The evolution of vodka: from medicinal usage to nightlife staple

Oliver's food and wine expert on the history and evolving process of distilling vodka

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 January, 2016, 5:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 January, 2016, 5:00pm

Thebeginnings of vodka are lost in the mists of time, and how it came to be is the subject of much debate as records are vague in eastern Europe. What isn’t debated, however, is how vodka is made: from the distillation of fermented grains – rye, wheat, corn are typically used – or potatoes.

The word “vodka” comes from the Slavic word voda, for water (in Russian) and woda in Polish.

Poland’s earliest record of it is from the 8th century and it contained little alcohol, probably around 14 per cent, which is the maximum achievable by natural fermentation. The still was invented in the latter part of the 8th century and distillation allowed for increased purity and alcohol content. By the 11th century, it was called gorzalka and was used as a base for medicines.

Russia’s earliest record is from the 9th century. The first known distillery was at Khlynovsk and was mentioned in the Vyatka Chronicle of 1174.

In the Middle Ages, vodka and other distilled liquor was used for medicinal purposes and also in the production of gunpowder. There were several types of vodka in Russia, ranked according to quality, beginning with the standard “plain wine”, then “good wine”, “boyar’s wine” and finally, “double wine”, which was more expensive, as it was distilled at least twice. During these times, production methods were rustic, so to mask the impurities, distillers (apothecaries) flavoured them with fruit, herbs or spices to make them more palatable and also to enhance their medicative properties.

Pot distillation made vodka production more efficient from the mid 15th century – prior to this, the only way to remove impurities was to flavour it, age it so that the impurities settled, or freeze it (an easy option in a cold climate). Isinglass – the air bladders of sturgeons – was also used to filter vodka as was milk and egg white (this is also an optional process used in the production of wine, to clarify it).

The first recorded exports of vodka from Russia were to Sweden in the early 1500s; Poland started exporting around 1600 from Poznan and Krakow.

In the early 1700s, Russiamade the production of vodka and owning of distilleries an exclusive right of the nobility. During this period, vodka production was not yet standardised and it was made from manyingredients – acorns, chicory, horseradish, herbs and oak, to name a few. Production involved double distillation, clarification with milk, flavouring and dilution, then a final distillation before it was bottled. This made for a very labour intensive process until a professor in St Petersburg discovered a way to purify vodka by using charcoal filtration.

Vodka was spread throughout Europe by the presence of Russian soldiers who were involved in the Napoleonic wars, and its popularity and ability to be taxed gradually made it a state monopoly. This standardised production techniques and ensured consistent quality, which gave vodka formal recognition. During the Russian revolution, the Bolsheviks, of course, confiscated all distilleries and put them under their control. A number of vodka-making families left Russia, as they were considered bourgeoisie, and took their recipes and talents with them. One eventually ended up in Paris and set up a distillery in 1925, which today is widely recognised everywhere and is part of a huge global company. Who? Vladimir Smirnov

Interestingly, Smirnov’s first foray into the United States did not go well. In the 1930s, a partnership with the Kunett family,which had previously supplied the Smirnov family with grain to make their vodka in Russia, almost failed due to Prohibition.The Heublein company,which had great success with a sauce that is still popular today, A1 Steak Sauce, came up with the clever idea of selling Smirnoff (the French spelling of the family last name) as a “white whiskey” that had no taste and no smell.