The Concise History of Vodka

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Russia was always known worldwide due to her rich cultural and spiritual heritage. But our culture wouldn’t be so multifaceted one without our national beverage – Russian Vodka; it was not only an integral part of any festivity but a part of our great history.

But what is known about our favorite beverage? By whom and where was it invented? How and from what did our ancestors drink it? What were the ingredients and when did the very first monopoly on vodka production appear?

According to legend, it was monks who started producing the first vodka. The point is that Christianity came to Russia from the Byzantine city of Constantinople, so it is quite possible that a delegation of Russian monks was treated with grape spirits there. The impression it made on them was so overwhelming that upon returning home they immediately made a distiller. Wheat grain became a raw material as grapes didn’t grow in Russia due to its cold climate. They called the unusual beverage “aqua vita” which means water of life. Russian for water is “voda” hence the name of the modern vodka.

In the beginning only pharmacists used it for making different drugs and perfumers for creating perfumes, but later the idyll was ruined in 1348 by the Great Plague: there was no medicine for “black death” and people died in thousands; the situation was getting more and more desperate  and it was decided to try vodka ! Although very soon it became clear that vodka also did not help stop the plague, however many people liked it: “aqua vita” captured their souls and minds forever.

Russian Distilleries were born between 1448 and 1478 years as it is known that Ivan III put the first state monopoly on producing vodka into force in that period and exactly during his reign the first vodka taverns appeared which the Russians called with Tatar name “Kabak.”

The attitude towards producing and drinking vodka was changing in different time periods.

The great reformer and founder of St Petersburg, Peter I was in need of great money so he allowed production and consumption of vodka everywhere: as a result the state treasury started getting more money but a lot of people became drunkards

Pragmatic Catherine II took the business very seriously as well. Being a good psychologist she understood very well that all nobility are making their own vodka in their country estates. To validate the business she levied a tax on vodka production, and after payment the purchaser could be the happy owner of their own legal home distillery. This, by the way, resulted in many famous brands of Russian Vodka.

Between 1851 and 1917 Russia was turning into a mighty economical power having more and more impact on the world market and distilleries were growing very fast: already in the second half of the XIX century it became one the most important sources of Russian state income, bringing the owners of private distilleries world fame.

Many Russian scientists tried to make vodka better. The Great Russian chemist Dmitry Mendeleev proved to be luckier than others – spirit and water in his vodka were in ratio of 40 to 60 which gave it especially delicious taste. In 1894 he took out a patent for 40% vodka and it was released as a “Moscow special”. Unfortunately, in spite of all scientific efforts to make vodka better, poor people kept drinking cheap variants and by the end of the XIX century it resulted in such mass drunkenness that the government had to arrange numerous Societies of Soberness and by 1914 it was forbidden to produce and sell vodka at all; that prohibition was in force for 10 years.

As soon as The Bolsheviks came into power many distilleries were ruined and many names of successful and famous Russian Vodka Kings (Smirnov, Shustov, Keller) sank into oblivion.

In 1924 Joseph Stalin, who, as everybody knows, liked drinking vodka and knew how to do it, abolished the 1914 vodka prohibition. Vodka production reached 1 million deciliters and wasn’t stopped even during WWII. It was also his idea to provide each soviet soldier everyday 100 grams of vodka – it saved the lives of many as it suppressed the feeling of fear and helped to relax the soldiers during the most stressful moments, besides, they used vodka when suffering chilblains.

The Moscow distillery “Krystal” made the famous “Molotov Cocktail”- bottled ignition compound: Russian soldiers “welcomed” German tanks with it. Soviet people recollected their perished friends and relatives with a shot of vodka in their hands, they “washed” with vodka newly received medals and orders (literally- placing them in the glass with vodka and after that drinking it)

With Gorbachev’s coming the prohibition was accepted again on the 27th of March in 1985, but cancelled in 1990

Vodka for Russians is a pretext to rejoice for somebody, or weeping over something, to celebrate a long waited meeting with friends, and cure a for depression – a universal and irreplaceable product, part of the National Heritage of Russian People: you can make sure of it joining our Russian Vodka museum tour