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History of Russian Vodka

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There cannot be not enough snacks,
There can only be not enough vodka.
There can be no silly jokes,
There can only be not enough vodka.
There can be no ugly women,
There can only be not enough vodka.
There cannot be too much vodka,
There can only be not enough vodka.

- Russian saying

There is no doubt that most people today think of Russia when they think of vodka. There is an anthropological, emotional and almost mythological association of these two nouns. But, despite such successful brand awareness, did the Russians actually invent vodka1? And how did vodka come to be such an integral part of the Russian consciousness... or unconsciousness?

The Life of the Spirit

Vodka is a clear spirit, usually distilled from grain. The best vodka is distilled from wheat, rye and barley malt, but the cheaper ingredients, maize and potatoes, are commonly employed. The grain mash is fermented, distilled to a high proof2, then filtered through charcoal and diluted with water.

Distillation is a method of separating a liquid into its components by utilising the difference in boiling point of each component. The distillation of wine into a spiritus vini (spirit of wine) began with the Alchemists. They had all the right equipment, after all. Back in the 13th Century, when a truly liberal education allowed you to be chemist, medic, philosopher and mystic all at the same time, such scientific experimentation with the substance which would come to be known as alcohol was undertaken in the interests of Hermetic medicine3.

Perhaps because they were so keen to discover it, medieval alchemists speedily identified this distillation as aqua vitae or the 'water of life'. In fact, 13th Century alchemist Arnaud de Villeneuve of Montpellier enthusiastically wrote that this substance 'strengthens the body and lengthens life'.

By the end of the 14th Century, distilled alcohol was well known around Europe as a medicine - an efficient antiseptic, a reliable anaesthetic (gradually replacing the low-tech mallet) and a lifespan enhancer. Always alive to commercial opportunities, the monasteries were soon producing the stuff and selling it through pharmacies for a high price.

To Russia With Love

It is thought that aqua vitae was first brought to Russia by Genoese merchants, who swung by Moscow on their way to Lithuania in the late 14th Century4, and presented vessels of aqua vitae as a gift to Prince Dmitri Ivanovich. He was later canonised, not - as you might think - for being the first Russian to sup the forerunner of vodka, but for being the first Russian ruler to defeat the Tartars5.

The Russians didn't have many grapes, but what they did have a lot of was grain. Distilled grain wine was easy to produce and could therefore be sold at low prices, competing with popular drinks such as beer and mead. Like her Catholic cousins, the Russian Orthodox Church moved eagerly into the business6.

Although initially consumed as medicine, vodka (a diminutive of voda, the Russian word for 'water') had grown in popularity so much that by the end of the 15th Century, Grand Duke Ivan III, Tsar of all the Russians, imposed a state monopoly on the production and sale of vodka, as well as other alcoholic drinks, thus considerably swelling the state's coffers7.

A Growth Industry

By the 17th Century, vodka was established in Russia as a ceremonial drink, both at court and in the church, presumably owing to its reputation for being good for one's health. The Russian authorities were by this time granting concessions for vodka distillation to the nobility and rich merchants, who exported all over Europe. These noble families and merchants consequently became even wealthier. This also led to a certain standardisation of what constituted quality vodka.

It became fashionable for aristocratic distillers to add to their vodka as many different types of herbs, berries, roots and other fruits of the forest as they could think of. Trendy gimmicks for a noble feast might include a selection of vodkas whose flavours started with every letter of the Russian alphabet.

But while the state-sanctioned production of vodka was being carried out by those who could afford it, the illegal distilling of samogon, home-made vodka, was booming in the country towns and villages. By the 19th Century, vodka could be distilled from potatoes, an even cheaper alternative to grain. It was also increasing in strength, from the 40 proof of the 16th and 17th Centuries, to the modern strength of 80 or 100 proof by the 1930s.

The Appliance of Science

In the late 19th Century, a certain chemist named Dmitri Mendeleev spent a year and a half searching for the ideal volume and weight ratio of alcohol and water. He solved the problem, and published his findings in his doctoral dissertation, On Combining Alcohol and Water. From this was established the national standard for vodka production8. For all Mendeleev's hard work and dedication to the pursuit of the ideal alcoholic beverage, a nation is eternally grateful. Oh yes, and for the Periodic Law as well9.

Political Ideologies... As Seen Through a Bottle of Vodka

It is interesting to note that, as with many other aspects of Russian life, vodka policy tends to reflect the political and ideological affiliations of the man in charge.

