Lower rung vodka generally gets a knee-jerk bad rap. This is the stuff we mix with Red Bull or orange juice (and, historically, mix up with an actual screwdriver). Whatever the claims higher shelf vodka has to offer, the lower rung stuff tends to be unapologetically harsh, as one-note and brashly aromatic as rubbing alcohol. (If bad vodka could be described with a noise, it’d probably be something like a banshee scream.)
So…can it be saved? We’ve explored other ways to mask the faults of bottom-shelf booze (e.g., masking its evil with strong flavors). But then we remembered that old Brita filter method. The basic idea: if you run a very, very bad vodka through the charcoal of a Brita filter, you’ll make it smoother. Popov run through Brita could turn into Belvedere? Is charcoal really that magical?
Sort of. The filtering power of charcoal is actually what differentiates bourbon from Tennessee Whiskey, which undergoes a charcoal filtration called the “Lincoln County process.” Anything with Tennessee Whiskey on the label—like Jack Daniels—has been run through sugar maple charcoal, and is theoretically even smoother than your typical bourbon. (We’re not weighing in. Not today, anyway.)
But whatever the differences between Tennessee whiskey and bourbon, the stuff that becomes Tennessee whiskey is arguably light years better than bottom shelf vodka. Charcoal filtering might not be able to do as much for that bottle of Popov. Not to mention, the Brita filter isn’t as charcoal-rich as what they use in the Lincoln County process. According to the Brita folks, it’s got “coconut-based activated carbon with ion exchange resin in a BPA-free housing.” The coconut sounds delicious, as does that ion exchange resin, but is that enough to transform rotgut into the good stuff?
Fortunately for our aching livers, others have gone before. And in case you think it’s just a matter of scientific inquiry, please give none of us that much credit—this is about saving money. Most of us own a Brita or some kind of charcoal-based water filter. We figure why spend money on Grey Goose when we can just filter up a nice pitcher of Gordon’s?
As it turns out, per those other intrepid—and presumably hungover—explorers, filtering bad vodka neither saves money nor does much to improve flavor. The folks at Broward Palm Beach New Times put an $11 bottle of Skol through a filter once, twice, three, and four times. At one pass, one taster said it was “like a Grey Goose taking a crap on a Lexus.” Two didn’t do much better—“ “Tastes like melting plastic.” Three times a charm? Not quite. “”Like Magic Markers and Glade.” But four times, at least, had to do something? Kind of. “”Science does not support the findings,” reported one taster, “but not horrible.”
Elsewhere, even a six-time filtration did nothing to bring low-shelf vodka anywhere near the quality of the more expensive stuff. So just keep filtering, right? Except you’d exhaust your Brita filters; vodka is as hard on a Brita filter as it is on your liver; you’ll need multiples, upping the cost. Add that to the fact that what you’ll get after 4, or 6, or 18 filtrations isn’t going to taste smooth so much as tamer, less of an asshole to your tastebuds.