Vodka Alchemy: How to Change Cheap Clear Hooch from Terrible to Tolerable

It comes in a plastic bottle. It tastes like pouring battery acid down your throat. It smells like a robot's corpse. For around ten bucks—you can get a lot of it.


It is cheap-ass vodka, and it is alcoholic hell. And it's as affordable as it is horrible. But with an equally cheap technique involving coffee filters, funnels, and the sixth element of the periodic table, you can turn that poison hellwater into something more potable—and dare we say, even drinkable?

It's Friday afternoon, you've made it through the long week, and it's time for Happy Hour. Gizmodo's weekly booze column is a cocktail shaker full of innovation, science, and alcohol. Is this stuff safe to drink?

Cheap vodka is not without allure. Sometimes you're broke. Sometimes you're going to mix it with a bunch of other stuff, so who cares? Sometimes it's all you have left in your liquor cabinet. It doesn't matter why you want to drink it. Here's how to make it better. You need only a few things, and you probably already have some of them:

Materials and Tools Required

  • Coffee filters
  • Two funnels (or plastic cups with holes cut in the bottom)
  • Regular drinking glasses (two should do)
  • Cheap vodka that you hate
  • The key ingredient: Activated carbon

Total cost? Maybe $25? And it's a hell of a lot cheaper than using a Brita filter or something similar each time.

What the hell is activated carbon?

Activated (or active) carbon is the sixth element, carbon, that's been processed to be extra porous. All of those microscopic holes mean it soaks up toxins and impurities. This is why it's found in all kinds of liquid filters—including those pro distilleries employ to make their high-end booze. To find it, check your local pet supply source, or just buy a big bag on Amazon for six bucks.


To figure out the best way to use our bag of carbon, we talked to vodka mastermind Davy Lindig of Colorado's Peach Street Distillers. He explained that charcoal filtration, in varying degrees of sophistication, is used by pretty much every vodka distillery in business. Lindig's machine, which he calls a torpedo, draws the spirits upward through a pressurized tube to crank out hundreds of gallons of vodka over 48 hours of filtration.


The underlying idea is the same on our homemade coffee filter method. Pass vodka through carbon, and bad byproducts from distillation get sucked out. The pros do it. You can do it.

Here's how to make a DIY vodka filter:

  • Using a strainer or colander, wash the carbon thoroughly under the faucet to get silt and residue off.
  • Put the washed carbon in a coffee filter. Put that coffee filter in your funnel.
  • Stick that funnel over a glass. Pour that awful vodka into the funnel filter. Let 'er drip.
  • Put that filter over another glass. Pour the once-filtered vodka through the funnel again.
  • Each filtration will suck out more and more of the organic impurities that make your cheap vodka taste so cheap. Repeat as necessary. Lindig recommends five minutes of contact with carbon for any given batch of vodka.

At the Gizmodo Happy Hour Lab, our taste testers noted a strong preference for the post-filtration vodka, as opposed to the cheap stuff straight out of the bottle. It wasn't Grey Goose, but it was "better." It was something they would "drink again." Most notably, the intense burning of the unfiltered liquor was strongly diminished. The flavor of the filtered swill is also affected by the carbon and coffee filters a bit—but a little smokiness and cardboard note is better than what you had before.

Is this cheap? Yes. Is it easy? Once you figure out what you're doing, sure. Is it fun? Definitely! Is it practical? That's up to you. Only you can decide how much your time is worth. Is it worth more than another trip to the liquor store for overpriced vodka? You tell us.



Sam Biddle

FOR THE RECORD, I was sitting down in this video. I am not four feet tall.