Several production enhancements appear as milestones throughout the history of vodka, with their aim – unsurprisingly – to refine the quality and purity of the end product to increasingly higher degrees. The removal of impurities presented an ongoing challenge to eager brewers – or, almost in acknowledgement of defeat: the mere masking of them instead. As mentioned in the last ‘vodka’ installment, the concealment itself led to an array of flavoured/seasoned vodkas, which spread the diversity and appeal of the product wider still. An example of turning a negative into a positive, no doubt.
Before the mid 1400s – ageing, seasoning, freezing and precipitation via isinglass were employed to tackle the issue of impurities, with regard to their masking or removal. The arrival of pot distillation techniques around this time greatly refined the process and, by extension, the end result. Precipitation was retained as ‘stage-2’ of an increasingly solidifying methodology that saw a boom in production leading to Russian vodka exportation by the early 1500s.
No doubt after seeing ‘a good thing’ become great and financially lucrative; the nobility roped it off from the rest of the populace in 1751 as Empress Elisabeth of Russia issued a decree regulating the ownership of distilleries, i.e. who can. Self-serving legalities, masquerading as ‘right’ are certainly nothing new. The quest for the next quality/purity benchmark continued, with advanced filtration during refinement; initially through sand and felt, but later through charcoal – in a progressive breakthrough discovered in the 18th century. Charcoal filtration still remains heavily in use, through all manner of industry today of course.
Throughout the 19th century the dissemination of vodka continued. The word spread across Europe, aided by Russian soldiers embroiled in the Napoleonic wars. Such a burgeoning demand inevitably saw corners being cut – in this case with relatively inferior product being created from potatoes, mashed into base and then distilled. This second-grade vodka was naturally cheaper to buy and did nothing to damage the industry as a whole, quite the opposite. By the late 1800s the number of distilleries within Russian had approached the 5000 mark.
The rich will even eat their own in the pursuit of greater wealth, and in 1894, those ‘at the top’ decreed further that the production of vodka should be run solely as a state monopoly. This level of control would also standardise the production methods considerably, ensuring consistent taste and quality, whilst at the same time curtail (to some degree) the production and import of the cheap ‘junk’ vodka fuelling the tidal wave of drunkenness that was sweeping through the nation. The subsequent repealing of this monopoly would drop the prices and generate massive amounts of tax revenue from ever thirsty punters. Naturally.
Even today, vodka has been fingered as a major contributor to the ridiculously low life spans of Russian men, who are expected to survive to a mere 65 years, with 25%+ dying before the age of 55. Those are astounding, almost Third World figures. Male mortality in Ethiopia for example is around the 60 year mark. Contrast this with the UK, where men are expected to reach 80 with only 7% dying before the age of 55.
The state control of production at the end of the 19th century (soon to be rendered null-and-void by the Bolsheviks), led to the name “Vodka” being officially recognised as a product created within set parameters – defined by Russian chemistry genius Dmitry Mendeleev.
Everything I have casually referred to as vodka prior to this point is now Vodka with an official stamp and breeding to match – or nothing. The Bolsheviks did ironically lead to this quality state-owned product exploding across the world as a firework of capitalism. Master brewers such as Smirnoff fled their advance, set up elsewhere (France in this case) and just carried on. Odd that the Reds should facilitate a capitalist boom, but be thankful that we get to enjoy the outcome.
(Photo by Christian Senger)