Vodka is one of the world's most popular distilled beverages. It is a clear liquid which consists of mostly water and ethanol purified by distillation — often multiple distillation — from a fermented substance such as potatoes, grain (usually rye or wheat) or sugar beet molasses, and an insignificant amount of other substances such as flavorings or unintended impurities.
Vodka usually has an alcohol content of 35% to 50% by volume. The classic Polish, Lithuanian and Russian vodka is 40% (80 proof). This can be attributed to the Russian standards for vodka production introduced in 1894 by Alexander III. According to the Vodka Museum in Moscow, Dmitri Mendeleev, a Russian chemist, found the perfect percentage to be 38. However, since spirits in his time were taxed on their strength, the percentage was rounded up to 40 to simplify the tax computation. At strengths less than this, Vodka drunk neat (without ice and not mixed with other liquids) can taste "watery": above this strength, the taste of Vodka can have more "burn". Some governments set a minimum alcohol content for a spirit to be called "Vodka". For example, the European Union sets a minimum of 37.5% alcohol by volume.
Although vodka is traditionally drunk neat in the Eastern European and Nordic countries of the "Vodka Belt", its popularity elsewhere owes much to its usefulness in cocktails and other mixed drinks, such as the Bloody Mary, the Screwdriver, the vodka tonic, vodka martini, and most recently vodka red bull.
The word is found for the first time in the court documents from the Palatinate of Sandomierz in Poland dating to 1405 and 1537. At these times the word referred to medicines and cosmetics. A number of Russian pharmaceutical lists contain the terms "vodka of bread wine" (водка хлебного вина vodka khlebnogo vina) and "vodka in half of bread wine" (водка полу хлебного вина vodka polu khlebnogo vina). As alcohol had long been used as a basis for medicines, this implies that the term vodka could be a noun derived from the verb vodit’, razvodit’ (водить, разводить), "to dilute with water".
Bread wine was a spirit distilled from alcohol made from grain (as opposed to grape wine) and hence "vodka of bread wine" would be a water dilution of a distilled grain spirit.
While the word could be found in manuscripts and in lubok (лубок, pictures with text explaining the plot, a Russian predecessor of the comic), it began to appear in Russian dictionaries in the mid-19th century.
Another possible connection for "vodka" with "water" is the name of the medieval alcoholic beverage aqua vitae (Latin, literally, "water of life"), which is reflected in Polish "okowita", Ukrainian оковита, or Belarusian акавіта. (Note that whisky has a similar etymology, from the Irish/Scottish Gaelic uisce beatha/uisge-beatha''.)
People in the area of vodka's probable origin have names for vodka with roots meaning "to burn": Samogitian: degtėnė; Polish: gorzałka; Ukrainian: горілка, horilka; Belarusian: гарэлка, harelka; Lithuanian: degtinė (a Slavicism arielka, is also in use, colloquially and in proverbs); Latvian: degvīns; Finnish: paloviina. In Russian during 17th and 18th century горящее вино (goryashchee vino, "burning wine") was widely used. Compare to Danish; brændevin; Dutch: brandewijn; Swedish: brännvin; Norwegian: Brennevin (although the latter terms refer to any strong alcoholic beverage).
Another Slavic/Baltic archaic term for hard liquors was "green wine" (Russian: zeleno vino, Lithuanian: žalias vynas).
For many centuries beverages contained little alcohol. It is estimated that the maximum amount was about 14% as only this amount is reachable by means of natural fermentation. The still allowing for distillation – “the burning of wine” – was invented in the 8th century.
Some Polish vodka blends go back centuries. Most notable are Żubrówka, from about the 16th century; Goldwasser, from the early 17th; and aged Starka vodka, from the 16th. In the mid-17th century, the szlachta (nobility) were granted a monopoly on producing and selling vodka in their territories. This privilege was a source of substantial profits. One of the most famous distilleries of the aristocracy was established by Princess Lubomirska and later operated by her grandson, Count Alfred Wojciech Potocki. The Vodka Industry Museum, now housed at the headquarters of Count Potocki's distillery, has an original document attesting that the distillery already existed in 1784. Today it operates as "Polmos Łańcut."
