Vodka is the most versatile of spirits. It’s delicious when drunk neat and chilled, Russian-style, or over ice with a slice of lemon, or in a wide variety of cocktails. However, vodka has changed considerably over its long history.
What is vodka?
Vodka is a distilled liquor. It is clear in colour and without a definite smell or taste, ranging from about 40 to 55 percent alcohol content. Since it is highly neutral, with any flavour eliminated during processing, it can be made from the cheapest and most readily available raw materials suitable for fermentation. Traditionally made from potatoes in Russia and Poland, today it is more often made from cereal grains.
The origins of vodka
Vodka has its origins in medieval Poland and Russia. The word ‘vodka’ is a diminutive form of the Russian word for water, voda. However, in the fifteenth century the word described strong tinctures similar to absinthe, made for medicinal purposes. Words in European languages for distilled spirits usually contained the word ‘burning’ in some form, often ‘burning wine’. Until the mid-18th century, ‘burning wine’ remained relatively low in alcohol content, not exceeding 40% ABV. It was sold in taverns, and usually diluted with water to 24% ABV or less before drinking.
The first written usage of the word ‘vodka’ in its modern meaning is in a decree of Empress Elizabeth of 8 June 1751, which regulated the ownership of distilleries. ‘Vodka’ appears in English travel books and dictionaries by the late eighteenth century, being described as ‘a sort of brandy’ drunk in Russian taverns.
Russia and Poland: Vodka as national drink
Some Polish blends go back centuries. Made in the Białowieża Forest from bison grass, Żubrówka became popular after the Polish-Lithuanian accord in 1569, when the Polish royal court would rest at various hunting lodges in the forest on their way north. In the mid-seventeenth century, Polish nobles were granted a monopoly on producing and selling vodka in their territories. This privilege was a source of substantial profits, and vodkas began to be industrially produced by the nobility and clergy.
In Russia, the government policy of promoting consumption of state-manufactured vodka meant it became the drink of choice. In 1863, the government monopoly on production was repealed, causing prices to plummet and making the drink available to even the poorest. The taxes on vodka were an important source of state revenue in Tsarist Russia, providing at times up to 40% of state revenue.
Smirnoff, one of the most famous Russian brands, was created by a serf called Pytor Smirnov and has been sold since 1864. In 1886, Smirnov gained an exclusive contract to supply vodka to the Tsar. By 1911, vodka accounted for 89% of all alcohol consumed in Russia.
Vodka as a global drink
Vodka became known outside its traditional homeland after 1917, when many Russians fled the country for Europe, bringing their national drink with them. Large-scale Polish and Russian emigration to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century brought vodka across the Atlantic. Importers saw an opportunity and began to import it as a nostalgic drink for Eastern European immigrants. However, it did not become popular with other Americans until they realised that vodka’s clean, neutral taste makes it especially suitable for mixing with other beverages in cocktails.
In Russia and Poland vodka is usually drunk unmixed and chilled in small glasses, served with snacks. Elsewhere, it is most popular for use in mixed drinks. Popular vodka drinks include the Screwdriver (with orange juice); the Bloody Mary (with tomato juice); the Cosmopolitan (with cranberry and lime juice, and orange liqueur); and the vodka martini, with vodka substituted for gin. Today Smirnoff and the Swedish Absolut are the best-selling brands worldwide. Vodka can also be found in a variety of flavours.
Commercially produced vodkas can be expensive. If you want to channel your inner Russian serf, making it at home is a simple process. However, it is illegal to distil spirits at home in the UK without a licence from Revenue and Customs, even if it’s for your own consumption.