A Brief History of Vodka Down Under

Although Australians are some of the biggest vodka lovers today, until the early 1950s the spirit was largely unknown except to some East European immigrants looking for the taste of home. To celebrate International Vodka Day today (Thursday 4th October) we’ve taken a trip down memory lane to look at the history of vodka in this country.

The first vodka most likely came when the first Russians started to immigrate to Australia in the 1890s. One enterprising group of Russian émigrés settled in Brisbane after the 1917 Revolution bringing 919 gallons of vodka with them (4,178 litres). When they discovered Customs would be charging them 42 shillings a gallon excise ($150,000 in today’s value), they refused, so it was poured into Moreton Bay by officials. Until the Russian Revolution in 1917, less than 15,000 Russians had immigrated to Australia. One of these immigrants, Peter Walcaw, claimed to be the nephew of Peter Smirnov and had worked as a chemist at the Moscow distillery before immigrating in 1911. In 1943, he began marketing a liqueur vodka using the Peter Smirnoff formula in Sydney. Duplicating the Russian recipe, he used filtered grain spirit, compounded with sugar and fruits such as cherry and apple. In 1952, he sold his business to the Curtis family who three years earlier emigrated from Hungary. They continued to produce and sell Peter Smirnoff vodka made in Sydney, later becoming Continental Distillers. In Adelaide, a recent arrival from Estonia, Ernst Kirsch also started making vodka in 1952, calling it Etka. Down in Melbourne, W & A Gilbey’s began importing Smirnoff made in the US in 1954. A couple of years later they would be making Smirnoff at their Melbourne gin distillery. As well as locally made vodkas, Polish vodka was also being imported after the Second World War.

After a trademark challenge by W & A Gilbey’s against Continental Distillers prompted Continental to build a large distillery in Pagewood, Sydney. There they produced Karloff vodka from 1964, a year later United Distillers in Port Melbourne launched Robka. Vodka was quickly moving from its traditional ethnic base to a new audience of young Australian adult drinkers. Even though dozens of brands were imported from Europe, Australian made vodka led the pack selling 64,000 bottles in 1966, to over 1.5 million in 1985. At this high point, Australian distilleries began closing down production due to the lowering of import tariffs. New overseas competitors arrived including Russian vodkas brands such as Stolichnaya, Absolut from Sweden, Nikoloi from the US and Borzoi from Britain. When Gilbey’s distillery closed
in 1985, Smirnoff was imported from
New Zealand.

Fast forward to the present and a handful of craft distilleries around Australia are now producing locally made vodkas from grain to molasses, even potatoes. While Russia remains the largest seller of vodka in Australia, the global competition still comes from all over the world, not only Russia, from Finland, Iceland, France, Denmark, Canada, Netherland and even Africa.

‘RUSSIA DID NOT INVENT VODKA’: A most bizarre attempt at misinformation was propagated by one of America’s largest distillers during the Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union. Publicker tried to disenfranchise vodka from Russia and their captive nations, Poland and the Baltic States, by claiming Incas invented vodka. In 1956, they unleashed a PR campaign in support of the launch of their new American vodka, Cavalier. At the Waldorf Astoria, journalists were ‘aghast with surprise’ as VP John Leblon and historian Mrs. Karmatz revealed this extraordinary story. They told how the Incas in Peru, ’brewed up some wild tubers one afternoon to come up with a potent drink’. The Incas also discovered corn and quinoa could make their chatka booze. This was part of the assertion that the Russians even appropriated the word chatka for vodka. The Incas later took their chatka to the far north, to the Iroquois nation of North America who disseminated it to other tribes. Around 800 ACE, the local Beothuk tribe encountered the seafaring Varangians. These were Vikings who landed in Newfoundland, Canada and commenced distilling the world’s first vodka with corn and presumably potatoes too. Interestingly, the first potatoes were only planted in North America in 1791, when Irish immigrants brought the first tubers to New Hampshire from Ireland.

Mohawk chief, Bright Canoe gave testimony to this new historical revelation. He stated his grandfather once made a potato spirit, suggesting this was proof enough vodka was made in Canada some 1150 years earlier. The chief confessed, being a Canadian, he only drank Canadian whisky.

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