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.
In 1826, Tsar Nicholas abolished the State monopoly on vodka production. Distilling licences could be purchased by free citizens and even foreigners who were not nobility. By 1860, only one Moscow distiller was Russian, the rest were French and German.
It was during this time that French, German and English equipment began being imported into Russia, leading to advances in steam and semi-continuous distilling. The French had also made significant advances into sugar beet distilling when the
Napoleonic Wars blocked their West Indies colonies and sugarcane trade. Germany had no sugar cane colonies, encouraging them to pioneer potato distilling. Sugar beets and potato became cheap and reliable raw materials for distilling. These were subterranean vegetables, less prone to surface crop losses from frosts, floods, diseases and wars. The 19th century saw grain harvests rebound under improved cultivation practises, the introduction of mechanisation and a long run of good seasons. Russia was producing grain surpluses which they exported to Europe as foreign exchange.
Peasants by 1860 represented over 80 per cent of the 60 million Russians. The following year, Tsar Nicholas II emancipated tens of millions of Russian serfs. The demand for vodka began to soar. With grain prices rising due to exports, cheaper production turned to the poor tasting potato and beets to meet the working class demand for cheap and plentiful vodka.
By the 1880s, new continuous distilling columns were introduced from Europe but proved impractical to meet Russia’s insatiable thirst for cheap vodka. The problem with the new stills was Russian rye; it is a difficult mash to handle due to the grain’s inherent stickiness. So too were beets and potatoes, both thick mashes that clogged the equipment. Russian engineers began redesigning stills to work specifically with these materials. By the 1890s, new continuous distillation columns and retorts gave way to more highly rectified spirits.
As cheap and plentiful vodka flooded Russian society, the incidences of drunkenness grew alarmingly high. By 1893, over 3.6 billion litres of vodka flooded across the country. The abuse of vodka had become internationally infamous. Australian newspapers reported the extent of Russian drunkenness was unparalleled to any other country. Articles described ‘King Vodka’ as the new Russian Tyrant where ‘peasants drink vodka until they die’. To kerb consumption and gain control of the rich revenue stream vodka was producing, 60 per cent of the state’s income, Tsar Nicholas II nationalised all distilleries in 1904.
The announcement of the First World War was the excuse the Tsar needed to prevent excessive consumption. In July 1914, he declared a national prohibition on distilling, shutting down his private industry. The public sale of any alcohol he restricted to restaurants, where the bourgeoisie and aristocratic elite could afford to inhabit, quaff fine wines and toss down good vodka. The Russian people must have been distraught that they were excluded from their beloved vodka. In the middle of the Great War, the country imploded with the 1917 Russian Revolution.
The new Communists did keep prohibition. The new USSR appeared in 1922 and three years later the prohibition on sales was abolished. Taking a leaf from the Tsars authoritarian rule, the new Soviet State took full control of Russian liquor production and sales. Distilling started in 1924 and began to incorporate new distillation technology and filtration systems.
VODKA GOES WEST
The 1917 Revolution also sent many Russians and distillers into exile. The famous Smirnov family, at the time of Prohibition a leading vodka distillery in Moscow selling 45 million bottles in 1896, saw some family members escape from Russia. Vladimir Smirnoff (he changed the name to be a French sounding version in 1923), followed other Russian émigrés to cities of a safe harbour. First, he moved to Istanbul in 1919, then Sophia, Bulgaria, and eventually settled in Nice, France. In each city, Vladimir licenced local distillers with the Smirnoff name and recipe to market vodka to exiled Russians and locals.
In 1933, he met a Russian-American, Rudolph Kunnet whose family originated in Ukraine and had supplied the Smirnov Moscow distillery with grain. He sold the Smirnoff rights in the US to Kunnet. Two months after US prohibition had been repealed in 1933, Kunnet began making Smirnoff vodka in Bethel, Connecticut. Kunnet’s Smirnoff vodka was serving the Slavic immigrant communities around the greater New York area.
By 1939, Smirnoff was selling 5,000 cases a year. After the Second World War, the US vodka market exploded to over 850,000 cases in 1953.
Vodka was on a roll and Smirnoff was fast becoming the world’s most popular vodka. The same story gets repeated in the UK, Canada, and Australia. To meet the increasing demand caused by Eastern European immigrants, new large vodka distilleries were commissioned in Anglo markets during the early 1950s. Instead of Russian rye and wheat, Canada and the US used mainly corn and wheat, substituting local hardwoods and activated carbon for Russian materials. In Australia, we used a barley/wheat mix with activated carbon to make our vodkas, such as Smirnoff. Vodka became a truly international spirit, in both consumption and places of production.
Raw materials play a big part in driving the primary aromas and flavours in vodka. Potatoes, now astutely distilled in modern distilleries, offer the drinker a more voluptuous mouth-feel. A nutty, mineral note is detectable in the rye vodka. Wheat brings out pepper and anise subtleties. Each raw material leaves small but discernible traces in its vodka. Different yeast strains can leave microscopic flavour traces from the esters and chemical compounds during fermentation. Then different still technologies and distilling techniques impart subtle character on the spirit. Finally, different filtering processes and materials imprint their finishing impression.
DETERMINANTS OF STYLE
When vodka distillers talk about their secret recipes, it may involve a unique combination of grains, including local varieties or ‘single estate’ harvests, together with their proprietary yeast. It could have been slow double or triple-distilled in copper or stainless-steel stills, or rectified through retorts. It could even be a highly rectified spirit produced to 95 per cent ABV purity in a continuous column still. Finally, different filtration methods using deep beds of hardwood charcoal, special quartz sand or activated carbon, affect the sensory properties of the final product. These production variables are as endless as the flavour nuances we can detect between vodkas. So, while all vodka can be defined as odourless, clear and tasteless, each brand will show its subtle character and unique flavour to the attentive drinker.
Sometimes marketing success happens by accident. Rudolph Kunnet, who began producing Smirnoff in America in 1934, was facing financial difficulties by 1939. He sold the Smirnoff rights and recipe for $14,000, plus 5 per cent royalties for five years to John Martin at Heublein in Hartford, Connecticut. When Heublein started production, they did not have enough Smirnoff bottle caps, so they used some leftover caps identified as whiskey. Ten cases with these caps were shipped to Columbia, South Carolina. No sooner had the order been delivered than the distributor ordered another fifty cases, then
five hundred. Intrigued by the leaping sales in Columbia, Martin called on the distributor.
He discovered an enterprising salesman was selling Smirnoff as ‘white whiskey’ – no smell, no taste. The locals were substituting Smirnoff with whiskey, mixing with milk, orange juice, cola and whatever took their fancy.