The vodka story

Vodka – a few grains of truth

It’s not just about vodka jelly shots! For many younger people in the UK, vodka – or “voddy”, as first year undergraduate students are rather irritatingly prone to refer to it – is often viewed as little more than cheap ‘rocket fuel’. This is rather a shame, for as we shall see in this article vodka is, or can be, a complex and intriguing drink, one that has a long and interesting history and a significant cultural impact in many countries of the world.

The reasons for its cheap-and-cheerful party reputation though are not hard to fathom. The drink’s relatively neutral taste means it can be mixed with just about anything, from orange juice to colas, milk, tomato juice, even cooked and crushed bacon – no really; more of that later – not to mention the growing range of inexplicably popular and generally disgusting “energy drinks”. And of course products like vodka jelly add to its “fun” image.

What’s more, if you work out the price per unit, supermarket vodka works out generally slightly less expensive than just about any other drink, with the exception of the generally vile and inelegant white ciders and “super strength” lagers. However, a three-litre bottle of Frosty Jack’s or a four-pack of Tenent’s Super really isn’t a cool look to be seen with at house parties – not even in an ironic way, at least not yet anyway, thankfully – so vodka remains the popular party choice among students and young people.

It has other appeals to the more youthful end of the drinking market too. For one, its clear colour and high alcohol content (40% ABV is typical) make it the ideal choice to decant into water bottles and sneak into bars; music and sports venues; and festivals. Such places frequently charge exorbitant prices for (often mediocre) beers and wines, or in the case of some sports venues sometimes ban alcohol altogether. In such places, a water bottle filled with vodka that can be sipped openly and in plain view, or alternatively used to surreptitiously fortify a paid-for glass of cola or orange juice, can be a real money saver.

Vodka has other, less savoury appeals too. Its clear colour and relatively light taste make it a common go-to option for not-very-nice people looking to “spike” other drinkers, a practice that is both unethical and illegal. Furthermore, as it is one of the less detectable alcoholic drinks on a drinker’s breath, it is a not uncommon choice for alcoholics and problem drinkers who like to sneak a few nips while at the office, in the cockpit or while performing complex surgery in the hospital operating theatre.

A venerable history

In the above examples, vodka is treated as basically little more than a relatively inexpensive and unfussy delivery system for alcohol. However, as we suggested earlier, there is an awful lot more to vodka than neknominating, party popping and vodka jelly shots. Think of some of its diverse cultural connotations: Boris Yeltsin dancing, James Bond suaving, those awful women from ‘Sex and the City’ confiding (over a cosmopolitan martini, their frequent cocktail of choice), to name but three.

In fact, it’s impossible to pigeonhole vodka’s image, hardly surprising as it is the best selling spirit drink in the world and the de facto national drink of several countries, and is as popular with Russian peasants as it is with socialites in Manhattan cocktail bars. To understand how it came to have such global and varied popularity, perhaps we should take a look at the history of vodka.

Even before the invention of distilling, people like to try and make their existing alcoholic drinks even stronger. This was particularly true of people in eastern Europe, perhaps because of the cold. There is nothing like a hit of strong alcohol to give a brief illusion of warmth, or to bring cheer to a long winter night. And indeed it was not only the cold weather that fuelled their desire for stronger alcoholic drinks, it was the cold weather that made it possible, before distilling.

First of all, people would make alcoholic beverages as strong as possible through natural fermentation. The maximum strength that can be achieved in this manner is about 14% ABV, which is comparable to today’s stronger supermarket wines. They would take these fermented drinks, be that mead, beer or wine, then partially freezing it by burying jars in the snow. Then they were able to take advantage of the different melting points of alcohol and water in order to drain off a slushy and potent early version of vodka.

Does it please to freeze?

While the above described slushy concoction probably didn’t taste too great, the fact it was nicely chilled by the snow would undoubtedly have helped. Of course, chilling with ice remains a great way of smoothing off the rough taste of cheaper spirits (and indeed the nasty white cider and cheap super-strength lagers discussed in the opening paragraph above). This is because liquid at near freezing point dulls the tongue’s taste buds. For this reason, whisky aficionados tend to frown on people adding ice to their whisky, as it prevents you from appreciating the full complexity of flavours in the glass. And this is arguably true with some of the more expensive and interesting vodkas available today. However, with vodka the clear, crisp hit is part of the experience, far more than with whisky, so even with complex tasting vodkas many people still prefer adding ice or shaking with ice, figuring that what they lose in flavour is more than up for by the zingy, icy hit.

If you’re a follower of this belief, a good tip is to keep your vodka in the freezer at home. It won’t freeze solid, due to the high alcohol content (although it does take on a pleasingly viscous consistency), and it will always be ready to serve at near freezing temperature, making it perfect for a refreshing kick and meaning you don’t need to add additional ice cubes, which will dilute the vodka as they melt. Not that a small amount of dilution is necessarily a bad thing, as very high levels of alcohol also numb the taste buds slightly, so a small amount of dilution can allow you to taste some of the more subtle flavours. For this reason, going back to the whisky example, whisky aficionados, while they don’t approve of adding ice for reasons discussed above, do nevertheless approve of adding a splash of water, to “open up” the flavours of the dram. The recommended amount is generally said to be about a fifth again of the amount of whisky in the glass.

