The name stems from the Russian word 'voda' meaning water or, as the Poles have it
'woda'. The first documented production of vodka in Russia was the end of the 9th
century, but the first known distillery at Khylnovsk was about two hundreds years
later as reported in the Vyatka Chronicle of 1174. Poland lays claims to having distilled
vodka even earlier in the 8th century, but as this was a distillation of wine it
might be more appropriate to consider it a crude brandy. The first identifiable Polish
vodkas appeared in the 11th century when they were called 'gorzalka' and were originally
used as medicines.
During the Middle Ages, distilled liquor was used mainly for medicinal purposes,
as well as being an ingredient in the production of gunpowder. In the 14th century
a British Ambassador to Moscow first described vodka as the Russian national drink
and in the mid 16th century it was established as the national drink in Poland and
Since early production methods were crude, vodka often contained impurities, so to
mask these the distillers flavoured their spirits with fruit, herbs or spices.
The mid 15th century saw the first appearance of pot distillation in Russia. Prior
to that, seasoning, ageing and freezing were all used to remove impurities, as was
precipitation using isinglass from the air bladders of sturgeons. Distillation became
the first step in producing vodka, with the product being improved by precipitation
using isinglass, milk or egg white.
Around this time (1450) vodka started to be produced in large quantities and the
first recorded exports of Russian vodka were to Sweden in 1505. Polish 'woda' exports
started a century later, from major production centres in Posnan and Krakow.
In 1716, owning distilleries became the exclusive right of the nobility, who were
granted further special rights in 1751. In the following 50 or so years there was
a proliferation of types of aromatised vodka, but no attempt was made to standardise
the basic product.
A typical production process was to distil alcohol twice, dilute it with milk and
distil it again, adding water to bring it to the required strength and then flavouring
it, prior to a fourth and final distillation. It was not a cheap product and it still
had not attained really large-scale production. It did not seek to compete commercially
with the major producers in Lithuania, Poland and Prussia.
In the 18th century a professor in St. Petersburg discovered a method of purifying
alcohol using charcoal filtration. Felt and river sand had already been used for
some time in Russia for filtration.
It is only at the end of the 19th century, with all state distilleries adopting a
standard production technique and hence a guarantee of quality, that the name vodka
was officially and formally recognised.
After the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks confiscated all private distilleries
in Moscow. As a result, a number of Russian vodka-makers emigrated, taking their
skills and recipes with them. One such exile revived his brand in Paris, using the
French version of his family name - Smirnoff. Thence, having met a Russian emigre
from the USA, they set up the first vodka distillery there in 1934. From this small
start, vodka began in the 1940s to achieve its wide popularity in the Western World.
In the 1950s a vodka cocktail - the Moscow Mule - became a hit.
After that, vodka saw a great boom in popularity in the West in the 1960s and 1970s
when many more brands were launched in the USA and the UK. The timing coincided with
the cultural revolution in these countries - the 'swinging 60s.' With a more affluent
younger generation and a generally more relaxed lifestyle and the emphasis on adventure
and experimentation - vodka's mixability led to its huge and ever rising popularity.
Vodka cocktails are almost as numerous as those of gin and are seen in the same exclusive
circles and stylish bars the world over.