Russian Vodkas and the History of Vodka
Russian Vodka: A National Symbol
For nearly five centuries, vodka has been an important part of the Russian national identity, a more representative symbol than balalaikas, dachas, and zakuski. Although there is no irrefutable proof that vodka was first made in Russia, it is certain that it was quickly adopted there and continues to be the most popular alcoholic beverage.
This symbol of national pride also has a more sinister flip side. Alcoholism and its ravages have caused much damage to the people under all the different regimes. Since the country has begun to develop a market economy, the Russians want to take back control of this beverage that has become known around the world. The Russians claim that the only good vodka is a Russian vodka, the others being at best only pale copies of the real thing and at worst just plain bad. This late wake-up call, which does not take into account the realities of the end of the twentieth century, demonstrates Russia’s strong attachment to its national drink. The widespread conviction that vodka is a Russian drink is confirmed by the choice of Russian-sounding names by most foreign vodka producers when they have created a new brand.
In 988, Vladimir I, known as the “Ardent Sun”, converted to the Orthodox religion because, according to legend, Islam did not tolerate the consumption of alcohol. In founding the grand duchy of Kiev several years earlier, this prince had established the base of what would later become Russia and, at the same time, supplied the first symbol of the attachment of the region’s people to alcoholic beverages, even though only beer, wine, and mead were known at the time.
The distillation of spirits was introduced several centuries later, probably by traders from the Baltic or by monks who had been initiated into the art, valued for its medical properties.
It is possible that the Russians had begun to master this technique with the exploitation of their forests’ resin. To obtain the pitch, they heated logs of pine and other resinous woods in covered pits, a sort of primitive distillation process that released alcoholic vapors. They later transferred this method to fermented beverages like beer, especially kvas, made with rye.
“Vodka” was not the first name given to spirits in Russia: those made from beer or mead were called perevera, and those made from wine were known as korchna.
While there are some indications that Russian spirits were being exported to Scandinavia as early as the beginning of the sixteenth century, the first historical proofs of the existence of vodka date to the reign of Ivan the Terrible, prince of Russia, who was crowned czar in 1547. The founder of the Russian Empire quickly understood the possible financial interest of vodka; at the very beginning of his reign, he set up a monopoly for the distillation of the beverage, following the policy of his grandfather Ivan III, who had already developed a protectionist policy for the fledgling country. Ivan the Terrible opened the first cabarets in Moscow, called kabaki, where vodka from his distilleries was served.
This policy of monopolistic control over vodka remained a constant in the history of Russia, although the czars sometimes agreed to share with powerful lords or rich merchants to ensure their loyalty. The revenues provided by vodka quickly became very important as consumption grew at impressive rates, at times representing up to two-fifths of the state’s revenues.
But there was another side to this monopolistic policy. It also led to bootlegging, a scourge that was never put to end. Those who could not or would not buy the state vodka quickly learned to distill it themselves, using all sorts of raw materials. The resulting spirits were often of mediocre quality and sometimes unhealthy, as they frequently contained methanol.
In addition, revolts often started in taverns, particularly in the seventeenth century, in protest against both the heavy taxes on the consumption of vodka, which led to the accumulation of unpayable debts, and against the taverns’ poor-quality vodkas, made from potatoes or beets.
Different Types of Vodkas
Russia always had different types of vodkas for different social classes. The most refined (and the most expensive) were made from rye, sometimes with the addition of a small amount of other grains, such as barley or oats.
At first, these cereals were used because they were recovered from the residue of flour mills, but later they were used because of the specific aromatic qualities they gave the vodka.
These high-quality vodkas were mostly consumed by aristocrats and rich merchants. During the eighteenth century, a time when the Russian elite was fascinated by Western Europe, and especially by France, the choice of vodka provided the country with a way of affirming its national and cultural identity.
Peter the Great, who unified the empire between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was responsible for the widespread Westernization of his country. Nevertheless, during his frequent trips to Amsterdam, London, and Germany, he always took his own vodka with him. When his supplies ran out, he plunged into misery because he had to drink cognac or other local spirits. He had a strong preference for vodka that had been distilled three times, then flavoured with essence of anise. During his reign, he even became involved in distilling himself and perfected a type of still.
