food and beverage underground

The History of Vodka and it's
Production Then and Now

The history of Vodka is unique and varied. Vodka is far and away the most popular spirit category in America,
accounting for more than 20% of all distilled spirits consumption. It is defined by government regulations as a spirit without any distinctive character, aroma, taste or color. Vodka is essentially an un-aged neutral spirit that can be distilled from just about anything fermentable. Although the legendary potato is used in the production of some vodkas, most brands' today, including the imported ones, are made from grain...any grain, including rye, wheat and barley, but principally corn.

Vodka in most Slavic languages means "water". (Sometimes it's spelled "Woda", but the pronunciation is the same.) The word "Vodka" translates literally as "dear little water", an affectionate diminutive for this clean, tasteless spirit that blends with virtually any beverage.

Americans knew next to nothing about Vodka before the 1930's and what they did know consisted mainly of impressions gleaned from Russian novels and old movies about Czarist Russia. Consumers weren't really aware of Vodka until after World War II

The History of Vodka

Alcohol has always featured large in the lives of the Eastern Europeans. Its influence can be recorded as far back as 988! In that year the Grand Prince of Kiev was told by his ambassadors that Islam forbade strong drink. Consequently the Prince became a Christian and was sent plentiful supplies of communion wine from Byzantium, which was the seat of orthodox Christianity.

Fermented drink was not enough to satisfy the Eastern Europeans for long. They discovered that the extremes of temperature in that part of the world enabled them to produce a beverage with a higher alcoholic strength.


In the 1540s the Russian tsar Ivan 'the Terrible' established his own network of distilling taverns and ensured that the profits went straight into the imperial treasury. He outlawed taverns that were outside his control and put a ban on distilling by potential rivals. He kept his options open, however! He was always in need of the support of the nobility, so he allowed them to continue distilling Vodka.

From the beginning of the seventeenth century it had become customary for Vodka to be served at Russian imperial banquets. All formal meals began with bread and Vodka. Vodka was also drunk ceremonially at religious festivals and in church ritual, and to refuse to partake could be considered impious.

Peter the Great, tsar of Russia from 1689 to 1721, was renowned for his hospitality and love of drinking. He served large quantities of Vodka, his favorite drink, at his legendary banquets. On these occasions he would shock foreign guests by cutting open enormous pies out of which dwarfs would jump.

The Governor of Moscow trained a large bear to serve pepper Vodka to' his guests. If anyone showed reluctance in accepting the drink, the bear would remove the guest's clothes, an article at a time.


Making Vodka was a lot easier in Poland, as fewer official restrictions were imposed. Indeed, in 1546, King Jan Olbrecht issued a decree allowing every citizen the right to make Vodka. As a result many families distilled their own spirit, and as early as the sixteenth century there were forty-nine commercial distilleries in the town of Pozan alone.

Vodka-making and drinking became established at all levels of society in Poland over the next few centuries. Poznan continues to be a major center for the production of Vodka today.


The key to distillation is the separation of alcohol from the water content of fermented liquid. Because water freezes at a higher temperature than alcohol, the Eastern Europeans were able to separate the alcohol by freezing fermented liquid during the winter months. As a result they were left with a drink with a higher strength than that produced by fermentation alone. This was the earliest method of producing stronger spirit in Eastern Europe. The techniques of distillation didn't spread from the west until the fifteenth century. From that time to the mid nineteenth century all Vodka was made in a pot-still using local natural resources such as wheat, barley, ryes, potatoes and rice.

A mash was created by heating the grain to release the starch for conversion into sugar. The sweet liquid was allowed to ferment naturally before distilling. Gradually Vodka-making in Eastern Europe was refined. In the beginning Vodka was the product of a single distillation to a relatively low proof, but distillers soon learned the benefits of two or more distillations on product quality.

Extra distillations mean the final spirit has a higher strength and greater purity. Next the Eastern Europeans introduced filtration to improve the purity of the spirit further. This was carried out initially with felt or river sand, but in the late eighteenth century charcoal began to be used. The filtration standards established at that time remain to this day.

With the invention or the continuous still in the last century, distillers were able to produce Vodka to a very high proof in a continuous operation.

Most Vodka has no color and carries only the clean aroma and character of pure spirit from the still. It has a characteristically light and very slightly oily texture. Different brands have their own characteristics and have been made over the centuries to a variety of styles.

There is a long heritage of making flavored Vodkas in Eastern Europe. This 'goes back to the days home distillation, when Vodka was flavored with herbs, spices and fruit. Nowadays natural flavorings such as cherry, lime, lemon, orange, mint, etc., are added in the final distillation.

From Vodka to Gin

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