Large-scale vodka production began in Poland at the end of the 16th century, initially at Kraków, whence spirits were exported to Silesia before 1550. Silesian cities also bought vodka from Poznań, a city that in 1580 had 498 working spirits distilleries. Soon, however, Gdańsk outpaced both these cities. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Polish vodka was known in the Netherlands, Denmark, England, Russia, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Moldavia, Ukraine and the Black Sea basin.
Early production methods were primitive. The beverage was usually low-proof, and the distillation process had to be repeated several times (a three-stage distillation process was common). The first distillate was called "brantówka," the second — "szumówka," the third — "okowita" (from "aqua vitae"), which generally contained 70–80% alcohol by volume. Then the beverage was watered down, yielding a simple vodka (30–35%), or a stronger one if the watering was done using an alembic. The exact production methods were described in 1768 by Jan Paweł Biretowski and in 1774 by Jan Chryzostom Simon. The beginning of the 19th century inaugurated the production of potato vodka, which immediately revolutionized the market.
The end of the 18th century marked the start of the vodka industry in Poland (eastern part of Poland was part of Russian empire at that time). Vodkas produced by the nobility and clergy became a mass product. The first industrial distillery was opened in 1782 in Lwów by Jan Baczewski. He was soon followed by Jakub Haberfeld, who in 1804 established a factory at Oświęcim, and by Hartwig Kantorowicz (1823) at Poznań. The implementation of new technologies in the second half of the 19th century, which allowed the production of clear vodkas, contributed to their success. The first rectification distillery was established in 1871. In 1925 the production of clear vodkas was made a Polish government monopoly.
After World War II, all vodka distilleries were taken over by Poland's communist government. During the 1980s, the sale of vodka was rationed. After the victory of the Solidarity movement, all distilleries were privatized, leading to an explosion of brands.
It was not originally called vodka — instead, the term bread wine (хлебное вино; khlebnoye vino) was used. Until mid-18th century, it remained relatively low on alcohol content, not exceeding 40% by volume. It was mostly sold in taverns and was quite expensive. At the same time, the word vodka was already in use, but it described herbal tinctures (similar to absinthe), containing up to 75% by volume alcohol, and made for medicinal purposes.
The first written usage of the word vodka in an official Russian document in its modern meaning is dated by the decree of Empress Elizabeth of June 8, 1751, which regulated the ownership of vodka distilleries. The taxes on vodka became a key element of government finances in Tsarist Russia, providing at times up to 40% of state revenue. By the 1860s, due to the government policy of promoting consumption of state-manufactured vodka, it became the drink of choice for many Russians. In 1863, the government monopoly on vodka production was repealed, causing prices to plummet and making vodka available even to low-income citizens. By 1911, vodka comprised 89% of all alcohol consumed in Russia. This level has fluctuated somewhat during the 20th century, but remained quite high at all times. The most recent estimates put it at 70% (2001). Today, some popular vodka producers/brands are (amongst others) Stolichnaya, Absolut vodka, Eristoff, Smirnoff and Borissov.
A pertsivka or horilka z pertsem (pepper vodka) is a vodka with whole fruits of capsicum put into the bottle, turning horilka into a sort of bitters. Horilkas are also often made with honey, mint, or even milk, the latter not typical of vodkas of other origins. Some claim that horilka is considered stronger and spicier than typical Russian vodka.
Vodka is now one of the world's most popular spirits. It was rarely consumed outside Europe before the 1950s. By 1975, vodka sales in the United States overtook those of bourbon, previously the most popular hard liquor and the native spirit of that country. In the second half of the 20th century, vodka owed its popularity in part to its reputation as an alcoholic beverage that "leaves you breathless", as one ad put it — no smell of liquor remains detectable on the breath, and its neutral flavor allows it to be mixed into a wide variety of drinks, often replacing other liquors (particularly Gin) in traditional drinks, such as the Martini.
According to The Penguin Book of Spirits and Liqueurs, "Its low level of fusel oils and congenerics — impurities that flavour spirits but that can contribute to the after-effects of heavy consumption — led to its being considered among the 'safer' spirits, though not in terms of its powers of intoxication, which, depending on strength, may be considerable.
Russian culinary author William Pokhlebkin compiled a history of the production of vodka in Russia during the late 1970s as part of the Soviet case in a trade dispute; this was later published as A History of Vodka. Pokhlebkin claimed that while there was a wealth of publications about the history of consumption and distribution of vodka, virtually nothing had been written about vodka production. Among his assertions were that the word "vodka" was used in popular speech in Russia considerably earlier than the middle of the 18th century, but the word did not appear in print until the 1860s.
