Russian Vodka

Volume 1: How the story began...

Russian Vodka
"Is that vodka?" Margarita asked weakly.The cat jumped up in his seat with indignation."I beg your pardon, my queen," he rasped, "Would I ever allow myself to offer vodka to a lady? This is pure alcohol!"- Mikhail Bulgakov, "Master i Margarita"

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Have you ever asked a question where vodka originated from? Russia? Poland? Just Eastern Europe? No, no, and no... So where?


The prototype of vodka was created in Iran by a Persian doctor (clinician) Al-Razi in the 10th century. To be precise, he got ethanol by distillation.

Though Islam bans alcohol consumption, it is the place where vodka was born. Al-Razi wrote himself, "Aqua Vitae is used by alchemists for experiments, and by clinicians — as a remedy for all ailments, including ageing."

This colorless flammable liquid was used for medical purposes, and for producing one of the most expensive of women's valuables at the time — perfumes.

For the first time, vodka and Russia met in 1386: Genoese embassy brought "aqua vitae," as it was called, and introduced it to Prince Dmitry Donskoi. Later in Europe, with the course of time, other strong beverages were born: brandy, cognac, whiskey, schnapps and vodka.

The "spirit" of wine, in Latin "spiritus vini," is what hard liquors were known as for decades. The modern name of this substance occurs in many languages, including Russian — spirt.

The production of vodka in Russia (as it is known nowadays) took the first step in the second half of the 15th century and was probably inspired by the emergence of grain surpluses that required rapid processing. The volatile liquid obtained as a result of the distillation of fermented wort obtained as a concentrate.

At the beginning of the 16th century, "burning wine" or "firewater" was taken not to Russia, but from it. And the life-giving liquid hit the road! This was the first step of vodka exports, which was later destined to conquer the world.

Nowadays, Russia is on the list of the top five exporters of vodka around the world.

The word "vodka" appeared later in the 17-18th centuries. Most likely, it's a derivative of voda, which means "water" in Russian. But it is not the only name which was used to call the demon drink: "bread wine", "wine bread", "tavern" (the name of vodka produced illegally), "smoked wine", "burnt wine", "bitter wine"...

At the end of the 19th century, for the first time in Russian history, a state standard for vodka was introduced. This was promoted by the research of famous chemists Nikolai Zelinsky and Dmitry Mendeleyev who were the members of the commission for the introduction of a vodka monopoly.

And actually, D. Mendeleyev developed a modern composition of the booze which was supposed to correspond to a minimum alcohol content of 40%. "Mendeleyevsky" version of vodka in 1894 was patented in Russia as "Moscow Special." Later, it became just "Special." So since this moment, vodka's official birthday has been celebrated January 31st of the year..

As an element of everyday culture, vodka took a specific place in the history of Russian life. This "hard stuff" has also become an unchanged "hard" payment unit, some sort of currency, especially in rural areas.

Vodka is often perceived as a national symbol of Russia, along with a samovar, a balalaika, a matryoshka (Russian nesting doll), and caviar. And the culture of Russia would not be so rich and multifaceted, if not their national drink — vodka.

This national spirit drink has always been not only an indispensable attribute, a key mandatory element of the most important life events and celebrations, but also a part of the history of the Great Country.

So if you intend to pay a visit to your Eastern European friends soon, don't forget to buy a bottle of pure cold drink.


Keep an eye out for Volume 2, which talks about how vodka should be drunk.

Lubow Dabrowska-Szpakowicz
Lubow Dabrowska-Szpakowicz
Read next: Whiskey: A Guide and History
Lubow Dabrowska-Szpakowicz

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