It has become synonymous with Russia for most of us, though the Poles may claim it’s origins and ownership. Who got there first, with the invention of Vodka? The truth is subject to debate and lies blurred in the past. What about the Mongolians? And even the Swedes too. Russia, Poland and Sweden have been the main payers, historically – as far as the development of the famous drink goes, with Russia distilling vodka in various early forms before the word “vodka” was in use.
Presumably it was called something else before, but what? Well, bread wine is one variant/name, but we’ll get to that. Clues can perhaps be found in the fact the “vodka” is a diminuitive form of the word “voda”, which is Russian for water. I can imagine a certain Russian humour coming into play as hosts offered their guests some of “our freshly distilled water,” whilst the evening progressed and things loosened up. Or perhaps to ensure that the evening did loosen up!
The Poles appear to have stumbled upon the strong stuff (in alchoholic terms) back in the 8th Century when wine was left to freeze through perishing winters. The resultant transformation created something that was literally for “medicinal purposes only” (hence the jibe) rather than a product designed for the enjoyment of drinking. Ah, so close. I can imagine something pretty toxic pouring out of those first experimental bottles, however – with mutation resembling a crude brandy perhaps?
In fact, wine or rather the problems with creating the stuff in a cold climate, was the spur which prompted those in Northern and Eastern Europe to pursue other avenues when it came to alcohol.
Where grapes failed, keen pioneer-brewers looked at the potential of distilling something potent from fermented grain. This resulted in medieval, monastic bread wine, a proto-vodka minus the finesse of distillation that plays such a critical role in the drink as we know it today.
Things certainly took off exponentially, following the fermented-grain breakthrough. The intricacy of the process became apparent with the concept of re-distillation in the 12th Century; a mechanism of refinement designed to eradicate ‘fused oils” formed as by-products during the production process. In the 14th Century, vodka was described by a British emissary as Russia’s national drink, by the mid 16th Century it had also achieved ‘national’ status in Poland and Finland, there was – and is – no stopping it.
The multi-functional aspect of vodka was also emerging. The Novgorod Chronicles of 1533 for instance, with the medicinal uses acknowledged in it’s title of Zhiznennia Voda, or The Water of Life. By this time “vodka” was commonly known as “hot wine”, with several variants produced by grade. The high-quality “boyar wine” was the ‘good stuff’, “good wine” was indeed ‘good enough’ and “plain wine” was standard fare: the poorest of the bunch. For an extra kick – even by the standards of vodka – the ‘wines’ could be re-distilled, even several times over, producing “double wine” and more. Explosive stuff – probably literally in that respect.
I’m not much of a drinker, but I did indeed slam down a couple of shots of Russian vodka the other day – for research purposes, you understand – and found them most agreeable. It was someting of a refresher (in both senses of the word) that confirmed the relative ease in which vodka slips down – in spite of it’s fearsome reputation. Dangerous stuff in that respect, as the payback comes later. It really creeps up on you. Go easy, and I’ll be back (assuming I retain the ability to type) with more on Russia’s favourite drink next time.
[Photo by krosseel]