Explore the History of Vodka

THE GREAT ORIGIN DEBATE IS WHETHER POLAND OR RUSSIA FIRST MADE VODKA. AS NEUTRAL SPIRIT HAD BEEN MADE FOR TWO AND A HALF CENTURIES IN EUROPE, THE REAL QUESTION IS WHO HAS NAMING RIGHTS. THAT WAS SOLVED WHEN THE POLISH CALLED THEIRS WÓDKA AND RUSSIANS WENT FOR VODKA.

Words by Chris Middleton

History of Vodka

The history of vodka from the 1500s also became a central part of the history of Russia. It was not until the first decade of the 16th century, vodka made its debut in Moscow. This is a country that remained both vodka obsessed and feudal until the 1917 Revolution. Of course vodka survived the Tsars and the communists who followed.

The Tsars, his retinue of nobles, merchants and administrators controlled just about everything, the land, production, to the sales of goods. From the 17th century, the Tsars monopolised vodka distilling and sales through State- owned taverns. By this, 1600s vodka had become Russia’s favourite drink of social, ceremonial and recreational life. Tsar Alexis used the excuse of the widespread vodka abuse and drunkenness in 1652 to ban all distilleries and put the production of vodka under the State. This secured him a lucrative source of revenue to featherbed his empire and private indulgences.

By the end of the 17th century, the word vodka had become common parlance for Russia’s distilled spirit. By the early 18th century, another Tsar was selling distilling concessions to raise more income. These vodka distilling rights were given to privileged nobles and sold to merchants, known by the whimsical term, tax farming. Vodka was Russia’s universal drink and generated half the State’s revenue from licenses and sales. Vodka funded the lavish lifestyles of the nobility and paid for Russia’s frequent wars. Peasant and Tsar seemed locked into a drunken dance of mutual intoxication.

We think of vodka as clear and near-flavourless spirit. This is 20th-century vodka. Since the beginning vodka
was coloured and flavoured to make it palatable, even a medicinal nostrum. This same flavouring phenomenon was happening to all white spirits, from Scandinavia, Germany and the Netherlands to England, Scotland and Ireland. It was not until the 19th century, when science and knowledge brought about profound changes to the quality of spirits that significant improvements were made in fermentation, distillation, filtration and cask maturation, shaping standards for the spirits we drink today.

If we stepped out of a carriage in Moscow in the 1780s to attend a princely dinner we would discover vodka was double distilled, possibly triple distilled and even quadruple distilled. This high proof vodka was diluted with water for drinking and fashionably flavoured with honey water. Our host would proudly present his estate distillery’s range of aromatised vodkas. Some nobility had hundreds of flavours: caraway, St John’s Wort, honey, wormwood, hops and juniper, acorn, birch bark, cherry, mint, pepper, anise, cloves, willow, blackcurrant, raspberry melon, bitters, lemon, cinnamon, aniseed, cumin, rose etc. These flavourings were used in vodka blending games, where the first initial of the flavoured vodkas formed a word and guests were challenged to play by taste. Our palates today would nd most of these vodkas crude to taste, even when masked with sugar and flavourings.

One hundred years later, these aromatised vodkas were standardised for mass consumption. The leading flavours were cherry, raspberry and currant, sweetened with sugar. After Prohibition, production standards improved and greater product purity was achieved, unflavoured vodka became the norm.

Today, flavoured vodka represents only 5 per cent of global vodka sales. There are probably as many flavours sold today as Tsarist Russians once stocked. Western liquor store shelves contain hundreds of flavoured vodkas, ranging from the traditional additives such as raspberry and vanilla, to unusual, such as bacon, smoked salmon, hemp, peanuts to cut grass.

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