Vodka is a clear distilled alcoholic beverage that originates from Poland and Russia.
Vodka is composed primarily of water and ethanol, but sometimes with traces of impurities and flavorings.
Traditionally it is made by distilling the liquid from cereal grains or potatoes that have been fermented, though some modern brands use fruits or sugar as the base.
Since the 1890s, standard vodkas have been 40% alcohol by volume (ABV) (80 U.S. proof). The European Union has established a minimum alcohol content of 37.5% for vodka. Vodka in the United States must have a minimum alcohol content of 40%.
Vodka is traditionally drunk “neat” or “straight“, although it is often served freezer chilled in the vodka belt of Belarus, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Lithuania, Latvia, Norway, Poland, Russia, Sweden, and Ukraine.
It is also used in cocktails and mixed drinks, such as the Vodka martini, Cosmopolitan, Vodka Tonic, Screwdriver, Greyhound, Black or White Russian, Moscow Mule, Bloody Mary, and Bloody Caesar.
Scholars debate the beginnings of vodka. It is a contentious issue because very little historical material is available.
For many centuries, beverages differed significantly compared to the vodka of today, as the spirit at that time had a different flavor, color, and smell, and was originally used as medicine.
It contained little alcohol, an estimated maximum of about 14%. The still, allowing for distillation (“burning of wine”), increased purity, and the increased alcohol content was invented in the 8th century.
In Poland, vodka (Polish: wódka or gorzałka) has been produced since the early Middle Ages with local traditions as varied as the production of cognac in France, or Scottish whiskey.
The world’s first written mention of the drink and of the word “vodka” was in 1405 from Akta Grodzkie recorder of deeds, in the court documents from the Palatinate of Sandomierz in Poland and it went on to become a popular drink there.
At the time, the word wódka referred to chemical compounds such as medicines and cosmetics’ cleansers, while the popular beverage currently known as vodka was called gorzałka (from the Old Polish verb gorzeć meaning “to burn”), which is also the source of Ukrainian horilka.
The word written in Cyrillic appeared first in 1533, in relation to a medicinal drink brought from Poland to Russia by the merchants of Kievan Rus’.
In these early days, the spirits were used mostly as medicines. Stefan Falimierz asserted in his 1534 works on herbs that vodka could serve “to increase fertility and awaken lust“.
Some Polish vodka blends go back centuries. Most notable are Żubrówka, from about the 16th century; Goldwasser, from the early 17th century; and aged Starka vodka, from the 16th century.
In the mid-17th century, the szlachta (nobility of Poland) were granted a monopoly on producing and selling vodka in their territories.
This privilege was a source of substantial profits. One of the most famous distilleries of the aristocracy was established by Princess Lubomirska and later operated by her grandson, Count Alfred Wojciech Potocki.
The Vodka Industry Museum, located at the park of the Potocki country estate has an original document attesting that the distillery already existed in 1784. Today it operates as “Polmos Łańcut“.
Vodka production on a much larger scale began in Poland at the end of the 16th century, initially, at Kraków, whence spirits were exported to Silesia before 1550.
Silesian cities also bought vodka from Poznań, a city that in 1580 had 498 working spirits distilleries. Soon, however, Gdańsk outpaced both these cities. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Polish vodka was known in the Netherlands, Denmark, England, Russia, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and the Black Sea basin.
Early production methods were rudimentary. The beverage was usually low-proof, and the distillation process had to be repeated several times (a three-stage distillation process was common).
Though there was clearly a substantial vodka cottage industry in Poland back to the 16th century, the end of the 18th century marked the start of real industrial production of vodka in Poland (Kresy, the eastern part of Poland was controlled by the Russian Empire at that time). Vodkas produced by the nobility and clergy became a mass product.
The first industrial distillery was opened in 1782 in Lwów by J. A. Baczewski. He was soon followed by Jakub Haberfeld, who in 1804 established a factory at Oświęcim, and by Hartwig Kantorowicz, who started producing Wyborowa in 1823 at Poznań.
The implementation of new technologies in the latter half of the 19th century, which allowed the production of clear vodkas, contributed to their success. The first rectification distillery was established in 1871. In 1925, the production of clear vodkas was made a Polish government monopoly.
After World War II, all vodka distilleries were taken over by Poland’s Marxist–Leninist government. During the martial law of the 1980s, the sale of vodka was rationed.
Following the success of the Solidarity movement and the abolition of single-party rule in Poland, many distilleries began struggling financially. Some filed for bankruptcy, but many were privatized, leading to the creation of various new brands.
A type of distilled liquor designated by the Russian word vodka came to Russia in the late 14th century. In 1386, the Genoese ambassadors brought the first aqua vitae (“the water of life”) to Moscow and presented it to Grand Duke Dmitry Donskoy.
The liquid obtained by distillation of grape must be thought to concentrate and a “spirit” of wine, from where came the name of this substance in many European languages (like English spirit, or Russian спирт, spirt).
According to a legend, around 1430, a monk named Isidore from Chudov Monastery inside the Moscow Kremlin made a recipe of the first Russian vodka.
