A clear alcoholic spirit originating in Russia, made from grain.
Vodka has been around for quite some time, but few know the true history of the beverage.
There is some debate as to where vodka originated. It has been documented that Russia first produced vodka in the latter part of the 9th century, with the first identified distillery being reported in 1174 in the Vyatka Chronicle. Poland also lays claim to having first produced vodka in the 8th century. However, what Poland refers to as vodka may actually have been a distilled wine that was more like brandy. Polish vodkas first came onto the scene in the 11th century. At that time, they were referred to as ‘gorzalka’ and were used for medicinal purposes.
Even the name vodka is up for debate. There are sources that claim that the word comes from the Slavic word that means ‘water’, therefore vodka itself translates to mean ‘little water’. Other sources also claim that the word is Slavic, but comes from the verb that means ‘to distill with water’. Various regions that produce vodka also are said to have come up with the word. In Russian, ‘voda’ stood to mean water, as did the Polish word ‘woda’. The word used in the Baltics and the Ukraine is derived from the verbs that they use to mean ‘to burn’, which may actually be a homage to the distillation process or the way that vodka feels when it comes in contact with the palate.
When vodka first came onto the scene, it wasn’t a popular drink like it is today. Instead, the liquid was used mostly as a medicine, as well as for producing gunpowder. It wasn’t until the 14th century that vodka became popular as a drink. At that time, Moscow’s British Ambassador described the liquid to be the national drink of Russia. Some years later, in the 16th century, it became the national drink in both Finland and Poland.
Vodka soon became a popular staple drink choice, especially in the northern parts of Eastern Europe, because it had a very low freezing point and could easily be transported in the coldest of weather conditions. Not only could it keep residents warm on a cold day, it was a basic ingredient that could be easily flavored with whatever might be on hand, and could also be mixed with various ingredients.
Vodka may have helped to quench thirst and warm cold bodies, but it also played other roles. While the Tsars were in power, the beverage was used to increase revenue. In addition, vodka is held responsible for the widespread alcoholism that occurred.
Vodka is created through a process during which simple sugars derived from a mash created by vegetable matter or pale grains is fermented then distilled. Popular ingredients used to create vodka are potatoes, grains, beets, molasses, and/or various plants, although wheat and rye are the most popular.
The type of ingredients used depend on the region in which the spirit is made. For example, those created in Poland most often use a rye mash, while those from Russia use wheat.
The container used during the distillation process is key to the final product. The varieties that come from a column still will be colorless, clear, and will have a neutral flavor. Those created in a pot still will carry a slight note of flavor from the crop that was used to produce it, and may even have a higher proof since many batches are rectified, or redistilled.
It is somewhat unusual to see a vodka that has been aged for long periods or stored in a wooden cask, although some brands will use these methods. But, what is becoming more popular is adding flavors to vodka, such as spices, fruits, and herbs.
Europe has had the pleasure of sampling vodka for several hundred years, but during that time the spirit wasn’t seen in many other areas of the world. It has been in the last century or so that vodka has made its way to other regions, opening up a larger market and boosting its popularity.
In 1917, after the Russian Revolution, some Russians fled, and those refugees took their vodka skills with them to various areas worldwide. The United States first saw vodka when the Smirnoff Company launched in the 1930s. Vodka may not have been at hit at first, but by the 1950s it was gaining the love and recognition it deserved.
It wasn’t until later, during the 1960s and ’70s that the West truly began embracing vodka, when more brands began showing up in both the UK and the USA. Today, you’d be hard pressed not to find vodka has a key staple in bars, restaurants, and households throughout the world.
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