The art and science of distilling can be complex. There’s decades-worth of knowledge to learn when it comes to how spirits are made. Some spirits are bound by laws that dictate the land they’re distilled on, the ingredients they’re made from, and what vessels they’re aged in. Vodka, though, is free from many of these restrictions — and that makes for a lot more questions (read: misinformation) surrounding its production.

Vodka, by design, doesn’t taste like much. That’s one reason that one of the most enduring questions surrounding its creation is one of the most basic: What is vodka actually made from? Some hold the common belief that it’s all made from potatoes (we’ll get to that later) while others truly have no clue what’s at the core of their Vodka Martini.

Here, your quick guide to how vodka is made — and whether or not potatoes are always involved.

Get the latest in beer, wine, and cocktail culture sent straight to your inbox.

What is vodka made from?

Unlike with many other spirits, there are no regulations that govern the base ingredients in vodka production. That means it can be distilled from virtually anything with sugars or starches. More often than not, though, a vodka distiller’s goal is to create a spirit that’s neutral on the palate. Vodka is one of the most versatile cocktail ingredients out there, and will take on the flavor of essentially anything you throw at it. For all those reasons, vodka is largely distilled from grains like rye, wheat, and corn — all which impart a neutral flavor profile. That said, there are distillers out there that strive to create vodkas with distinct notes, and that usually involves using a non-grain base: Cîroc is made from grapes, Black Cow vodka is made from milk, and Chopin actually is made from potatoes.

The two other core ingredients in vodka — water and yeast — are non-negotiables. And just like with any other type of alcohol, the first step of vodka production is fermentation: Sugar (in some form) is fed to yeast, and the yeast produces alcohol. As for the water, many brands highlight the quality of their water sources in their marketing, often claiming that it equates to a cleaner, smoother product.

Is vodka made from potatoes?

It can be, but most vodka isn’t made from potatoes. Potatoes are much harder to ferment than the aforementioned grains, and must be peeled before distillation. Their natural sugars are also tied up in complex starches, so it takes more processing and effort to harvest the same quantity of vodka.  If you do come across a potato vodka, you can expect it to taste more earthy and creamy than its grain-based counterparts.

At the end of the day, it’s largely about subtle flavor, texture, and overall smoothness when it comes to choosing your go-to vodka. So unless you’re a die-hard vodka fan — or you’ve got a gluten allergy — choosing a grain-based expression over a potato-based one isn’t going to make or break your Moscow Mule.

*Image retrieved from Javad Esmaeili / Unsplash