Vodka wasn’t always an odorless, colorless, flavorless companion to soda water and lemon; it has a long history peppered with royal decrees, Russian authors, and one very famous rags to riches story.
As far as spirit fandoms go, little attention is paid to vodka. Despite being one of the earliest types of spirits to be produced — and remaining a top seller to this day — vodka is largely snubbed by the drinking elite, and that’s if they’re being nice. It might seem easy to take shots at the vodka that we, in America, drink today, but that’s not what vodka has historically been. A long and winding road led us to where we are today, and that journey deserves closer inspection.
The exact specifics of vodka’s invention are unknown; historians don’t agree on a country to credit with this event, let alone an individual. Some believe that the first ever production of vodka took place in what is modern Russia in the 9th century, though others believe Poland was the original location for vodka production further back in the 8th century. Whenever it was that vodka’s origins began, we can safely assume that the vodka made then was vastly different to the vodkas that are advertised today as far as taste, purity, and alcohol content.
Though aqua vitae was introduced to the region nearly a century before, it isn’t until 1405 that the first written mention of the word “wódka” appeared in Poland in court documents from the Sandomierz Court Registry. Medicines, cosmetic cleaners, and other chemical compounds were also referred to as “wódka” at this time; both that word and the later term “vodka” are diminutive terms for the Slavic word “voda,” which means water. The actual name for the popular beverage enjoyed by the Polish is “gorzałka,” coming from an Old Polish verb meaning “to burn.”
A law is passed by King Jan Olbracht of Poland allowing all Polish citizens to make and sell spirits, resulting in the common practice of family-made vodkas. They were often flavored with herbs, fruits, or other elements, which masked some of the rough flavor molecules leftover in the product due to crude distillation methods.
The first written mention of the word “vodka” in Russia doesn’t occur until the mid-1700s, according to some historians, when Catherine II releases an official document decreeing the regulation of vodka distillation.
For the century following Catherine’s decree, most of Russia’s homemade and readily available spirit was bread wine or something similar. Its ABV was much lower than vodka, since it was distilled on a much more rudimentary system, and the flavor of the drink was reminiscent of whatever sugar source was used as the base, be that grape, potato, or grain.
Poland’s oldest full-scale distillery, J. A. Baczewski, opens in what is modern-day Lviv, Ukraine. Through the years, the distillery introduced a number of modern technologies into their production, including a double rectification process a mere two years after the invention of the Coffey still. The vodka made at J. A. Baczewski was considered one of very high quality and eventually earned them the title of “Purveyor to the Imperial and Royal Court,” giving the brand further prestige. The Baczewski family continued to run a profitable distillery until 1939 when the factory was bombed by the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Lwów. The last pre-war owners of the brand died in NKVD special camps, but later generations of the Baczewski family recovered the rights to the trademark in 1956.
Vodka’s popularity in Russia continues to skyrocket in the 1800s. Consuming it becomes a national pastime. The works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, and Ivan Turgenev are all littered with mentions of vodka, emphasizing its ubiquitous nature within Russian culture, though Tolstoy was famously not a fan. But this was nothing new; evidence for social drunkenness in Russia and elsewhere in Europe exists all the way back in the 11th century. As the 19th century turned, however, Russian citizens, particularly Russian peasants, began to engage in a more concentrated form of drinking. Not only were the clear spirits, which were often described as “peppery,” more potent, the imbibers often drank larger quantities, according to a report titled “The Russian Vodka Monopoly” which was published in 1863. Though the per capita consumption by Russian citizens wasn’t necessarily higher than other Europeans, the potency of what and how they drank drew criticism, and in the latter half of the century, more than ten separate laws were issued in an attempt to regulate the spirit trade.
Pyotr Arsenievich Smirnov is born in Kayurovo, a rural Russian village, as part of the serf class, meaning that he and his family were unfree people who could only be sold along with the land to which they were attached (Himelstein, 2009). Smirnov and his family were literate, which was exceedingly rare at the time; in the early 1800s, only 1% of serfs were able to read or write (Himelstein, 2009). By the time Smirnov died in 1898, he was one of Russia’s wealthiest citizens. His extreme shift in fortune was due to the empire he built off his revolutionary vodka. Recognizing that homebrewing and unfit conditions for alcohol production were an imminent danger to the lower classes, Smirnov insisted upon a more refined, cleaner method of distillation (Himelstein, 2009). His distillery is credited as one of the first in the world to use charcoal filtration. In 1886, the Smirnov distillery was named the official vodka purveyor to the Russian court (Himelstein, 2009).
The 1860s was a particularly important decade for Russian vodka. In 1861, Russian serfdom was abolished, which allowed more working-class folk to begin producing their own vodka and paved the way for Smirnov to officially start his brand in 1864 (Himelstein, 2009). Dmitri Mendeleev, the chemist best known for formulating the Periodic Table, defended his doctoral dissertation, titled “A discourse on the compounds of alcohol and water,” in 1865. He studied the interaction of molecules in a mix of ethanol and water by precisely measuring the density and thermal expansion at various ratios, which revealed much about the nature of distillation. Mendeleev was not responsible, however, for the so-called “Russian Standard,” or the practice of bottling a spirit at 40% ABV.