During the First World War, there was a prohibition on alcohol, to keep the troops sober enough to fight. After 1917, Lenin extended the wartime prohibition on ideological grounds. He claimed that Tsarist Russia had been attempting to subdue the population by ensuring that it was too drunk to argue, and that alcohol abuse was holding the Russian people back from attaining a true Communist society.

Stalin, by contrast, did all he could to expand the production of vodka and increase its strength, perhaps for the same reasons as above. Vodka was even issued to Russian Second World War troops as part of their standard rations.

Gorbachev, who hardly ever drank spirits, considered heavy drinking (growing by epidemic proportions in the Soviet Union of the 1980s) as a sign of personal weakness and lack of moral rectitude. In 1985, he instituted an anti-alcohol campaign. Unfortunately, this was so unpopular with the public, not to mention damaging to the state's treasury, that it had to be ignominiously abandoned. (The infamous campaign later proved to have had a moderate amount of success in tackling Russia's extreme alcohol problem.)

Yeltsin's market reforms in the early 1990s were just as unsuccessful at prising Russians from their vodka. Yeltsin's decree On the Abolition of the State Monopoly on Vodka caused the country to be flooded with low quality, and often hazardous products. The mortality rate rose, and so did the budget deficit. Yeltsin tried again to re-establish state control over alcohol, but was opposed by regional politicians and other vested interests.

Putin's hand was firmer. Just over a month after becoming president (May 2000), Putin succeeded in establishing a state holding company for all Russian producers of alcohol, thus transferring control from the regions to the centre.

However, this state of affairs might not be allowed to continue, as one of the conditions of Russia's accession to the World Trade Organisation is the revocation of the state monopoly for vodka. The political battle continues.

How to Drink Russian Vodka

The romance and ritual surrounding the imbibing of Russian vodka is part of the mysterious attraction of this drink. A traditional Russian drinking bout is generally preceded by toasts, during which it is considered rude not to drain your glass 'bottoms up' as a sign of respect to whomever is being toasted.

The practice of drinking vodka with mixers and ice is a wholly Western one. This is due to the popularity of cocktails in the 1920s, when vodka was introduced to the American public by Russian immigrant Vladimir Smirnoff. Russian vodka should in fact be served neat, and very cold - preferably straight from the freezer. The exception to this is when vodka is mixed with beer, a popular Russian combination for those intent on getting absolutely mashed.

Russians love vodka for the same reason that the French love wine: it is a social drink that goes extremely well with food. A typical Russian meal is very structured, and vodka plays an important role. Russian starters, or zakusky, include pickles, salted fish and other such savoury bites designed to accompany the first shots of vodka. As one proceeds through the rest of the meal, the food helps to neutralize a large proportion of the alcohol, allowing one to push on through till dawn if necessary.

1The Poles would say not, of course. Polish vodka is a fine drink, subtly different from the Russian version, and probably developed separately. Despite the controversy, it is fair to say that Russian and Polish vodka probably developed around the same time and for more or less the same reasons.2Proof is a measure of alcoholic strength expressed as an integer twice the percentage of the volume of alcohol present. In other words, 100 proof indicates that the drink is 50% alcohol.3The term is derived from a collection of works said to be written by the mythological Hermes Trismegistus. They provided philosophical inspiration to alchemical physicians, rather than practical advice on how to remove gallstones and such.4In the late 14th Century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was a more powerful state than Muscovy, and something of a threat to the Russians.5At the battle of Kulikovo on the Don River. He became known as Dmitri Donskoy ('of the Don') and remains one of Russia's great heroes.6Thus giving a whole new meaning to the term 'Holy Spirit'.7Ivan III (the Great) won a more pacific victory over the Tartars, by simply ceasing to pay them tribute. His rule was characterised by increasing central control in many ways.8Mendeleev (1834 - 1907) discovered that when alcohol and water are mixed, the volume of the solution is actually less than the sum of the two separate volumes - in other words, the spirit is compressed. Therefore, Mendeleev mixed alcohol and water by weight, not by volume and arrived at the ideal ratio. In Russia therefore, vodka is sold by the gram not by the litre.9Mendeleev is rightly celebrated for his discovery of the Periodic Law in the late 1860s, which allowed him to organise all the known elements into groups according to their properties. This enabled him to predict what the properties would be of elements yet to be discovered. The resulting Periodic Table of the Element adorns probably every chemistry classroom in the world.

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