Vodka is a no-nonsense drink. For hundreds of years it has been a favourite in Eastern Europe, and in the past century, it has grown in popularity for its versatility, simplicity and affordability. Originating in Poland and Russia, the love for vodka has evolved and developed into a diverse, international market. Let's take a look at the origins of vodka and its evolution throughout history.
History of Vodka in Poland
Since the early Middle ages, vodka has been produced on the basis of local traditions, using methods that varied based on the region. Many polish blends that are still produced today include Żubrówka, a style of vodka from the 16th century that has a blade of grass in the bottle, Goldwasser, a 17th century herbal vodka made from a strong root, and Starka vodka, an aged beverage made from fermented rye mash. In the 17th century, the Polish Nobility was given monopolistic control of producing vodka, allowing them to collect large profits, which actually supported the monarchy until the 20th century! The 18th century was the turning point in industrial production of vodka, and has shaped the production methods used in vodka today, with vodka being produced in large amounts using steel pots and machinery.
History of Vodka in Russia
The origins of vodka in Russia actually comes from a fable about a monk in the 1400’s who made the first Russian vodka inside the Moscow Kremlin, initially known as “bread wine”. This “bread wine” was a new, higher quality version of similar alcoholic beverages that had been consumed in Russia up until that point, and was produced exclusively in the Grand Duchy of Moscow, which is why vodka has always been associated with Moscow. Originally, Russian vodka was relatively low in alcohol content, with 40% ABV being the maximum level. Up until around the 19th century, vodka was called different names such as “burning wine”, or as mentioned above, “bread wine”. This is because the name “vodka” was already being used to describe herbal extracts made for medicinal purposes, meaning that doctors used “vodka” as a treatment for sickness! Vodka was popularized in Russia as it was much cheaper than grape wine - something only the aristocrats could afford.
Today, vodka is popular all over the world. Its mild taste makes it perfect in cocktails such as a Bloody Mary or a classic Martini. Studies have also shown that vodka is less likely to give you that raging hangover that you may get from other alcohols. Due to changing tastes and the growth in the market for vodka, many “artisanal” vodka brands have appeared in the past 20 years.
Interestingly, vodka is officially “tasteless”, however many know it for being characteristically “straight to the point”. Because of the main ingredient of wheat or rye, vodka can sometimes taste like bread with a bit more sweetness. A great vodka is smooth, or has a texture that is sometimes described as “oily”. Texture is an important determinant in the quality of vodka, as low quality vodkas can feel watery and taste uncomfortably bitter. A good quality vodka should be silky and spicy, giving you a wonderful shock to the system.
What is vodka made from?
Vodka can actually be distilled from any starch or plant matter high in sugar. In Poland, it was originally made from rye, as is many vodkas today, however in Russia, vodka was usually made from freshly crushed grape juice, making it similar to a concentrated wine. Most vodkas today are made from starchy grains, such as sorghum, corn, wheat, and as mentioned before, rye. Of these grains, rye and wheat made vodkas are considered higher grade, and usually indicate a high quality, expensive wine. Funnily enough, potatoes and soybeans are ingredients that can be found in vodka!
In countries such as the US and parts of Western Europe, filtration is an important step in the production of vodka, whereas in traditional vodka producing countries, distillation is much more of a crucial step. This is something that gives the vodka made countries such as Poland and Russia an extremely unique flavor profile.