Vodka is the dominant spirit of Eastern Europe. It is made by fermenting and then distilling the simple sugars from a mash of pale grain or vegetal matter. Vodka is produced from grain, potatoes, molasses, beets, and a variety of other plants. Rye and wheat are the classic grains for Vodka, with most of the best Russian Vodkas being made from wheat while in Poland they are mostly made from a rye mash. Swedish and Baltic distillers are partial to wheat mashes. Potatoes are looked down on by Russian distillers, but are held in high esteem by some of their Polish counterparts. Molasses, a sticky, sweet residue from sugar production, is widely used for inexpensive, mass-produced brands of Vodka. American distillers use the full range of base ingredients.
Distillation of Vodka
The choice of pot or column still has a fundamental effect on the final character of Vodka. All Vodka comes out of the still as a clear, colorless spirit, but Vodka from a pot still (the same sort used for Cognac and Scotch whisky) will contain some of the delicate aromatics, congeners, and flavor elements of the crop from which it was produced. Pot stills are relatively “inefficient,” and the resulting spirit from the first distillation is usually redistilled (rectified) to increase the proof of the spirit. Vodka from a more “efficient” column still is usually a neutral, characterless spirit.
Except for a few minor styles, Vodka is not put in wooden casks or aged for an extensive period of time. It can, however, be flavored or colored with a wide variety of fruits, herbs, and spices.
Classifications of Vodka
There are no uniform classifications of Vodka. In Poland, Vodkas are graded according to their degree of purity: standard (zwykly), premium (wyborowy) and deluxe (luksusowy). In Russia Vodka that is labeled osobaya (special) usually is a superior-quality product that can be exported, while krepkaya (strong) denotes an overproof Vodka of at least 56% ABV.
In the United States, domestic Vodkas are defined by U.S. government regulation as “neutral spirits, so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.” Because American Vodka is, by law, neutral in taste, there are only very subtle distinctions between brands. Many drinkers feel that the only real way of differentiating between them is by alcohol content and price.
Types of Vodka
Since Vodka tends to be a neutral spirit, it lends itself to blending with flavors and fortifying other beverages. In the 19th century, high-proof “Russian spirit” was held in high esteem by Sherry producers in Spain, who imported it to fortify their wines.
Neutral spirits are still used to fortify Port, Sherry, and other types of fortified wines, although the source of alcohol for such purposes these days tends to be the vast “wine lake” that has been created by European Union agricultural practices.
Flavored Vodkas have been produced from the start, originally to mask the flavor of the first primitive Vodkas, but later as a mark of the distiller’s skill. The Russians and Poles in particular still market dozens of flavors. Some of the better known types are:
Kubanskaya – Vodka flavored with an infusion of dried lemon and orange peels.
Limonnaya – Lemon-flavored Vodka, usually with a touch of sugar added.
Okhotnichya -“Hunter’s” Vodka is flavored with a mix of ginger, cloves, lemon peel, coffee, anise and other herbs and spices. It is then blended with sugar and a touch of a wine similar to white port. A most unusual Vodka.
Pertsovka -Pepper-flavored Vodka, made with both black peppercorns and red chili peppers.
Starka – “Old” Vodka, a holdover from the early centuries of Vodka production, which can be infused with everything from fruit tree leaves to brandy, Port, Malaga wine, and dried fruit. Some brands are aged in oak casks.
Zubrovka – Zubrowka in Polish; Vodka flavored with buffalo (or more properly “bison”) grass, an aromatic grass favored by the herds of the rare European bison.
In recent years numerous other flavored Vodkas have been launched on the world market. The most successful of these have been fruit flavors such as currant and orange.
Eastern Europe is the homeland of Vodka production. Every country produces Vodka, and most also have local flavored specialties.
Russia, Ukraine and Belarus produce the full range of Vodka types, and are generally acknowledged to be the leaders in Vodka production. Only the better brands, all of which are distilled from rye and wheat, are exported to the West.
Poland produces and exports both grain- and potato-based Vodkas. Most of the high- quality brands are produced in pot stills.
Finland, along with the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, produce primarily grain-based Vodkas, mostly from wheat.
Sweden has, in recent decades, developed a substantial export market for its straight and flavored wheat-based Vodkas.
Western Europe has local brands of Vodka wherever there are distilleries. The base for these Vodkas can vary from grains in northern countries such as the United Kingdom, Holland, and Germany, to grapes and other fruits in the winemaking regions of France and Italy.
The United States and Canada produce nonflavored Vodkas, both from various grains (including corn) and from molasses. American Vodkas are, by law, neutral spirits, so the distinction between brands is more a matter of price and perception than taste.
The Caribbean produces a surprising amount of Vodka, all of it from molasses. Most of it is exported for blending and bottling in other countries.
Australia produces molasses-based Vodkas, but few are exported.
Asia has a smattering of local Vodkas, with the best coming from Japan.
Vodka: Its History and Significance
The story is told that in A.D. 988 the Grand Prince of Kiev in what is now Ukraine decided that it was time for his people to convert from their pagan ways to one of the monotheistic religions that held sway in the civilized countries to the south. First came the Jewish rabbis. He listened to their arguments, was impressed, but ultimately sent them away after remarking that the followers of Judaism did not control any land. Next came the Moslem mullahs. Again he was impressed, both with their intellectual arguments and the success of Islam as a political and military force, but when he was told that Islam proscribed alcohol he was dismayed and sent them away. Finally came the Christian priests who informed him that not only could good Christians drink alcohol, but that wine was actually required for church rituals such as communion. That was good enough for the Grand Prince, and on his command his subjects converted en masse to Christianity.