The "stillmaster" is the person in charge of distilling the vodka and directing its filtration. When done correctly, much of the "fore-shots" and "heads" and the "tails" separated in distillation process are discarded. These portions of the distillate contain flavour compounds such as ethyl acetate and ethyl lactate (heads) as well as the fusel oils (tails) that alter the clean taste of vodka. Through numerous rounds of distillation, or the use of a fractioning still, the taste of the vodka is improved and its clarity is enhanced. In some distilled liquors such as rum and baijiu, some of the heads and tails are not removed in order to give the liquor its unique flavour and mouth-feel.
Repeated distillation of vodka will make its ethanol level much higher than legally allowed. Depending on the distillation method and the technique of the stillmaster, the final filtered and distilled vodka may have as much as 95-96% ethanol. As such, most vodka is diluted with water prior to bottling. This level of distillation is what truly separates a rye-based vodka (for example) from a rye whisky; while the whisky is generally only distilled down to its final alcohol content, vodka is distilled until it is almost totally pure alcohol and then cut with water to give it its final alcohol content and unique flavour, depending on the source of the water.
While most vodkas are unflavoured, many flavoured vodkas have been produced in traditional vodka-drinking areas, often as home-made recipes to improve vodka's taste or for medicinal purposes. Flavourings include red pepper, ginger, fruit flavours, vanilla, chocolate (without sweetener), and cinnamon. Ukrainians produce a commercial vodka that includes St John's Wort. Poles and Belarusians add the leaves of the local bison grass to produce Żubrówka (Polish) and Zubrovka (Belarusian) vodka, with slightly sweet flavour and light amber colour. In Ukraine and Russia, vodka flavoured with honey and pepper (Pertsovka, in Russian, Z pertsem, in Ukrainian) is also very popular. In Poland, a famous vodka containing honey is called Krupnik.
This tradition of flavouring is also prevalent in the Nordic countries, where vodka seasoned with herbs, fruits and spices is the appropriate strong drink for midsummer seasonal festivities. In Sweden, there are forty-odd common varieties of herb-flavoured vodka (kryddat brännvin). In Poland there is a separate category, nalewka, for vodka-based spirits with fruit, root, flower, or herb extracts, which are often home-made or produced by small commercial distilleries. Its alcohol content is between 15 to 75%. The Finnish vodka "Finlandia" was the first vodka company to mass produce flavoured Vodka.
The Poles make a very pure (95%, 190 proof) rectified spirit (Polish language: spirytus rektyfikowany). Technically a form of vodka, it is sold in liquor stores, not pharmacies. Similarly, the German market often carries German, Hungarian, Polish, and Ukrainian-made varieties of vodka of 90 to 95% alcohol content. A Bulgarian vodka, Balkan 176°, is 88% alcohol.
Due to the low freezing point of alcohol, vodka can be stored in ice or a freezer without any crystallization of water. In countries where alcohol levels are generally low (the USA for example, due to alcohol taxes varying with alcohol content), individuals sometimes increase the alcohol percentage by a form of freeze distillation.
This is done by placing the vodka in an open vessel (bowl, etc) in the freezer, and then after it has reached a temperature below the freezing point of water, adding ice cubes, to which the free water within the vodka will crystallize, leaving a higher alcohol concentration behind.
In some countries black-market vodka or "bathtub" vodka is widespread because it can be produced easily and avoid taxation. However, severe poisoning, blindness, or death can occur as a result of dangerous industrial ethanol substitutes being added by black-market producers. In March 2007, BBC News UK made a documentary to find the cause of severe jaundice among imbibers of the "bathtub" vodka. The cause was found to be an industrial disinfectant (Extrasept) added to the vodka by the illegal distillers because of its high alcohol content and low price of acquisition. Death toll estimates list at least 120 dead and more than 1,001 poisoned. The death toll is expected to rise due to the chronic nature of the cirrhosis that was causing the jaundice. However, Taurine (present in Red Bull) has been proven effective in removing fatty liver deposits in humans, liver disease, and reducing cirrhosis in the rat. Questions remain about the psychological effect of taurine taken at the time of alcohol consumption, due to the inhibition of sleep that can result.