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The Story of Vodka – History, Production and The Modern Drink

Will Beck
Last Updated: February 28th, 2023

In this article, we delve deep into the history of Vodka, how it’s made, and what makes this drink so popular amongst all ages.

The History of Vodka

Vodka is a drink that originated in Eastern Europe, the name stemming from the Russian word ‘voda’ meaning water or, as the Poles would say ‘woda’.

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.

Medicine & Gunpowder

During the Middle Ages, distilled liquor was used mainly for medicinal purposes, as well as being an ingredient in the production of gunpowder.

In the 14th century, a British Ambassador to Moscow first described vodka as the Russian national drink and in the mid-16th century, it was established as the national drink in Poland and Finland. We learn from the Novgorod Chronicles of 1533 that in Russia also, vodka was used frequently as a medicine (zhiznennia voda meaning ‘water of life’).

In these ancient times, Russia produced several kinds of ‘vodka’ or ‘hot wine’ as it was then called. There was ‘plain wine’ (standard), ‘good wine’ (improved), and ‘boyar wine’ (high quality). In addition, stronger types existed, distilled two (‘double wine’) or more times.

Since early production methods were crude, vodka often contained impurities, so to mask these the distillers flavored their spirits with fruit, herbs, or spices.

The mid – 15th century saw the first appearance of pot distillation in Russia. Prior to that, seasoning, aging, and freezing were all used to remove impurities, as was precipitation using isinglass (‘karluk’) from the air bladders of sturgeons.

Distillation became the first step in producing vodka, with the product being improved by precipitation using isinglass, milk or egg white.

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.

From Acorns to Melon

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.

It was not a cheap product and it still had not attained really large-scale production. It did not seek to compete commercially with the major producers in Lithuania, Poland, and Prussia.

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.

Vodka Marches Across Europe

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 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 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.

It is only 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. This was subsequently sold to a US drinks company. From this small start, vodka began in the 1940s to achieve its wide popularity in the Western World.

The Production of Vodka

Vodka can be made from many different kinds of agricultural materials. In the EU it is usually produced from grain or molasses. In Eastern Europe, it is also produced from potatoes or rice.

Neutral spirit of at least 96% alcohol by volume (ABV), having been checked that it is of the appropriate quality is either redistilled to produce a pure and flavorless spirit or filtered through activated charcoal which removes any residual impurities and odors. The definition of activated charcoal is that which has been treated either by steam or chemicals to make it more absorbent.

In many cases, the spirit is redistilled once or twice then blended with pure demineralized water, reducing its ABV to about 55% before being filtered through the charcoal. Filtration is done by either pumping the vodka through several consecutive columns of charcoal or, in the case of cheaper vodkas simply seeping it into tanks containing charcoal.

Very pure water is now added to the spirit to give the legal EU minimum ABV strength of at least 37.5%; it is not unusual to have vodkas of up to 50% ABV.

This pure spirit drink does not legally require anything adding to it although some producers include additives to improve the characteristics whilst others introduce flavoring by either adding natural essences or by steeping fruits or herbs in the vodka for several days. No maturation period is required for vodka.

Vodka: the Modern Drink

Although being the older drink – vodka took much longer than gin to become popular in Western society.

However – following the Russian Revolution in 1917, a number of Russian refugees took their skills – and their love of vodka – to many parts of the world.

In the 1930s one such exile emigrated from Russia via France to the United States bringing with him the formula to one of the leading Russian makes of vodka. Through his dealings with another Russian émigré the first vodka distillery in the United States was set up in the 1930s. 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.

Realistically though vodka did not see a great boom in popularity in the West until the 1960s and 1970s when many more brands were launched in the USA and the UK. The timing coincided with the cultural revolution in these countries – the ‘swinging sixties’.

With a more affluent younger generation and a generally more relaxed lifestyle and the emphasis on adventure and experimentation – vodka’s ‘mixability’ (plus the appeal of some witty and clever advertising) led to its huge and ever-rising popularity, which continues today.

Vodka cocktails are almost as numerous as those of gin and are seen in the same exclusive circles and stylish bars the world over.

About The Author

Will Beck

Will is a true digital nomad, taking his work on the road at every opportunity. His first love is coffee, with whiskey a close 2nd. He loves nothing more than enjoying a perfectly brewed coffee with spectacular scenery whilst he coordinates behind the scenes of the Drink Stack blog!

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