A Brief History of Vodka



A Brief History of Vodka 
Which country warrants the accolade of first producing vodka? The answer to this question is unclear. The general consensus is that knowledge of distillation travelled north and then east from Salerno and thus perhaps Poland has the strongest claim. Russia can, however, lay claim to the title of first to export vodka with records showing a shipment to Sweden in 1505 and Poland’s first exports a century later.

In 1546 Polish King Jan Olbracht, exhibiting a remarkable degree of egalitarianism for the time, permitted all his subjects to produce vodka. Sadly, by 1572 the landed gentry revoked this, thus acquiring sole rights to both production and sale.

The 18th and 19th centuries saw two big improvements : the discovery of charcoal filtration and the invention of the continuous still. The remarkable young Swede, Lars Olson Smith, emerged at this time. A prodigy, a distilling obsessive and a perfectionist. Before he was 20 he had successfully taken on the Stockholm establishment with his Absolut Rent Brannvin. Sweden’s first vodka from a continuous still was such a triumph that Smith had to invest in more distilleries and wheat fields in order to meet demand.

The 20th century was the era of state monopolies in eastern Europe. In 1917 Russia, the Bolsheviks took everything into state ownership. This included the distillery which had previously held the Royal Warrant. Its owner, Piotr Smirnov (who later changed his name to the now famous Smirnoff) barely escaped with his life, and after exile in both Paris and America, two distinct styles of vodka emerged.

Eastern European vodkas always had some character ; a taste of the raw material from which they were distilled. Smirnoff’s new set up in America produced completely neutral vodka which ultimately found huge success as a mixer—leaping to fame with the post-war Moscow Mule cocktail.

Over the last thirty years, and especially since the re-privatisation of distilleries in Russia and Poland, the global market has expanded. During this time we have also seen the birth of premium and super premium vodkas from traditional countries and others, most notably France and the USA.

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