Vodka from the Russian, zhizennia voda, "water of life", is a natural spirit (made from grain, fruits, or vegetables) that is distilled to at least 190 proof, bottled at a minimum of 80 proof, and devoid of distinctive character, aroma, taste or colour." However, vodka made from grains (preferably barley and wheat, sometimes rye and corn) is considered the best of the batch.
Thought to date back to the twelfth century, with both Russia and Poland claiming its birth, one thing is certain, early versions of this fine spirit were a far cry from the vodkas of today. It wasn't until the 1830's, after the introduction of the continuous still and charcoal filtering, that vodka began its renaissance.
Was it the Russian Czars and later the Communist leaders that relied on vodka revenues to finance the government and pay for its military conquests? During difficult economic times, vodka generated two-fifths of the nation's economy.
The Russian Czar, Peter the Great (pictured), was one of the first ambassadors of the spirit during the late 17th century. Peter explored new means of distilling and exporting the great spirit to other places in Europe - like France. An old Russian saying says, "Vodka is an aunt of wine."
The earliest recorded history dates to 1405 in Poland. Poles claim that vodka originated in Poland and later distilled in Russia, Ukraine and the Baltics. Poland became a leader in vodka production in the 17th Century and was considered the finest in all of Europe. It became a well-established social drink with more than 100 varieties to choose from - the potato being the raw material of choice. The spirit became so popular that it was used as a means of barter and trade when funds were difficult to come by during communist times. In 1784, Lancut, the oldest working Vodka distillery was founded in Poland and produced a Kosher vodka that boosted the quality of the spirit. The vodka had to comply with strict Jewish standards of food and drink preparation which, in turn, raised the quality of the vodka.
Ukrainians also developed their own brand of vodka that differed from their Russian & Polish cousins. Ukrainian vodka (gorilka; meaning "up in flames") was produced from wheat rather than potatoes. Russians considered Ukrainian vodka of poor quality and was sold only in taverns. Today Ukrainian vodka is regulated by the government.
In Sweden, vodka (brannwein) has been produced for the past four hundred years. Originally sold for medicinal purposes to cure headaches, kidney stones and toothaches, it was not until the late 16th century that vodka was sold as a luxury beverage. The Swedish government attempted to ban brannwein in the mid 17th century due to the adverse effects it had on the soldiers and farmers; but quickly reversed their decision when the banning of the spirit would reduce the amount of revenue generated through taxes. However, it was the Swedes that introduced serving vodka ice cold.
Regardless of this spirit's origins the ultimate quest was/is to remove the impurities that all spirits contain. The raw materials are boiled in an enclosed container (drawing the alcoholic fumes to the top of the container) then the fumes are cooled in a separate container. Modern distillers use multiple distillation columns and continuous stills with multiple plates in their interior. Steam is allowed to enter at the top of the column and the plates bounce the vapour between them, which separates the alcohol vapour. These vapours are collected and cooled in a separate condenser. The final product is a pure alcoholic spirit, with any flavouring added at the end.
Pure vodka at 100% alcohol (200 proof) has no impurities, consequently no discernible "character, aroma, taste or colour." You could launch rockets from your kitchen with this kind of purity. Although, connoisseurs note distinct flavour differences when vodka is tasted at room temperature and without the addition of mix. However, vodka at 90% alcohol will leave subtle traces of the raw materials' aroma and taste. Early in its inception herbs, spices and fruits were added to mask the impure taste of the vodka, while these days the process of infusing vodka and other spirits furthers their uniqueness.
With such a history it would be difficult to not see vodka's interesting spirit. With cases of Smirnoff being produced at the rate of 15 million cases worldwide every year, vodka and all its idiosyncrasies and hazy history is definitely a spirit that will haunt lounges for years to come.