The word vodka is a diminutive of the Russian word voda meaning water. The first known distillery was located about 500 miles east of Moscow at Khylnovsk in 1174. Polish historians claim vodka was distilled in Poland even earlier in the 8th century, but since this was distilled wine it could also be considered an early brandy.
In the Middle Ages, distilled liquor was mostly used medicinally. By the 14th century a British Ambassador to Moscow described vodka as the Russian national drink and by the mid 16th century it was also constituted the national drink of Poland and Finland.
In early times production methods were crude and vodka contained impurities. To mask these, vodka makers flavored the liquor with fruit, herbs or spices. During this time the methods used to remove impurities were seasoning, aging and freezing.
By the middle of the 15th century, a new pot distilling technique came to Russia and Poland. Such a technique uses heat applied directly to a pot containing fermented mash, or raw vodka. The heated vapor or steam of the alcoholic liquid contains more alcohol than the mash liquid itself. When such vapor is condensed, the resulting liquid contains a higher concentration of alcohol than the original liquid. About this time, vodka began to be produced in larger quantities and during the next century or so, Russia and Poland became exporters.
In Russia early in the seventeen hundreds, the right to own a distillery was held exclusively by the nobility. At this time there were many varieties of aromatized vodka, but there was no overall standard. Production was typically a process where alcohol was distilled twice, diluted with milk, distilled again, water added to bring it to the required strength and then flavoring added prior to a final distillation. During this period a St. Petersburg professor discovered a method to use charcoal to filtrate the vodka mix in order to purify it. Prior to this time vodka was typically filtered through felt cloth or fine sand and therefore contained many impurities.
The awareness of vodka spread throughout the 19th century, assisted by the presence of Russian soldiers in many parts of Europe, especially during the Napoleonic Wars. In order to meet demand, lower grade vodka products were produced, mainly using distilled potato mash. There were so many distilleries in Russia in the late eighteen hundreds that the Czarist government attempted to reduce the number of distilleries. When this failed, a law was enacted making the production and distribution of vodka a state monopoly. Only at this time, when production was standardized through state control, was the name vodka officially used and formally recognized.
There were no U.S. vodka distilleries until the 1930s and the spirit was rarely consumed outside Europe before the 1950’s. By 1975 the sale of vodka in the U.S. surpassed bourbon, previously the most popular hard liquor.
Today, vodka is generally drunk neat in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, although its international popularity is also due to its use in cocktails and mixed drinks.
This article was written for Paul's Place by: Miguel Ylareina