Today, by the term “vodka” we mean a rectified product based on grain or other starch and sugar-containing raw materials with a strength of 40 degrees. However, this was not always the case. Previously, this word denoted virtually any distillate. The strength of such moonshine reached 75%. There was no uniform terminology, so in the future, to avoid confusion, we will call only the modern version vodka, leaving the word “moonshine” for earlier variations (although it came into use much later, and in those days such drinks were called hot wine).
It is not known for certain when the Russians learned to drive alcohol. According to some sources, the first documented evidence of the production of “burnt water” in Russia dates back to the end of the 9th century, and the first industrial production appeared two centuries later, however, due to the mismatch of terms, this cannot be asserted with certainty. Poland claims that the honor of the invention of grain distillate belongs to her, but grape wine was distilled on the territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, so we are talking about brandy. But the term “vodka”, most likely, is precisely Polish, comes from the word “water” and has a diminutive meaning – something like “water”.
We do not know for sure who invented vodka in its more or less modern form (already based on grain, but still without using a rectification column), but legend claims that it was the monk Isidore in the 1430s. He called his invention “bread wine”. British ambassadors who visited Moscow in the 14th century argued that by that time moonshine had already become a national alcohol, and from the Novgorod Chronicles of 1533 it becomes clear that strong spirits were used not only for gastronomic, but also for medical purposes. Production methods were far from perfect, ready-made distillates often contained impurities, therefore, fragrances were often added to alcohols: spices, herbs, fruit essences. Also, sometimes the moonshine was frozen (so that the impurities precipitated), kept, filtered.
In 1450, the industrial production of moonshine expanded so much that the needs of the domestic market were fully satisfied, and in 1505 the first export of “fire water” to Sweden took place. By 1716, all distilleries belonged to the nobility, but no general rules and standards existed yet. Distillates from many distillations insisted on anything: wormwood, acorns, anise, chicory, juniper, birch, chamomile, peppermint, and a host of other ingredients.
The standard production process looked like this: starchy or sweet raw materials (rye, wheat, oats, peas, barley, millet, beets, etc.) were ground into flour, mixed with malt and poured with hot water. Yeast was added to the resulting wort, fermented and the distilled mash was subjected to distillation in a copper cube. After the first distillation, the alcohol was called “cancer” and was not yet ready to drink. Then the liquid was sent for re-distillation, not forgetting to separate the “heads” and “tails” this time. The resulting product after two distillations was called “plain wine”. If everything went well (the drink did not smell with fusel oils, it was transparent and clean), then we could stop there. However, if the “wine” failed (and due to imperfect technologies such an outcome was more than likely), it was corrected. For example, milk was added (meat broth, onion, rye bread), filtered, insisted on aromatic herbs, then distilled again.
In the 18th century, the St. Petersburg scientist T.E. Lovitz discovered a method for filtering an alcoholic mixture using coal (previously, river sand was used for this purpose), which made it possible to make bread alcohol cleaner.
The spread of moonshine vodka in Europe was facilitated by wars: Russian troops entered the territory of other states and brought “national alcohol” with them. In 1863, alcohol production became a state monopoly. At the same time, a unified standardization and terminology was established. After the Revolution of 1917, the state nationalized all production, so some of the winemakers emigrated abroad, taking with them the secrets of their recipes. So Russian vodka ended up in Europe and the USA and established itself there under the Smirnoff brand.
Before the invention of rectification, several types of “bread wine” were isolated:
- Polugar (a mixture of grain alcohol and water in a 1: 1 ratio), 38-42%. Received this name because when the drink was set on fire, exactly half burned out.
- Foamy wine (aka “penny”). The drink had nothing to do with sparkling wine, as the name might suggest. It was just that alcohol meters did not exist then, the fortress was determined using improvised methods. For example, they poured alcohol into a glass from a height of ~ 20 cm, if foam was formed, it means that the alcohol contained about 50 degrees.
- Three-test wine, 54-56%. Double distilled grain alcohol diluted with water. The production technology is the same as that of a half-bar, but the strength is higher. When ignited, about two-thirds burned out.
The modern history of vodka
Modern vodka is not just a grain distillate, but a mixture of rectified ethyl alcohol with water, the date of its birth is January 31, 1865. It was on this day that chemist Dmitry Mendeleev, who opened the famous table of elements, defended his doctoral dissertation on the topic “On the combination of alcohol with water.” This scientist is considered the “father of vodka”, although in fact a forty percent mixture of alcohol and water existed before that.
However, the term “vodka” was fixed in official documents only in 1936, before that there was no single terminology. One and the same product could be called “alcohol”, “bread wine”, even “vodka product”.
One of the main works devoted to the history of the emergence of vodka is the book by V.V. Pokhlebkin “History of Russian Vodka”, but many researchers accuse the author of bias and “pan-Russianism”, so the source has been criticized many times and has a reputation in academic circles as not entirely reliable.
It is possible to speak of “real” vodka only since 1867, when A. Saval invented a rectifying apparatus (in 1881 E. Barbet improved the design by creating a continuous apparatus). Rectification made multiple distillations in copper stills unnecessary, because of which up to 50% of the product was lost (not to mention time), and by the end of the 19th century all “vodkas” had become rectified.
In 1894, an official vodka recipe was developed and established (the best scientists of that time worked on its creation). It was then that the reference strength of the drink was fixed at 40%. Despite the many legends associated with this, in fact, everything is simple: this degree is due to the peculiarities of distillation. It is no coincidence that most spirits (tequila, scotch, brandy, etc.) have exactly the same strength. Of course, with the help of water, you can dilute alcohol to almost any state, but from the point of view of taxation, it is more convenient for the state to take a single round indicator as a starting point – for example, 40 degrees.
At the same time, the term “moonshine” appeared, bearing a derogatory and dismissive connotation. It is very difficult to rectify alcohol at home, special and complex equipment is required, so the quality of homemade alcohol began to significantly lose to the factory one.
In 1919, the first anti-moonshiner law was passed. On the one hand, this was done in order to preserve the state monopoly on strong alcohol. On the other hand, to protect the population from low-quality and even harmful products. Real vodka passed not only rectification, but also coal filtration, and was distinguished by a high degree of purification. However, it was not possible to completely get rid of fusel oils until 1940, when the technology of dynamic processing of future vodka with activated carbon was invented (in 1948 it was introduced at all Soviet wineries).
In 1936, the USSR adopted GOST, according to which the pure water-alcohol mixture was named “vodka”. The international term “vodka” appeared in the 50s of the XX century. Since then, there have been no significant changes. Only the cleaning methods have changed, but the composition of the mixture (alcohol + water) and the strength remain the same. It is unlikely that there will be any changes in the future.
In 1998, the state monopoly on the production of spirits was abolished, and now you can find several thousand variations of this product on the market. On the world stage, vodka is considered the Russian national alcohol.