Russian vodka image 1

Russian vodka

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 purported to be hinted at in the third Novgorod Chronicles of 1533 with 'zhiznennia voda' or 'water of life' [but we've been unable to substantiate via translations]. 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.