History of Vodka
History of Vodka – The Spirit that Came in from the Cold
Vodka originated in Northern Europe and comes in a variety of forms that vary greatly according to their provenance, raw materials, and production methods, and the traditions of different countries.
“Vodka” is, in fact, a generic term. In both the Russian and Polish languages (the latter also uses woda), it is a diminutive of the word voda, which means “water”; thus “vodka” means simply “little water”. It is, in a way, water that has been reduced by distillation, or perhaps by freezing, during the first phase of its production.
The term itself was not immediately used when the drink made its first appearance in Northern Europe at the beginning of the sixteenth century; it came into common use only a century or two later. It probably spread in Russia, where it designated a spirit that was distilled at least twice (but often more), based primarily on grains, but also on other raw materials like potatoes or molasses. flavour could be added in a variety of ways.
Unlike other spirits, including whiskey, cognac, and gin, this vague definition was never really codified, either in terms of production method or provenance. Since the fall of communism, Russia has been trying to take back control of the word “vodka”, but it has taken on its own meanings all around the world. The white alcohols known as “vodka” that are made industrially just about everywhere and sport vaguely Russianized labels have hardly any resemblance to the original product.
Vodka has become a fashionable drink popular for its ability to be mixed with other ingredients. As shown by its bottles, packaging, and advertising, it has become an unequaled springboard for creative imaginations.
As is true of most spirits, the exact origin of vodka is unknown. Writings and historical proofs are lacking, and its beginnings were marked by only the occasional successful experimentation.
The technique of distillation was used for many centuries before it was really perfected; certainly humans have been familiar with fermented drinks for thousands of years. The most ancient traces found to date attest to the manufacture of beer in Jericho as far back as 6000 B.C. Since then, we have evidence of vineyards and the production of other fermented beverages such as cider, palm wine, and sake.
However, these beverages involved only natural fermentation; the sugars contained in the fruits and grains were transformed into alcohol once a certain temperature was reached.
The principle of distillation was not discovered and the first primitive stills were not built until much later. This was mostly the work of Arab doctors — before the year 1000 — who were looking for ways of preserving the beneficial properties of plants and other ingredients used as medicines at the time. By marinating their medicines in fermented liquids, usually wine, then heating them in closed vessels, they eventually obtained liqueurs and potions with great longevity. This was simple distillation, which resulted in an alcohol content of only twenty to thirty percent by volume.
The research continued during the Middle Ages, and was conducted by alchemists such as Raymond Lulle and Paracelsus and scholars in the Italian city of Salerno, a meeting place for doctors from the Arab and Christian worlds. In Montpellier in the thirteenth century, the Catalan Arnaud de Villeneuve was one of the first to use the term ‘eau-de-vie’, which he intended for external use. And, in the abbeys that were spreading across Europe, the monks were also experimenting with recipes for elixirs and liqueurs of all kinds. While these concoctions were sometimes used for their own consumption, the monks were actually searching for new medicines.
It was only in the Netherlands at the beginning of the sixteenth century that distillation was used exclusively for purposes of consumption. This is not at all surprising since the Dutch were the best sailors of the period and had discovered that with distilled, or “burnt”, wine (bramwinj in Flemish, the origin of the word “brandy”), they had a drink that travelled well and provided a solution to the problem of the conservation of water.
The first distilleries of the modern era were set up in Schiedam, in the suburbs of Rotterdam. They used mostly wine, especially from Charente in France, which led to the creation of cognac. There are some earlier writings that mention the existence of distilleries in other countries, notably in Armagnac, but these were isolated cases that did not necessarily have much promise of a future.
Northern Europeans knew about distillation techniques for the making of medicine at a fairly early date. In the fifteenth century, for example, there is evidence of a visit by members by the Russian church to Italy, where they learned the basics of distillation at a monastery.
Later, around 1534, in Poland, Stefan Falimirz published a treatise entitled “On Herbs and Their Properties”. In it, he explained that “vodkas can be burned or distilled, with the addition of herbs, spices, and mixtures of herbs and flowers … They can also be extracted from fruits, berries, juniper, and laurel”. But it is probable that these preparations contained little alcohol. They were used as external unguents to soothe pain, as potions, or even as aftershaves — the treatise speaks of using “vodka to wash the chin after shaving it”.
In addition to these documented facts, there are many legends concerning the origins of vodka. One of them claims that it originated during the great freezes that occurred in Russia. Water freezes before alcohol, allowing the further concentration of the initial alcoholic drink and creating a stronger preparation if the excess ice is removed before the alcohol freezes. This is a chancy operation, however, and the results would be of uncertain quality; nor has any document attested to such a practice, at least on a scale large enough to justify its claim to be the original vodka.
Vodka and the Beginning of Industrialisation
The first Dutch eaux-de-vie were distilled primarily from wine (Dutch traders knew where to procure sufficient quantities of it, notably in France). Wine also produced a better quality of alcohol than grains, which were reserved for human and animal consumption or for the making of beer. When there were shortages of grains, the brewers were deprived of their supplies.
The opposite was true in other Northern European countries, where the climate was hardly suitable for growing vines, aside from southern Poland, where there were some attempts at distillation, and in Georgia. Importing sufficient quantities of wine was much too expensive.
Grains, however, were abundant, especially rye, which was already being used to make a light beer called kvas, and provided an interesting raw material that could be distilled several times. There were also plenty of forests to supply all the wood needed to heat the stills. But distilling methods were still primitive, and the resulting alcohol was not always of high quality. The spirits obtained were often full of noxious elements, not only in terms of taste but also for health, such as methanol.
The first distillers did not rely exclusively on grains to fill their stills; they used almost anything that nature had to offer as long as it contained sugars that could be fermented, including all types of fruits, or starches that could be transformed into sugar, like potatoes.
To add flavour to these sometimes tasteless raw materials, it became a common practice, especially in Poland, to macerate herbs, plants, roots, orange peel, pits, berries, and other ingredients in the vodka after distillation.
These vodkas had different flavours and degrees of alcohol (some were distilled five times or even more). They were all enormously popular, to the point of becoming part of the national culture, especially in Russia. In the cold northern climes, vodka’s ability to warm people faster than other alcoholic beverages made it very welcome, all the more so because it was relatively inexpensive. It is not surprising then that many states quickly found it in their best interest to encourage the development of vodka. And, because consumption was so widespread, it became an obvious source of revenue. Manufacturing monopolies soon appeared, many of them belonging to the ruling classes, aristocrats, and upper middle classes, who were being rewarded for their loyalty to the monarch. Later, state monopolies took control of the manufacture and distribution of alcohol, even in the non-communist states of Scandinavia.