The Russian elite’s taste for highly refined vodka led distillers to make continual improvements in order to eliminate unpleasant or undesirable flavours, either masking them with flavourings extracted from local plants and spices — and later imported ones — or by increasing the number of distillations, which were performed slowly in small stages. They also sought improved filtration methods, such as the use of charcoal, which necessitated the lowering of the alcohol content by the addition of water, since charcoal could not purify an overly strong spirit.
Another solution was to coagulate the impurities with the help of fresh black bread, egg whites (a technique that is still used in the making of fine wines, especially in Bordeaux), whole eggs, ashes, or potash.
All of these improvements resulted in increasingly pure, transparent vodkas that represented the top of the range beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century. The increasing use of the continuous still at this time only accentuated the trend.
The chemist Dmitry Mendeleyev, known primarily for his periodic table of the elements, also took an interest in vodka. The subject of his doctoral thesis was the mixing of alcohol and water. After months of research on the ideal proportions, his formula included a total of thirty different elements. In his eyes, the perfect mix was achieved with 45.88 percent pure alcohol and 54.12 percent water! In practice, the percentage of alcohol in weight is around forty percent for both vodka and other spirits. This should not be confused with the volume measurement, which gives a slightly different proportion since alcohol is lighter than water.
The less-privileged social classes were content with much rougher vodkas made from potatoes or beets. Rapidly distilled and poorly purified, they were sold in bulk, the unit of measure being a bucket with a capacity of 12.3 litres. Refinement and purity did not come into play here. The important thing was that the vodka provided the necessary warmth and comfort to people suffering from the rigors of the climate and the penuries of their existence.
The takeover by the Bolsheviks in 1917 not only overthrew the czarist regime and its social organization, but also changed the history of vodka. The revolutionaries considered that vodka had a stupefying effect on the masses, and they quickly did all they could to eradicate it (inasmuch as alcoholism threatened their own troops — during the siege of the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg, many of the Bolshevik soldiers were too drunk to participate in the final charge, and a single Finnish regiment had to fight off the looters trying to make off with the contents of the czar’s cellars.
Beginning in 1918, distilleries were confiscated and even dismantled, including that of the Smirnov family. Located in the heart of Moscow, it was transformed into a state garage. Until the middle of the 1930s, it was forbidden to produce beverages, whether beer or vodka, that contained more than twenty percent alcohol.
This revolutionary purity did not last, and ancestral habits quickly got the upper hand, all the more so since Stalin’s reign of terror was more acceptable to a people drowning in vodka. It was even reintroduced into soldiers’ rations during World War II, a privilege that was not taken away until the war was over.
Like their predecessors, the czars, the communists found that vodka offered great financial advantages, even though they kept the price of ordinary vodka relatively low. It was sold in a large bottle with no cork, just a metal cap that was thrown away as soon as the bottle was opened (an open bottle was habitually drunk within a few hours).
Alcoholism was the hidden face of communism, and it took on immense proportions, although it was never officially recognized. The problem became patent in the final years of the Soviet regime: Leonid Brezhnev was often drunk, and Konstantin Chernenko, One of his successors in the post of secretary-general of the Communist Party, died of cirrhosis of the liver. Every sector of society was affected by the abuse of vodka, including the army. The Mig 25, the pride of the Soviet air force, was nicknamed the “flying bar” because of the large quantities of vodka that were always carried in its hold.
While there were some discreet rest homes, primarily reserved for members of the nomenklatura, not much effort was made to fight alcoholism. It wasn’t until Gorbachev, the last secretary-general of the Communist Party, took power that the gravity of the problem was officially recognized. He was personally affected: his brother-in-law was a serious alcoholic.
During the decline of the Soviet regime, Gorbachev raised the price of vodka by increasing taxes on it. But this policy imposed from above had the effect of further increasing the bootlegging of samogon, a rough, dangerous vodka that the Russians always manufactured in times of shortage or social problems, no matter what regime was in power.
In this sense, the fall of communism did not have much effect on the place of vodka in Russian society, especially since the drink helped people to bear the ups and downs of a particularly unstable economic situation. As one of the editors of Pravda pointed out to the new owners when they called him a drunk: “Since my salary is just enough to buy a bottle of vodka, what else do you expect me to do with it?”