Words by: Simon Difford
The Russians are believed to have been producing a kind of spirit since the end of the 9th century. Like early spirits made in Poland, it was probably made by freezing wine or mead. The first recorded Russian distillery, at Khylnovsk, over 500 miles to the east of Moscow, appears in the Vyatka Chronicle of 1174.
By the 14th century vodka was well established in Russia: a British Ambassador to Moscow at the time described vodka as the Russian national drink.
Up until the mid-15th century Russian vodka was most commonly frozen to remove impurities and then clarified by precipitation using isinglass (a gelatin found in fish). From 1450 pot distillation became more commonplace but it was still common to improve purity by precipitation using isinglass, milk or egg white. The first recorded exports of Russian vodka to Sweden are in 1505.
The use of vodka for medicinal purposes is hinted at in the third Novgorod Chronicles of 1533, which mention 'zhiznennia voda' or 'water of life'. Russian pharmaceutical lists from the period use the term "vodka of bread wine" (водка хлебного вина vodka khlebnogo vina) and "vodka in half of bread wine" (водка полу хлебного вина vodka polu khlebnogo vina). This implies that the term vodka could be a noun derived from the verb vodit', razvodit' (водить, разводить), 'to dilute with water'. Bread wine was a spirit distilled from alcohol made from grain (as opposed to mead wine) and hence 'vodka of bread wine' would be a water dilution of a distilled grain spirit.
In 1716, Peter the Great, grandson of Michael Romanov and the first Emperor of all Russia, granted the aristocracy and leading merchants exclusive rights to produce vodka but within a century production levels from over 5,000 distilleries had snowballed out of control. In an attempt to control drunkenness and raise taxes to fight the Patriotic War, the government imposed a state monopoly on the production and distribution of vodka across the Russian empire in 1812. The monopoly did not extend to Siberia where such controls were unenforceable.
Russians attribute the invention of charcoal filtration to an 18th century chemist by the name of Theodore Lowitz who in 1780 was commissioned by the Tsar to make the national drink more hygienic. His technique of filtering vodka through charcoal made from charred hardwoods (a process to which the Swedes and Poles also lay claim) helped remove contaminates and produced cleaner vodka.
In 1894 Alexander III commissioned Dmitri Mendeleev, Professor of Chemistry at St. Petersburg University and creator of the Periodic Table of Elements, to research ways of further improving the quality of vodka. He studied the correlation between alcohol and water in vodka and consequently asserted that the optimum strength for vodka was 40% alcohol by volume. By 1896 Mendeleev's recommendations were adopted by the government as the standard for Russian vodka.
Despite increasing state taxation, vodka became an integral part of Russian life - some even consider the prohibition of alcohol during World War I to be a contributing factor to the Russian Revolution of 1917. The revolution transformed the national landscape - the Bolsheviks confiscated and nationalised all private business and the distilling industry was no exception. The Smirnov distillery became a state garage.
Throughout the Sovient era Russian vodka was marketed through 'Sojuzplodoimport', a state-owned trading company and during the Cold War period exports to the West were extremely limited. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and despite a sometimes challenging business environment that has seen armed standoffs between rival producers, several Western firms have invested in Russia, and home-grown entrepreneurs are also producing some excellent vodkas.
Russian vodkas tend to be distilled from wheat and consequently often have slight hints of aniseed. They are often sweetened with trace amounts of sugar or honey.
Released in March 2016, Allure is a special edition of Beluga vodka celebrating the brand’s successful polo team. It is made distinctive thanks to the judicious addition of maple syrup and fig extracts. Clean and minerally with mild white pepper spice and faint bready notes. Very faint dill and aniseed.
Launched in late 2014, Andean edition is the third and final limited edition in elit’s Pristine Water Series, exploring how the water source can have an impact on the salinity and flavour of vodka. For each of the editions, Stolichnaya's blenders searched for... Faint bready – lightly toasted, white and black pepper.