Having a special knowledge and distillation devices, he became the creator of a new, higher quality type of alcoholic beverage. This “bread wine”, as it was initially known, was for a long time produced exclusively in the Grand Duchy of Moscow and in no other principality of Rus’ (this situation persisted until the era of industrial production). Thus, this beverage was closely associated with Moscow.
Until the mid-18th century, the drink remained relatively low in alcohol content, not exceeding 40% ABV. Multiple terms for the drink were recorded, sometimes reflecting different levels of quality, alcohol concentration, filtering, and the number of distillations; most commonly, it was referred to as “burning wine“, “bread wine“, or even in some locations simply “wine“.
In some locations, grape wine may have been so expensive that it was a drink only for aristocrats. Burning wine was usually diluted with water to 24% ABV or less before drinking.
It was mostly sold in taverns and was quite expensive. At the same time, the word vodka was already in use, but it described herbal tinctures (similar to absinthe), containing up to 75% ABV, and made for medicinal purposes.
The first written usage of the word vodka in an official Russian document in its modern meaning is dated by the decree of Empress Elizabeth of 8 June 1751, which regulated the ownership of vodka distilleries.
By the 1860s, due to the government policy of promoting the consumption of state-manufactured vodka, it became the drink of choice for many Russians. In 1863, the government monopoly on vodka production was repealed, causing prices to plummet and making vodka available even to low-income citizens.
The taxes on vodka became a key element of government finances in Tsarist Russia, providing at times up to 40% of state revenue.
By 1911, vodka comprised 89% of all alcohol consumed in Russia. This level has fluctuated somewhat during the 20th century but remained quite high at all times. The most recent estimates put it at 70% (2001). Today, some popular Russian vodka producers or brands are (amongst others) Stolichnaya and Russian Standard.
During the late 1970s, Russian culinary author William Pokhlebkin compiled a history of the production of vodka in Russia, as part of the Soviet case in a trade dispute; this was later published as A History of Vodka.
Pokhlebkin claimed that while there is a wealth of publications about the history of consumption and distribution of vodka, virtually nothing had been written about vodka production.
One of his assertions was that the word “vodka” was used in popular speech in Russia considerably earlier than the middle of the 18th century, but the word did not appear in print until the 1860s. Pokhlebkin’s sources were challenged by David Christian in the Slavic Review in 1994.
Christian criticized the lack of valid references in Pokhlebkin’s works stating that his work has an obvious pro-Russian bias. Pokhlebkin is also known for his Pan-Slavic sympathies under the leadership of Russia and sentiments that, in David Christian’s opinion, discredit most of his work, especially his History of Vodka.
Up until the 1950s, vodka was not used as a designation for Swedish distilled beverages, which were instead called brännvin (“burn-wine”), the word having the same etymology as the Dutch Brandewijn, which is the base for the word brandy.
This beverage has been produced in Sweden since the late 15th century, although the total production was still small in the 17th century.
From the early 18th century, production expanded, although production was prohibited several times, during grain shortages. Although initially a grain product, potatoes started to be used in the production in the late 18th century and became dominant from the early 19th century. From the early 1870s, distillery equipment was improved.
Progressively from the 1960s, unflavoured Swedish brännvin also came to be called vodka. The first Swedish product to use this term was Explorer Vodka, which was created in 1958 and initially was intended for the American export market.
In 1979, Absolut Vodka was launched, reusing the name of the old Absolut Rent Brännvin (“absolutely pure brännvin”) created in 1879.
Vodka has become popular among young people, with a flourishing black market. In 2013, the organizers of a so-called “vodka car” were jailed for two and a half years for having illegally provided thousands of liters to young people, some as young as 13.
According to The Penguin Book of Spirits and Liqueurs:
“Its low level of fusel oils and congeners—impurities that flavor spirits but that can contribute to the after-effects of heavy consumption—led to it’s being considered among the ‘safer’ spirits, though not in terms of its powers of intoxication, which, depending on strength, may be considerable.”
Since the year 2000, due to evolving consumer tastes and regulatory changes, a number of ‘artisanal vodka’ or even ‘ultra-premium vodka’ brands have appeared.
In some countries, black-market or “bathtub” vodka is widespread because it can be produced easily and avoid taxation. However, severe poisoning, blindness, or death can occur as a result of dangerous industrial ethanol substitutes being added by black-market producers.
In March 2007 in a documentary, BBC News UK sought to find the cause of severe jaundice among imbibers of a “bathtub” vodka in Russia.
The cause was suspected to be an industrial disinfectant (Extrasept) – 95% ethanol but also containing a highly toxic chemical – added to the vodka by the illegal traders because of its high alcohol content and low price.
Death toll estimates list at least 120 dead and more than 1,000 poisoned. The death toll is expected to rise due to the chronic nature of the cirrhosis that is causing jaundice.
However, there are also much higher estimates of the annual death toll (dozens or even hundreds of thousands of lives) produced by the vodka consumption in Russia.