WORDS BY BEN DAVIDSON
Good vodka is the spirit of subtlety, mystery and intrigue. At it’s best, it captures the rich textures and flavours of the source’s fermentable sugars to provide a powerful yet smooth spirit with nuances of flavour and delicate aromas that titillate the senses. Each vodka worth drinking neat, can be seen to be a unique assemblage of the endless variables that can be employed during its creation, from raw material through to filtration. To help you fully understand vodka, we’ve devised this two part series about the fascinating story of the rise and development of this inherently understated, yet sometimes overhyped spirit.
The history of vodka, from the 1500s, also forms a central part of the history of Russia. It was not until the first decade of the 16th century that vodka made its debut in Moscow. This is a country that remained both vodka obsessed and feudal until the 1917 Revolution. Of course, vodka survived the Tsars and the communists who followed.
The Tsars and their entourage of nobles, merchants and administrators controlled just about everything; the land, production and the sales of goods. From the 17th century, the Tsars monopolised vodka distilling and sales through state owned taverns. By the mid-1600s vodka had become Russia’s favourite drink of social, ceremonial and recreational life.
Tsar Alexis used the excuse of the widespread vodka abuse and drunkenness in 1652 to ban all distilleries and put the production of vodka under the state. This secured him a lucrative source of revenue to fund his empire and private indulgences.
By the end of the 17th century, the word vodka had become common parlance for Russia’s distilled spirit. By the early 18th century, another Tsar was selling distilling concessions to raise more income. These rights to distil vodka were given to privileged nobles and sold to merchants, known by the whimsical term, ‘tax farming’.
Vodka was Russia’s universal drink and generated half the state’s revenue from licenses and sales. Vodka funded the lavish lifestyles of the nobility and paid for Russia’s frequent wars. Peasant and Tsar seemed locked into a drunken dance of mutual intoxication.
ORIGINS OF STYLE
We think of vodka as a clear and near flavourless spirit. This is 20th century vodka. Since the beginning, vodka was coloured and flavoured to make it palatable, and was even used as a medicinal remedy. This same flavouring phenomenon was happening to all white spirits, from Scandinavia, Germany and the Netherlands to England, Scotland and Ireland.
It was not until the 19th century, when science and knowledge brought about profound changes to the quality of spirits, that significant improvements were made in fermentation, distillation and filtration, shaping standards for the vodka we drink today.
If we stepped out of a carriage in Moscow in the 1780s to attend a princely dinner, we would discover vodka was double-distilled, possibly triple-distilled or even quadruple-distilled. This high proof vodka was diluted with water for drinking, and fashionably flavoured with honey water. Our host would proudly present his estate distillery’s range of aromatised vodkas. Some nobility had hundreds of flavours: caraway, St John’s Wort, honey, wormwood, hops and juniper, acorn, birch bark, cherry, mint, pepper, anise, cloves, willow, blackcurrant, raspberry, melon, bitters, lemon, cinnamon, aniseed, cumin and rose, just to name a few.
One hundred years later, these flavoured vodkas were standardised for mass consumption. The leading flavours
were cherry, raspberry and currant, sweetened with sugar. The modern flavoured vodka trend is really a recycling of the original way vodka was made. Russian aristocrat distillers in the 18th century competed amongst themselves by compounding hundreds of flavoured vodkas to demonstrate their connoisseurship.
Today, flavoured vodka represents only 5 per cent of global vodka sales. Western liquor store shelves contain hundreds of flavoured vodkas, ranging from the traditional additives such as raspberry and vanilla, to unusual, such as bacon, butter, hemp, peanuts and even cut grass.
RISE OF VODKA
Is it not strange that vodka, a traditional spirit, synonymous with Eastern Europe and especially Russia, became the post-modern drink of the West? Since its introduction into the Western Hemisphere in the 1950s, it has become the second largest spirit category in Australia, the largest in America and dominates global sales. More intriguing was that non-mainstream communities adopted vodka. Who could have predicted vodka would become the drink ‘de rigueur’ amongst youth, emergent gay communities, liberated women’s groups, even macho cohorts, as well as the spirit of choice for suave fictional characters like James Bond. It was quite an achievement that the spirit recruited patronage from such disparate and self-aware groups of free-thinking drinkers, all fearful of Soviet world domination.
