History of Vodka and the Russian Revolution
History of Vodka Part 2 – Further Refinements
The consumption of vodka continued to increase, and in the nineteenth century two important innovations were introduced: charcoal filtering and the continuous still.
Charcoal filtering, after many experiments, proved to be the best way of filtering vodka to remove many of its impurities and bad tastes. The procedure, invented in Russia and developed primarily by Piotr Smirnov (founder of the company later known in the West as Smirnoff), allowed the making of a more refined beverage with a purer flavour and fewer harmful ingredients.
In addition, after a series of improvements to the still — many of them based on the work of the Frenchman Chaptal — a new technique revolutionized the world of spirits. The continuous still, based on the research of the Frenchman Cellier-Blu-menthal and the Scot Coffey, was invented in the first half of the nineteenth century.
In the earlier system, which is still used to make cognac in Charente and malt whiskey in Scotland, the still was a heated tank that had to be refilled once the raw material (wine or mash) was treated. This requires great care and nearly constant attention. The first and last parts — the head and tail — of the distilled liquid must be eliminated each time because they contain too many noxious elements. Only the middle part, called the “heart”, is kept.
The continuous still eliminates all these steps as it functions non-stop once it is filled with the raw materials. Productivity is thus much higher since high degrees of alcohol can be achieved faster.
The resulting vodka is rather different because many desirable flavours are lost in the process; the alcohol is more neutral in taste but is purer. Since it cost less to make and sell, however, it was an attractive option, and the continuous still quickly spread all over Northern Europe, replacing the type used in Charente, with the exception of a few artisans who continued to use the traditional methods.
The Russian Revolution in 1917 and the Soviet domination of Poland and the Baltic countries, beginning in 1945, completely changed the way vodka was produced, sold, and consumed.
In the early days, the Russian revolutionaries took an ideological stance; they declared alcohol a pernicious influence and tried to halt its production. The major producers were quickly nationalized and their assets seized. The Smirnov distillery, the largest in Moscow, was turned into a state garage.
But production resumed fairly soon in response to strong demand. Clandestine distilleries began to make vodkas of dubious quality, some of them dangerous to the drinker’s health. Vodka was still an important part of the national culture, however, and ten years after the Revolution, the communists took over its production.
But the Soviet bureaucracy was not capable of creating the type of brand image that was developing in the capitalist world in the twentieth century. The Russian consumer had a choice between different styles of vodka, but nothing made one stand out from the others. The great brands that had begun to make the reputation of Russian vodka in the time of the czars, including Smirnov, were abandoned without a thought.
After World War II, a new phenomenon occurred that, oddly enough, did not affect the Soviet world. The Americans, followed by the rest of the Western world, began to take an interest in vodka. This was led by Smirnoff, which had been renamed to stress its Russian origins, since, during the height of the Cold War, czarist Russia had become popular.
At a time when the Soviets seemed incapable of protecting their national heritage, the major alcohol producers of the United States and Britain began to make vodka, or at least industrially produced grain alcohol.
Transparent and nearly tasteless, these beverages became increasingly popular in the marketplace, thanks primarily to their ability to be mixed with almost any other ingredient. The vodkas that were used here did not have much in common with the original product, but a vaguely Russian name and label were enough to attract the masses, who cared little about where or how such products were made, especially since there were few consumers who knew anything about the real thing. Poland, which had continued more or less without interruption to make its flavoured vodkas in the traditional way, was the only exception. It exported its vodka, and Zubrowka, perfumed with buffalo grass, became well known. But enlarging the market for perfumed vodkas was difficult since they were nothing like the popular version. They were drunk straight and well-chilled, preferably with a meal, and were not meant to be mixed with orange or tomato juice.
A Fashion Phenomenon
Unlike the makers of other spirits such as whiskey and rum, which flaunted their roots and their specific flavours, the international vodka brands could hardly make such claims. They found another way to advertise their product: for its purity and originality.
The Swedish brand Absolut provides the best example. Thanks to its highly creative advertising campaigns, this vodka that claimed to be the purest of all saw astonishing growth and became a fashion phenomenon. By associating with the most innovative artists, the most inventive designers and the best-known photographers, it became the “must” drink at fashion shows, trendy nightclubs and upscale art gallery openings. The Swedish origins of the vodka have been conveniently forgotten, except when used to prove that it was above all not a Soviet product.
Other Scandinavian vodkas, like Finlandia, followed the same path and have been joined more recently by other neutral-tasting vodkas from North America and Western Europe (the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy). Detached from their heritage, they are conceived as entirely separate creations, and the word “vodka” has become just another term that provides access to the lucrative shelves of major stores. The winner is the brand that comes in the most original bottle in terms of its shape or label design, and has the most startling advertising campaign and the most striking argument to publicize its name. Only the container matters; the contents are an afterthought, as long as they are sufficiently flavourless.
Since the fall of communism at the end of the 1980s, the original producers, primarily the Russians, have been trying to regain control of a phenomenon that slipped out of their hands more than a half-century ago. From the sidelines, they had watched the popularization and globalization of a product that is one of the foundations of their culture. Today they are reclaiming their ownership rights to the word “vodka”. They would have us believe that the only good vodka is a Russian vodka; all others are imitations that don’t measure up to the original. The descendants of Piotr Smirnov who still live in Russia have even gone to court to try to regain ownership rights to the Smirnoff brands.
But it is now too late for the original vodkas. Today, there are Internet sites devoted to all types of vodka. Champagne, cognac, bourbon, and Scotch whiskey were able to preserve their reputations by preventing imitations that tried to take advantage of the fame of the original product, but those battles have been going on for decades, and some for a century.
Vodka has spread so thoroughly throughout the world that it is difficult to see how protective international legislation could possibly reserve the use of the name to Northern European producers.