The point of this historical anecdote is that the Slavic peoples of the north and their Scandinavian neighbors took alcoholic drinks very seriously. The extreme cold temperatures of winter inhibited the shipment of wines and beers, as these relatively low- proof beverages could freeze during transit. Until the introduction of distilling into Eastern Europe in the 1400s, strong drink was made by fermenting strong wines, meads, and beers, freezing them, and then drawing off the alcoholic slush from the frozen water.
The earliest distilled spirit in Eastern Europe was distilled from mead (honey wine) or beer and was called perevara. Vodka (from the Russian word voda, meaning water) was originally used to describe grain distillates that were used for medicinal purposes. As distilling techniques improved Vodka (Wodka in Polish) gradually came to be the accepted term for beverage spirit, regardless of its origin.
Vodka in Russia
Russians firmly believe that Vodka was created in their land. Commercial production was established by the 14th century. In 1540 Czar Ivan the Terrible took a break from beheading his enemies and established the first government Vodka monopoly. Distilling licenses were handled out to the boyars (the nobility) and all other distilleries were banned. Needless to say, moonshining became endemic.
Vodka production became an integral part of Russian society. Aristocratic landowners operated stills on their estates and produced high-quality Vodkas which were frequently flavored with everything from acorns to horseradish to mint. The Czars maintained test distilleries at their country palaces where the first experiments in multiple redistillations were made. In 1780 a scientist at one such distillery invented the use of charcoal filtration to purify Vodka.
By the 18th and well into the 19th century the Russian Vodka industry was probably the most technologically advanced industry in the nation. New types of stills and production techniques from Western Europe were eagerly imported and utilized. State funding and control of Vodka research continued. Under a 1902 law, “Moscow Vodka,” a clear 40% ABV rye Vodka made with soft “living” (undistilled) water and without added flavorings was established as the benchmark for Russian Vodka.
The Soviet Union continued government control of Vodka production. All distilleries became government-owned, and while the Communist Party apparatchiks continued to enjoy high-quality rye Vodka, the proletariat masses had to make do with cheap spirits. The societal attitude toward such products could be best summed up by the curious fact that mass-produced Vodka was sold in liter bottles with a non-screw cap. Once you opened the bottle it couldn’t be resealed. You had to drink it all in one session.
Vodka production in the current Russian Federation has returned to the pre-Revolutionary pattern. High-quality brands are once again being produced for the new social elite and export, while the popularly priced brands are still being consumed, well, like voda.
Vodka in Poland
The earliest written records of Vodka production in Poland date from the 1400s, though some Polish historians claim that it was being produced around the southern city of Krakow at least a century earlier. Originally known as okowita (from the Latin aqua vita —water of life), it was used for a variety of purposes besides beverages. A 1534 medical text defined an aftershave lotion as being “Vodka for washing the chin after shaving.” Herbal-infused Vodkas were particularly popular as liniments for the aches and pains of life.
In 1546 King Jan Olbracht of Poland granted the right to distill and sell spirits to every adult citizen. The Polish aristocracy, taking a cue from their Russian peers, soon lobbied to have this privilege revoked and replaced by a royal decree that reserved the right to make Vodka exclusively to them.
Commercial Vodka distilleries were well established by the 18th century. By the mid-19th century a thriving export trade had developed, with Polish Vodkas, particularly those infused with small quantities of fruit spirit, being shipped throughout northern Europe and even into Russia.
With the fall of Communism in the late 1980s, the Vodka distilleries soon returned to private ownership. Nowadays high-quality Polish Vodkas are exported throughout the world.
Vodka in Sweden
Vodka production in Sweden, which dates from the 15th century, has its origins in the local gunpowder industry where high-proof spirit (originally called brännvin) was used as a component of black powder for muskets. When distilleries were licensed to produce beverage alcohol (primarily spice-flavored Aquavit, but also Vodka), it was with the understanding that gunpowder makers had first priority over beverage consumers.
Home distilling was long a part of Swedish society. In 1830 there were over 175,000 registered stills in a country of less than three million people. This tradition, in a much diminished and illegal form, still continues to this day. Modern Swedish Vodka is produced by the Vin & Sprit state monopoly.
Vodka in the United States
Vodka was first imported into the United States in commercial quantities around the turn of the 20th century. Its primary market was immigrants from Eastern Europe. After the repeal of National Prohibition in 1933, the Heublein Company bought the rights to the Smirnoff brand of Vodka from its White Russian émigré owners and relaunched Vodka into the U.S. market. Sales languished until an enterprising liquor salesman in South Carolina started promoting it as “Smirnoff White Whisky — No taste. No smell.” Sales started to increase and American Vodka, after marking time during World War II, was on its way to marketing success. The first popular Vodka-based cocktail was a combination of Vodka and ginger ale called the Moscow Mule. It was marketed with its own special copper mug, examples of which can still be found in the back shelves of liquor cabinets and flea markets of America.
Today Vodka is the dominant white spirit in the United States, helped along by its versatility as a mixer and some very clever advertising campaigns from the various producers. One of the most famous of these was the classic double entendre tag line: “Smirnoff — It leaves you breathless.”