We are also talking about a spirit that is defined as tasteless, odourless, clear and usually 40 per cent ABV. The secret to vodka’s success was in the marketing of the major brands, creating exciting imagery and highlighting the products purity. Vodka’s sensory appeal was its clean taste and subtle character. It goes with just about everything and anyone. Its purity connoted health and aspiration. Naked ethanol climbed to the top of the alcohol market and triumphed. What sweet irony.
RUSSIAN VODKA STANDARDS
As they experimented with different flavour combinations, vodka distillers were also
seeking greater purity and a cleaner taste. They pioneered new filtration and clarification processes. They set the vodka quality standards on filtration, the number of distillations and minimum drinking strength (40 per cent ABV) in the late 19th century. They were indifferent to which raw materials were used, allowing grain, potatoes, sugar beet and other carbohydrates to be the distilled sources of alcohol.
Today, modern Russia again dominates vodka production and sales, with over 4.4 billion litres produced. With vodka now firmly established in all western countries, should we be surprised regulations, production and quality standards vary around the world. In 2008, the EU required vodka not made from cereals or potatoes must label the carbohydrate used for the base spirit.
The US has set rigid conditions on charcoal filtering, distillation proof and sale, at not less than 40 per cent ABV. Australia, in the late 1960s, recognised vodka as a distinct spirit made from any carbohydrate and allowed it to be sold at the lower 37 per cent ABV, whereas the EU said 37.5 per cent. Australian vodka can be made from grain, molasses, grape spirit, potatoes, even dairy milk.
Vodka is about purity. Purity means getting as close to clean ethyl alcohol, while still leaving a pleasing character in the vodka. Brands today have better fermentations. Different carbohydrates are fermented using proprietary yeasts, multiple distillations are conducted in both column and pot stills, and then a number of filtrations are done to remove undesirable congeners and fusel oils. These quality brands bottle vodka that is of high purity, but with discernible and subtle character.
At the dawn of Russian distilling, vodka was very crudely made on primitive earthenware and wooden tub stills, using mainly rye, oats, barley or buckwheat. These hardy cereals survived the harsh Russian climate and would later form part of the recipes each distillery mashed to make their house style of vodka. By the late 18th century, European copper pot stills were being imported by aristocratic families at their estate vodka distilleries. Any surplus production, by law, was sold to the Tsar at fixed prices.
What differentiated vodka from other neutral white spirits made in Europe was Russia’s attention to filtration. This rectification process made the spirit cleaner and purer to the taste. Since the early days of vodka, producers have used some crude methods to liberate the alcohol, such as freezing out the alcohol, filtering through woollen blankets, sand, and charcoal, as well as using coagulants like milk and egg white to filter out suspended particles. The big break-through came when Johann Tobias Lowitz, a German chemist working at the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, undertook a systematic study of charcoal filtration in 1785. He studied the absorbency properties of dozens of woods on different substances, reporting the superior value of birch wood, alder and limewood charcoal for vodka rectification. This was the turning point that would start to improve the taste of Russian vodka through the 19th century.
Further advances in filtration and quality control were also improving standards and product quality. Sensory studies by Dmitri Mendeleev in 1865, recommended vodka not be sold under 40 per cent ABV, which became law in 1894. New discoveries in filtration gave way to tighter regulations, from controlling ratios of charcoal powder to pellets, depth of filtration columns and frequency of replacement, to the maximum age of birch wood for charcoal making. Another Russian would invent activated carbon in 1907. When the Prohibition on distilling lifted in 1924, activated carbon filtration joined improvements in continuous distillation to usher in the new era of ‘modern vodka’.
Read on tomorrow to find out how international influence in Russia, continued technological advances and the Russian Prohibition of 1914 impacted the spread and development of Russia’s national spirit.