Distilled from wheat and rye harvested from fields owned by the distillers in central and south Russia, Imperial Collection Gold Vodka is hydrated with water from Lake Ladoga. The vodka goes through 12 levels of filtration including active birch charcoal, quarts sand and membrane filtration. Clean with subtle grain, black pepper and aniseed.
Known by many in Russia as ‘bread wine’, Polugar is said to be the original Russian style of vodka. It is distilled in copper pot stills banned by the Tsar in 1895 after the introduction of column stills with the state’s monopolisation of vodka production. Russian vodka are now made in column stills Whole wheat/wholemeal flour and brown bread crust with faint grassiness and white pepper.
Named after the Russian word for a ladies high-heel shoe, Shpilka (pronounced ‘Spill-Ka’) Vodka is distilled from Russian winter wheat using a six column process in Kyrgyzstan. Officially the Kyrgyz Republic, this is a landlocked country bordered by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China. Clean, very faint brown bread and star anise.
Launched in London on 30-October 2013, this is the 2nd vodka in Stoli’s limited-edition Elit pristine water series. Made with water sourced from the remote Blue Spring in New Zealand, the crystal bottle’s leather wrapped base emulates the New Zealand silver fern and is presented in a Kauri wood case Grainy and slightly bready with light cracked black pepper, faint lemon zest, patisserie icing and burnt toast.
According to the distiller's website, Tigoda is made with oat flakes wheat and natural honey and is filtered through a 5-0ton filter of birch coal in 18 columns of coal rectification, titanium membrane and silver filters. Clean mineral with faint grain and pronounced peppery spirit.
Flagship Vodka is made at the Chernogolovka Distillery near Moscow from Russian wheat using a three column distillation process and is hydrated using refined natural spring water. Created in 1998, the Russian name of this vodka is ‘Флагман’ meaning flag-captain or flagship or flagman. Clean, grainy spirit with cracked black pepper, fennel and faint aniseed.
Produced by Liviz Saint-Petersburg distillery, one of Russia's largest distilleries, Golden Moscow is made from wheat using a seven-column distillation process. It is filtered through an 18 carat gold filter and is subtly sweetened with the addition of 30kg of honey per 20,000 litres of alcohol. Classic wheat vodka nose with slight minerality and a waft of fennel and faint aniseed. Very faint cork/leather note.
Moskovskaya, literally meaning ‘Muscovite’ is a Russian brand of vodka which dates back to the communist era and was originally made at Moscow’s famous Cristall Distillery. Osobaya or ‘Особая’, denotes this as being ‘a special’ vodka, thus ‘Moskovskaya Osobaya’, translates as ‘Special Muscovite’. Clean, white pepper spirity spice with faint aniseed and peppermint oil.
Launched in 2003, this vodka's name refers to the Russian standard for vodka, the 'green mark' or in Russian, Zelyonaya Marka. Slick packaging reinforces this with a silver and gold foil panel at the foot of the label resembling an official seal and featuring an individual bottle number. Subdued just cooked white bread crust nose with aniseed.
Made in Siberian from locally grown white winter wheat, Mamont Vodka is distilled using a five column process and is flavoured by the addition of small quantities of cedar nut spirit prior to being filtered through silver birch charcoal. Clean with notes of toasty bready grain and light cracked black pepper spice.
Distilled from wheat grown in central Russia, hydrated with purified water from the Ladoga lake and filtered through birch charcoal, flavoured with an oat flakes infusion. The recipe is said to have been created in 1721 for the tsar Peter the Great as a present for the Spanish King Philip V.
Dovgan is produced in only one distillery where rectified neutral wheat spirit is produced rather than being purchased from another distillery. This undergoes a sand column purification process before being hydrated with water drawn from the distillery’s own well.
This is the super-premium flagship vodka of the Russian Standard Company. It is distilled at Russian Standard's distillery on the outskirts of St Petersburg from Russian winter wheat using an eight column distillation process. It is then filtered through quartz crystals. A grainy, mineral nose with cracked black pepper and faint cream of soda aromas.