I received a press release today for Smirnoff Zero Sugar Infusions, a new line of lower-calorie flavored vodka. It's interesting because in specifying that these flavored vodkas are sugar-free, they're implying that other flavored vodkas are not.
That implication is true.
Vodka is a neutral spirit, defined by the US government as "Spirits distilled from any material at or above 95% alcohol by volume (190 proof), and if bottled, bottled at not less than 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof)." and furthermore, vodka is "Neutral spirits distilled or treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials so as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color."
Flavored vodka is defined as:
- Vodka flavored with natural flavoring materials, with or without the addition of sugar, bottled at not less than 30% alcohol by volume (60 proof)·
- The name of the predominant flavor shall appear as part of the class and type designation, e.g., “Orange Flavored Vodka”
- Wine may be added but if the addition exceeds 2½% by volume of the finished product, the classes and/or types and percentages (by volume) of wine must be stated as part of the class and type designation
This means that flavored vodka can have sugar added, and there is no upper limit to that sugar as long as there is still at least 30% alcohol in the bottle. So the line between a flavored vodka and a liqueur can overlap and often does.
Particularly for the vanilla/cake frosting/whipped cream type of sweet flavors, a lot of sugar is added to flavored vodka. Not all brands do this, but many do.
Ketel One launched their Botanical line in 2018, though the title positioning wasn't ringing of calorie savings as the Smirnoff line. Those are also 30% ABV but it turns out those aren't even categorized as flavored vodka. "Ketel One Botanical will be marketed as simply “made with vodka” because though it may seem like the real deal, it technically doesn't classify as actual vodka... "There actually doesn't exist a classification for this product," Jim Ruane, Ketel One Vodka director, says. "It's not a flavored vodka because of our two-tier production process, with the second distillation and the flavor infusion at the end."" according to this article.
Flavored vodka must be at a minimum ABV of 30%. Unflavored vodka must be a minimum of 40% ABV.
There are unflavored diet vodkas on the market though, including Skinnygirl Bare Naked Vodka. What's their trick? The trick is that they're actually flavored vodka, flavored to taste like nothing. You can see on the label that the Skinnygirl is "vodka with natural flavors."
At least one brand has figured out how to get the calorie count even lower: KEEL vodka is bottled at 23.8%. They claim, hilariously, "At KEEL, we dare to be different, and in making the world’s first premium light vodka, we chose to distill our vodka to just the right amount of alcohol: 23.8%. Why? Too much alcohol can overpower the palate. At 23.8% our flavor profile is at its peak, providing you the best tasting and smoothest vodka on the market. "
Sure. But the labelling on this one is a mess, and it's hard to believe it got TTB approval. The label says it's "Vodka with Natural Flavor," but also it's a "Premium Light Spirit." So it's not even a flavored vodka.
Long story short: In diet/flavored vodka, the vast majority of calorie savings are in the proof of the alcohol, not in the added sugar.