Another tip, besides keeping your vodka in the freezer, is to keep a few shot glasses in there, ready to whip out and serve to guests (or indeed to treat yourself). Once removed from the freezer the moisture in the air will condense on the glass, giving a lovely frosted effect, and once you’ve poured in your syrupy, ice cold vodka you will be in for a bracing shot that really wakes you up.

Take a vodka food sauna!

As an interesting aside, it’s not just very cold temperatures that dull the flavour of food and drink – very hot temperatures do too. While we all like the welcoming, warming aesthetics of “piping hot” soups and casseroles, for instance, nearly all foods will taste more delicious and more interesting if allowed to cool somewhat before you tuck in.

The Scandinavians are known to play with this hot/cold taste effect. In a process that parallels their love of taking hot saunas followed by freezing cold plunge pools or even diving into piles of snow, which is reputed to have many health benefits to the skin and circulation, and also leaves you feeling great (if you haven’t tried it you should, it might sound a bit unpleasant and indeed it is kind of ouch-y, but the overall effect is surprisingly marvellous), they do something similar with iced vodka and hot food.

On cold winter nights, they prepare bowlfuls of steaming hot comfort food. Creamy potato soups, hot poached salmon, chunky boiled potatoes with fish and dill – delicious winter fillers, one and all. Then they scoop this steaming hot food into their mouths, often using nutty, dark rye crispbreads and accompanied by dollops of wonderfully thick and tangy sour cream. But the clever part is, they have on the table next to them shot glasses of icy cold vodka. In between mouthfuls of hot, creamy indulgence, they sip at the iced vodka.

The alternating hot/cold sensation is said to have benefits in a not dissimilar to the hot/cold of a sauna, and what’s more that iced vodka cleanses the palate of all the creamy unctuousness in between each bite, so that with each next bite you warm the tongue up and appreciate the changing flavours all over again. So as you get more full up with warming soups, fish and potatoes, you also get that amazing heating and cooling contrast in your mouth, not to mention appreciating the flavours of both the food and the vodka in a whole new way – and on top of it all, you get slowly a little bit drunk. And what’s not to love about all that, as a way of wending away those long Scandinavian winter nights?

Even if you don’t happen to be in that part of the world, we would urge you to try the “Scandinavian vodka food sauna” experience some time. It’s certainly something different – and might make a great idea for a dinner party.

Keep still…

Like the early “slush vodka” process described above, the process of distillation also uses the differing temperature states of alcohol and water. The latter boils at a much lower temperature than the latter – around 78 degrees Celsius as compared, of course, to 100 degrees for water. Therefore by producing an alcoholic beverage, say by fermenting grain or potatoes, then heating it to some point between these temperatures, it is possible to boil off the alcohol while leaving the water behind. As the alcohol reaches its boiling point, it turns into a gaseous state and then condenses into a vapour. All that is then required is to collect the vapour and allow it to cool back into a liquid again, and voila: vodka.

That is the basic process of distillation and as you can see, there really isn’t much to it. With some pretty basic equipment you could probably do this yourself at home, although this isn’t advised as it is both illegal and potentially dangerous. This is in essence how moonshine is produced, and it is a famously risky process. It is not that there is anything wrong with the basic scientific principle, more that contaminants can sometimes be inadvertently introduced depending on the materials used. For instance, some moonshine makers used to utilise old car radiators to make the still. This could lead to a product containing lead or even antifreeze, for example, and there were numerous cases of people going blind or even dying from this.

Even if you used safer equipment than a car radiator, there is a risk of harmful levels of methanol being introduced, if you don’t know what you’re doing. Not to mention that strongly alcoholic solutions can be highly flammable, causing an obvious fire risk in an environment where you are using strong heat. In short, we don’t advise trying to make your own vodka.

A thousand years of drunkenness

So we’ve seen how early versions of “vodkas” were produced by extracting alcohol from mead and grain fermentations using snow. But the introduction of distilling took the process to a whole new level, and also allowed for larger scale production. This was known to be happening in Poland and Russia (the two dispute who actually came up with it first) from at least the 1100s, meaning that eastern Europeans have been happily (or otherwise) making and drinking vodka for a thousand years.

There is little doubt that this millennium of vodka consumption will have had a profound effect on the culture of these nations. Certainly it has had an effect in the measurable sense of very high rates of alcoholism and alcohol-related deaths, something the Russian government had tried to combat for many years, with only partial success. But might it also have had an effect on the national psyche? After all, for many of the centuries that east Europeans were downing lakes of vodka, we in Britain were a nation of beer drinkers, on the whole. Beer, being of course considerably weaker than spirits, is more suited to social interaction and rounding off a working day without having to write off the next working day.

