The Story of Vodka - Harvey Ltd

The Story of Vodka

The origins of vodka are shrouded in mystery. Several nations, including Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Finns, claim paternity of the drink. Both Russia and Poland boast a long tradition of preparing the most coveted alcohol in northern and eastern Europe. However, the name comes from the diminutive of the Slavic word “voda” which means water, inspired by the Latin “aqua vitae”, which meant all the strong drinks in the Middle Ages.

The first documented production of vodka in Russia was at the end of the 9th century, but the first known distillery at, Khylnovsk, was about two hundred years later as reported in the Vyatka Chronicle of 1174.

Poland lays claim to having distilled vodka even earlier in the 8th century, but as this was a distillation of wine it might be more appropriate to consider it a crude brandy. The first identifiable Polish vodkas appeared in the 11th century when they were called ‘gorzalka’, originally used as medicines.

A Slavic Tradition

So, it is assumed that vodka comes from the Slavic peoples who occupied northeastern Europe. The low temperatures made it difficult to trade wine and beer because they were freezing in the winter months. In the beginning, by the 12th century, vodka was used as an anesthetic and disinfectant, being distilled from rye.

Only two centuries later, the poisonous effects of excess were discovered. Since 1300, it was produced for consumption. The drink was believed to have a spirit of its own, which is why it was used at religious ceremonies. From hand to hand passed a vessel that sometimes contained more than 4 liters of vodka, and those who did not consume were considered unbelievers.

As its popularity increased, vodka was no longer distilled from rye, but from potatoes. The potato was much more common and easier to process than cereals. But as vodka began to lose its status as a homemade product, the potato was no longer used. Today, most brands of vodka have rye, wheat, barley, and, most often, corn.

Alcohol Overdose

Eastern and northern Europe took the problem of alcohol very seriously. In 988, the prince of Kyiv Vladimir decided to abandon the pagan path and switch to monotheism. He rejected Judaism because the Jews did not control any territory. He rejected Islam because alcohol was prohibited. However, when he found out that even Christians were required to eat during the rites, he chose Christianity. 

Legend had it that in 1430 the monk Isidor from the Chudov monastery invented the first Russian vodka recipe, known as “bread wine”, because it was distilled from wheat.

Around this time (1450), vodka started to be produced in large quantities and the first recorded exports of Russian vodka were to Sweden in 1505. Polish ‘woda’ exports started a century later, from major production centers in Posnan and Krakow.

In Russia, vodka fell under the imperial monopoly, which meant that vodka could only be produced by the Tsar and the boyars. In 1533, Ivan the Terrible opened the first Kabak, the only place where the average man could obtain his drink.

In 1716, owning distilleries became the exclusive right of the nobility, who were granted further special rights in 1751. In the following 50 or so years, there was a proliferation of types of aromatized vodka, but no attempt was made to standardize the basic product.

Types produced included absinthe, acorn, anisette, birch, calamus root, calendula, cherry, chicory, dill, ginger hazelnut, horseradish, juniper, lemon, mastic, mint, mountain ash, oak, pepper, peppermint, raspberry, sage, sorrel, wort and watermelon.

A typical production process was to distill alcohol twice, dilute it with milk and distill it again, adding water to bring it to the required strength and then flavoring it, prior to a fourth and final distillation.

In the 18th century, a professor in St. Petersburg discovered a method of purifying alcohol using charcoal filtration. Felt and river sand had already been used for some time in Russia for filtration.

The spread of awareness of vodka continued throughout the 19th century, helped by the presence in many parts of Europe of Russian soldiers involved in the Napoleonic Wars. Increasing popularity led to escalating demand and to meet this demand, lower grade products were produced based largely on distilled potato mash.

Earlier attempts to control Russian production by reducing the number of distilleries from 5,000 to 2,050 between the years 1860 and 1890 having failed, a law was enacted in 1894 to make the production and distribution of vodka in Russia once again a state monopoly.

This was both for fiscal reasons and to control the epidemic of drunkenness, which the availability of the cheap, mass-produced ‘vodkas’ imported and home-produced, had brought about.

At the end of the 19th century, with all state distilleries adopting a standard production technique and hence a guarantee of quality, that the name vodka was officially and formally recognized.

After the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks confiscated all private distilleries in Moscow. As a result, a number of Russian vodka-makers emigrated, taking their skills and recipes with them. One such exile revived his brand in Paris, using the French version of his family name – Smirnoff.

Thence, having met a Russian émigré from the USA, they set up the first vodka distillery there in 1934. Although not particularly successful at first, this enterprise was sold on again to an entrepreneur who eventually made a hit in the 1950s with a vodka-based cocktail, the Moscow Mule.

The legend goes that John G. Martin of Smirnoff and Jack Morgan of the Cock ‘n’ Bull came up with the drink to help Martin move his vodka and Morgan move his bar’s overstock of ginger beer. Morgan’s girlfriend had recently inherited a copper factory, and the iconic mule mug was born.

In Russia, the Communists quickly resumed production due to the huge demand, but the quality of the drink decreased. Gorbachev tried to apply perestroika in the field of alcohol, but this ban failed.

Different methods of distillation

We could say that the distillation techniques evolved between the XII-XV centuries when honey started to be used to improve the taste of the drink. In the eighteenth century, it took advantage of the properties of coal to filter the mixture to get rid of unwanted ingredients, but the spirit had to be diluted before filtering. The distillation improved with the introduction of various herbs and spices. Despite other varieties of vodka that the Russians got to know, for a long time everything based on rye had the highest appreciation.

Until the sixteenth century, King Obracht of Poland allowed the sale of alcohol. Later, in 1572, he limited the production, levying a tax of 10%. Only in the seventeenth century, however, vodka became a national drink, and distillation techniques advanced. In any case, the origins and exact history of vodka are far from certain, there are indications that it might come from Persia.

Vodka is probably the most popular hard drink in the world. The alcohol concentration ranges from 35% to 50%. Classic, Russian, Lithuanian or Polish vodka had 40% concentration, which is in accordance with the Russian standards for the production of the drink, introduced in 1894 by Alexander III. Chemist Dmitri Mendeleev had established that the optimum strength ratio for vodka is 38% alcohol.

Although simple vodka is only popular in Eastern and Northern Europe, the product is used worldwide for cocktail preparation. There is no uniform classification of vodka. In Poland vodka is labeled according to the degree of purity: standard (zwykly), premium (wyborowy) and deluxe (luksusowy). In Russia, vodka labeled osobaya is generally a quality product that can be exported, while krepkaya denotes a drink of at least 56% alcohol.

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