Production of Smirnoff vodka begins in Bethel, Connecticut by Rudolph Kunett, a Russian native who moved to the United States in the 20s and purchased the recipe from Pyotr Smirnov’s son, Vladimir. Political instability in Russia forced Vladimir to sell off the brand that his father had built for a meager price. Kunett’s own father had operated a distillery in the Ukraine that was purported to be “the world’s largest rectifier and blender of liquor,” and Kunnett was himself familiar with Smirnov vodka, having drank it in his youth (Himelstein, 2009). Not only was Kunnett acquainted with the process of distilling vodka, but he was also open to Vladimir’s insistence that his father’s product be made in exactly the same way it always had and packaged in an identical bottle (Himelstein, 2009).
But five years into Kunnett’s ownership and distribution of Smirnoff stateside, the business was struggling. Though Kunnett was no slouch, he didn’t know precisely how to market his product and the American drinking public didn’t know what to do with a colorless, flavorless, odorless spirit that was preferred by the Imperial Russian Court, which no longer existed (Himelstein, 2009). Just as all hope seemed lost, a Hartford businessman named John Martin stepped in. He worked for Heublein Inc, a company that had specialized in the import and export of liquor prior to Prohibition. Martin brought an undeniable sales prowess to the operation that Kunett lacked. After a shipment to South Carolina did particularly well, Martin found out it was because a distributor had erected a banner that read “‘Smirnoff White Whiskey — No Smell, No Taste,” which kickstarted a mixing craze (Himelstein, 2009). Martin leaned into it, taking what had formerly been vodka’s greatest criticism and turning it into its top selling point. Cocktails like the Bloody Mary and the Screwdriver were born, and supposedly it was Martin himself who helped create the Moscow Mule, mixing vodka with ginger beer on a work trip to Hollywood.
It’s interesting that the early success of this spirit in America was dependent on a claim that it was “white whiskey” without any odor or taste. This undoubtedly set America on the course that it followed for the remainder of the 20th century and into the 21st — vodka sales aren’t nearly as dependent on the liquid in the bottle as they are the advertising material used to market it.
In the first-ever Bond book, Casino Royale, James orders a drink made with three measures of Gordon’s gin, one measure of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet (now simply Lillet), shaken until ice cold and garnished with a thinly sliced lemon peel. This cocktail has come to be known as the Vesper Martini, named after the original Bond Girl, Vesper Lynd, but it gave rise to more than one generation of people mistakenly ordering vodka martinis, which are a different drink altogether, and Bond’s famous catchphrase, “shaken not stirred,” widely considered to be the wrong way to make a martini of any variety.
Finnish vodka brand Finlandia is founded, and it becomes one of the first imported vodkas to be sold in the United States. It’s made from six-row barley and, unlike many vodka brands at the time, retains some of its character. This is significant, though it will still be a long time until the renaissance of character-full vodka arrives.
Tito’s Vodka, a once-small batch spirit made from corn, launches like a rocket into the zeitgeist. Suddenly, it’s everywhere, on every bartender’s shelf and every vodka drinker's lips. There’s not one single reason for Tito’s success; it’s a combination of a good story (19 maxed out credit cards to get the company going), a great marketing tactic (Gluten-Free! Making the most of consumer ignorance regarding the inability of gluten to survive the distillation process), and a stroke of good fortune (winning gold at a major spirits competition). It continues to sell and shows no sign of letting up.
As of April 17, 2019, the European Parliament’s regulation of vodka reads, in part, as follows:
“Vodka is a spirit drink produced from ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin obtained following fermentation with yeast of either:
- Potatoes or cereals or both,
- Other agricultural raw materials,
Distilled so that the organoleptic characteristics of the raw materials used and by-products formed in fermentation are selectively reduced.
This may be followed by additional distillation or treatment with appropriate processing aids or both, including treatment with activated charcoal, to give it special organoleptic characteristics.”
As of 2019, the United States defines vodka as a neutral spirit or alcohol. Its official definition, according to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, reads:
“Neutral spirits distilled or treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials so as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color”
For the first time in a long time, vodka is returning to its more flavorful roots. There is now a varied selection of vodkas that neglect the colorless, flavorless, odorless archetype of years past in favor of something with more to give. “Smooth” seems like it will forever be a selling point for any vodka, but standouts now boast hints of nuttiness and butter, like the Polish rye vodka Potocki, or candied lemon peel (without flavoring), as is the case in Battlefield Vodka, which hails from Pennsylvania.
Looking to the future
Though vodka has received its fair share of degradation, producing the spirit is not easy. Unlike aged spirits, there is no additional element to mask flaws later on. A distiller needs to be precise and knowledgeable if they want to make vodka with a pleasant mouthfeel, great character, and no off-flavors. We have come a long way since the earliest days of aqua vitae, and it will be exciting to see what the future holds for all spirit categories, including vodka.
1. Himelstein, Linda. The King of Vodka: The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire. HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.
Vodka: A Global History, Patricia Herlihy
Vodka Politics, Mark Lawrence Schrad
Vodka Distilled: The Modern Mixologist on Vodka and Vodka Cocktails,
Tony Abou-Ganim & Mary Elizabeth Faulkner
Classic Vodka, Nicholas Faith & Ian Wisniewski