lawsuit against the company, claiming that he discovered the process was “highly automated” and he had been deceived by the label into paying a higher price. The suit was settled last year for an undisclosed sum, so no additional information about Tito’s processes emerged from the litigation. According to beverage lawyer Robert Lehrman, “It appears that Tito has done a wonderful job defending the lawsuits, and keeping lawsuit discovery-type information confidential.” (Tito’s and its parent company Fifth Generation did not respond to repeated requests for comment about its production process.)

Based on the sheer quantity of Tito’s output, however, its vodka is almost certainly made by re-distilling pre-made grain neutral spirit, or GNS, an industrial high-proof alcohol produced in massive distilleries by large agribusiness firms. (It’s also referred to as neutral grain spirit or NGS; the terms are interchangeable.) Many vodkas start this way, even organic ones: By working with ready-made alcohol, a brand doesn’t need to concern itself with the materials and labor required to produce a spirit from seed to shotglass, like sourcing grain or creating a mash.

Taking a neutral grain spirit — generally produced in an industrial-sized still, known as a column still, which allows a high proof to be reached more easily during the distillation process, and most commonly made with corn — then re-distilling it in a smaller pot still and diluting the result to make it smooth enough to drink does result in something that is potable. But it’s a weird brag, which is probably why Tito’s shortens the description of its process to simply “pot stilled.”

“Pot stilled” is a term you often see associated with whisky or rum. In general, when something is pot stilled, the distiller has more control over the distillate, which is composed of three parts: heads, tails, and hearts. Heads and tails, which flow at the beginning and end of the distillation process, contain both good and bad elements that can contribute to flavor, but also methanol, which can kill you; the heart, or middle part of the distillate, is thought of as the sweet spot. The centuries-old craft of distilling is based on knowing how to select for the right ratio to make something people will want to drink.

If Tito’s vodka were just pot stilled, it’d be completely different from the accessible, slightly sweet product it is now: Pot stills can’t produce a spirit that has a high enough proof to fit the legal definition of vodka (which must be distilled at 95 percent alcohol, or 190 proof), without running it through the still several times. The process is not only wildly inconvenient, it produces a vodka that has a stronger, less neutral taste than one produced in a column still.

While the more distinctive character produced by pot stills is a positive for spirits like rum and whiskey — and why vodka had more character before the invention of the column still in the 1800s — it does not make sense for vodka today, which by definition is “neutral spirits so distilled, or treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.

In fact, most vodka is column stilled; it’s practically a requirement for achieving a uniform flavorless spirit. Column stills (also known as continuous stills) work by vaporizing alcohol through stacks of perforated plates. The more plates the alcohol vapors have to pass through before condensing, the more flavorful material is left behind, eventually resulting in the pure, neutral vodka people have come to expect. Since column stills run non-stop, they’re vastly more efficient than pot stills, making them the distillation method of choice for industrial spirits. As a result, there’s a general notion that pot stills produce a somehow more authentic product, and that the best spirits are pot stilled. Maybe that still holds true for the microdistiller making 300 cases of liquor a year, but using a pot still is nearly meaningless when it’s just re-distilling something that was already completely stripped of flavor, texture, and character on a column still.

For Tito’s, the real benefit of re-distillation would be that it provides ownership of an otherwise industrial product. Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau regulations state that alcoholic products are “from” where they’re bottled, Tito’s can lay claim to being from Texas, even if its product comes to it largely pre-fabricated elsewhere. This same kind of too-clever-by-half labeling prompted a minor scandal in the whiskey world in recent years, as consumers discovered that many so-called craft brands were built on whiskey sourced and distilled elsewhere, often by enormous industrial producers. The most famous of these producers is MGP, whose whiskey has been used by Bulleit Rye, Smooth Ambler, and WhistlePig, to name a few — with some brands more transparent about this fact than others. (It also sells a grain neutral spirit.)

Sourcing remains intensely debated in the whiskey and rum communities, but as vodka doesn’t traffic in age statements, it has not inspired people to debate its credentials as hotly. Using GNS is actually quite common among craft distillers. For many, it’s a product that allows them to focus on other aspects of spirits production, like infusing botanicals for a gin, or simply provides an extra source of raw material to work with. Plummer himself is a proponent of GNS, and uses it to make vodka and gin at his distillery. “With your NGS,” he says, “you can make a really good vodka.” He also cites Distillery 209’s gin, which he calls “one of the best gins in America,” as being made from GNS. The difference between what Coastal Spirits, Distillery 209, or many craft distilleries are doing, and what Tito’s is probably doing, is that they’re upfront about it.

The alcohol industry is full of brands with obscure formulas, secret ingredients, and arcane details that most people haven’t really cared about until recently. Precisely how enough Johnnie Walker gets made to serve the world, or the additives that make every bottle of Hennessey taste exactly the same isn’t as sexy as the stories that brands like to tell about themselves. But distilling is a technical process that attracts the detail-oriented, so distillers are an extremely geeky set, and when you talk to a craft distiller about their spirit, they’re almost always delighted to tell you why they made the decisions that they did, the challenges they’ve faced, and what they would have liked to do. They feel beholden to their products and customers in a way that has brought more transparency and range into the spirits business as a whole — allowing drinkers to buy spirits based on values besides taste or branding, like sustainability, artisanship, or, increasingly, transparency. Yet most craft distillers you ask don’t have any negative feelings toward Tito’s, because it’s the brand that laid the groundwork for what they’re able to do — and the kind of growth they aspire to.

When it comes to consumers who are comparing products in the store, it’s hard to understand the difference between mass-produced liquor and craft spirits, even when there is one. Square One organic vodka is distilled in Idaho from Montana-sourced rye, for instance, and as a result costs $10 more than the other brands next to it on the shelf. “It is more costly to produce,” says founder Alison Evanow, “because rye is more expensive than wheat or corn, and because it is processed organically, our yields are lower than other grain types and non-organic processing.” Michael Swanson distills Far North spirits from rye he farms himself in Minnesota; after the grain is harvested in the fall, it goes into the mash for Far North’s Syva Vodka before going through a hybrid-pot column still. He doesn’t date the bottles, but each batch is representative of the grain and distillation of that year, just like an estate wine. Similarly, Colorado’s Woody Creek vodka is made from Rio Grande potatoes grown on the distiller’s nearby family farm.

The point is, vodka doesn’t have to be as tasteless as the major brands would have you think. I’m not saying you have to savor it — there is admittedly limited pleasure in the subtle texture and aroma of a clear, unflavored spirit — but the category is so much bigger than it might seem. Instead of looking for the bottle that says it’s been several times distilled, consider vodkas made from different ingredients, which will have a subtle effect on the flavor; the rye in Square One makes it spicier than one distilled from corn, with hints of biscuit-like profile, according to Evanow. Or if you drink Tito’s to support the small guy, just know that there are actual small guys actually hand-making spirits that you could throw your money toward in virtually every state.

Drinking Tito’s isn’t the worst thing you can do for a buzz — there’s always hard seltzer — but there is something better when you’re finally ready to care about vodka.

Tammie Teclemariam is a food and drinks writer who has worked in the wine and spirits industry since 2011. She contributes to Wine Enthusiast, TASTE, Epicurious, and other publications.
Bárbara Malagoli is a multidisciplinary artist based in London.