Could this have helped shape the character of Britons, and also made the situation more conducive for the Industrial Revolution? And what might the centuries of sustained vodka drinking have done for the Russian character in terms of making it hardened, introspective or stoical? It is impossible to say for certain, but it is fun to speculate, particularly if you do so while sipping some chilled vodka and listening to ‘Ra Ra Rasputin’ by Boney M.

Improving the flavour

Early versions were often used for their supposed medicinal purposes, and it was not uncommon for “healing” herbs to be added. This had the added benefit that it helped to improve the taste, which could tend to be quite rough. Fruits and spices were sometimes infused with the vodka for the same reason.

It was soon discovered that the taste could also be improved by distilling it not just once but several times, each time removing more of the impurities for a cleaner, smoother taste. This still is the case, and to this day you will see many commercially sold vodkas boasting that they are “triple distilled”.

Other methods of smoothing out the taste included adding finings to the vodka, near the end of the production process. Finings are substances added to beer, wine or spirits (or indeed non-alcoholic beverages) that bond with various impurities in the liquid. The impurities then float down with the finings, forming a layer on the bottom, and can then be easily separated from the drink, leaving a much purer product. Typically they are made from substances including fish bladders.

Then in the 1700s, it was discovered in Russia that vodka could be filtered through charcoal, and that this was even more effective than the finings at removing contaminants. This led to a smoother, cleaner taste and very likely to less bad hangovers. As with “triple distilled”, “charcoal filtered” is something you will see printed on the labels of vodka bottles to this day.

By the 1300s, the Russians and Poles were producing vodka commercially and by the 1500s were known to be exporting it to other parts of Europe. Initial demand was particularly high in Scandinavian countries, for reasons we’ve touched on above – the climate, the darkness and the wonderful matching of the Scandinavian diet to vodka, as in the “vodka food sauna” we discussed earlier.

Revolutionary thoughts

By now vodka was becoming big business both inside Russia and increasingly for export. In the early the 18th century the Russian aristocracy tried to make the most of this by assuming exclusive rights to distillery ownership. This brought in vast sums of money – and it is no exaggeration to say that it may well have been one of the important steps that created the conditions of inequality and perceived unfairness that were to lead ultimately to the Russian Revolution.

In the late 19th century, the Tsar passed a law making vodka production a state monopoly. While this was ostensibly done to ensure the purity and quality of Russian vodka, it also was very healthy business for the ruling family and their cronies. They also taxed vodka very heavily; it is estimated that at times during the 19th century almost half of all Russian state finances came from vodka taxes. This is less surprising when you consider how much the Russians do love their vodka, over all other drinks. By the end of Tsarist Russia vodka accounted for something like 90 per cent of all alcoholic drinks consumed in the country. Even today, nearly three-quarters of all alcohol consumed in Russia is in the form of vodka.

Poles apart

In Poland, by contrast to the state monopoly of Russia, all individuals were at one time allowed by law to distil their own vodka. While this led to quite variable quality, it also led to enormous variations in flavours and style. We opened this piece by looking at how vodka is just seen by many younger people as cheap party fuel or the basis for vodka jelly recipes, we should remember that with variations in what it’s made from (potatoes or grains, for example) as well as the distillation process, how it is filtered, the water used, any additional ingredients and so on, vodka can be as complex and subtle in its variations as wine. Well, maybe not quite, but certainly there’s a lot more interesting tastes going on than just you ten quid bottle fro Booze Box. And we to a large degree have the Poles to thank for that.

Vodka spreads its wings

Eastern Europe and Scandinavia have for many centuries been the biggest consumers of vodka and remain so to this day. Indeed area is sometimes referred to as the “vodka belt”. This could be contrasted with the wine belt – France, Italy, Spain, perhaps Australia – and the beer belt – the England, the US, Holland, Australia again. These terms are of course oversimplifications and increasingly not even that accurate. In the UK for example, wine is becoming as popular if not more so than beer. Nevertheless the stereotype of Russia and much of eastern Europe consuming vast amounts of vodka to the exclusion of almost everything else remains a not inaccurate one.

So although all those countries continued to remain the main consumers of the spirit, over the course of the 20th century it spread inexorably. By the 1930s it had become somewhat fashionable in Parisian cafes, and GIs stationed there during the war took the taste with them back to America in the 1940s. There even became something of a craze for it in the 1950s, with newly created vodka cocktails such as the Moscow mule becoming quite trendy among Hollywood celebrities and those who aped them.

But it is with some sadness I see that we have reached our allotted time, and we have barely entered the second half of the 20th century. This absorbing history of vodka and how it evolved from peasant winter-warmer to trendy metropolitan cocktail ingredient to wobbly vodka jelly will need to continue in a future article. Until then, enjoy yourselves – and seriously, think about trying that vodka food sauna.