It is 1386 CE in Eastern Europe and Lithuania and Poland have been united through the marriage of Queen Jadwiga of Poland and the Grand Duke Jogalia of Lithuania. Their united kingdom is divided into several palatinates, each with its own competent leader who must both report back to the court on events within the palatinate as well as attend royal sessions regarding the governance of the kingdom. In 1405 CE in the Palatinate of Sandomierz, documents were being prepared for the court of the Jagiellon dynasty and made reference to wódka, a term which covered medicines and cosmetic products as well as a beverage called gorzatka meaning ‘to burn’. This is the first written reference to vodka, the popular modern distilled liquid made from fermented cereal grains. There are some references that date vodka as far back as the 900s and these records refer to a liquid that was used as a disinfectant and as a treatment for wounds, but a great debate continues as to whether it was the Russians or the Poles who invented vodka. However, as mentioned above, the earliest reference to this drink that was a medicine exists in Polish documents. The first mention of it in Cyrillic is recorded in 1533. By this time it had changed from being a medicine into a popular drink and was taken from Poland into Russia by the merchants of Kievan Rus, a federation of East Slavic and Finno-Ugric peoples in Eastern and Northern Europe in the Middle Ages.
The earliest distillers were the aristocracy of Poland and Russia. They had the financial means to set up distilleries and fund experimental attempts to improve on quality. Vodka means ´little water´ and got its name because it looks just like water. However, unlike the water of the Middle Ages, vodka did not cause or spread disease and so although it was originally used for medicinal purposes, by the 16th century it had become a popular drink. It is now the national drink of Poland, Russia, Sweden and Finland. Vodka continues to be a central part of many eastern European cultures such as the Slavic belt countries of Belarus, Estonia, Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Baltic countries such as Lithuania and Nordic countries such as Norway and Sweden. This group of countries in Eastern Europe is often referred to as the ´Vodka belt´. Certainly some of the world’s best, oldest and most expensive vodkas are produced in these countries.
From the Vodka belt, knowledge of vodka in other European countries began to grow throughout the 19th century as a result of the Napoleonic Wars. Russian soldiers were moved to various locations across Europe to fight in battles and they took their custom of vodka drinking with them wherever they went. From there, vodka became popular in Europe. With regards to vodka becoming popular throughout the world, there are various accounts of how and when it arrived in the United States. However, it is clear that in the 1960s, the fictional British spy ‘James Bond’ turned vodka into an iconic drink with his request of a ‘Vodka Martini, shaken not stirred’. Obviously, television took the message around the world and nowadays, vodka is a standard component of any bar as well as being a fundamental ingredient in numerous cocktails and recipes.
Principally, vodka is a liquid that has been distilled from cereal grains which have been fermented and it consists primarily of water and ethanol. Over the centuries, vodka has also been made out of molasses, soya beans, grapes, sugar beets and potatoes. The use of potatoes in vodka is relatively new and other modern options include fruits as well as herbs, honey and maple syrup as the base. More recently, vodkas have been flavoured with strange and tantalising flavours such as caramel, bacon, peanut butter and jelly, glazed donut, rainbow sherbert and these have also become popular with vodka drinkers.
From its origins in the Middle Ages to cocktails, bizarre flavours and expensive options, vodka has truly taken its place amongst the world’s most well loved and popular spirits. Poland is the world’s largest vodka producer and the oldest vodkas hail from this country. Each has its own unique story. The oldest known vodka is Żubrówka (Bison Grass Vodka) and dates back to the 15th century CE. This is a herb-flavoured vodka which contains a blade of bison grass in every bottle. Its predominant flavours are of woodruff, vanilla, coconut and almonds. It is the third best selling vodka after Smirnoff and Absolut.
Starka is produced in Poland, Lithuania and Belarus and is made from fermented rye mash. It is aged in oak barrels with a small quantity of leaves from the lind tree and the apple tree. This prestigious vodka also dates back to the 15th century and vintages from 3 years to the 35 years Herbal Starka are available on the market. There is an interesting tradition associated with this vodka. At a child’s birth, the father of the house poured large amounts of home-made spirits into an empty oak barrel which had been previously used to store wine. The barrel was then sealed with beeswax and buried. When the child got married, the barrel was dug out and drunk at the wedding.
Goldwasser is traditionally a Polish vodka and from 1598 - 2009, production took place in Poland. However, in 2009 production moved to Germany. The production of this very special vodka includes herbs and spices such as cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, lavender, thyme and juniper. However, it is not the herbs and spices which make this vodka so special, but the presence of 23 karat gold flakes in each bottle!
Another elitist vodka, which is not as old as the previous three mentioned, is the most expensive vodka in the world. It is known as Billionaire Vodka and sells for a cool US$7.25 million per bottle. So what makes this vodka so expensive? Well, the bottle is filled not only with vodka, but also with diamonds! In which case, if this were offered to you, the only option would be to have it neat in the hope that some diamonds would end up in your glass!
Vodka has been enjoyed as a drink over the best part of the last five centuries and has moved from being an Eastern European drink to a common favourite in many countries around the world. It can be enjoyed neat, ice cold or at room temperature, on the rocks, as shots or as one ingredient of several in a cocktail. If you are a cocktail drinker, then you will recognise some of the following; Bloody Mary (vodka and tomato juice), Screwdriver (vodka and orange juice), Cosmo (vodka, triple sec and cranberry juice), White Russian (vodka, Kahlúa and cream), Lemon Drop (vodka, triple sec and lemon juice), Sea Breeze (vodka with cranberry juice and grapefruit juice), Moscow Mule (vodka and ginger beer) and the Black Russian (vodka and Kahlúa).
Nowadays, many countries produce their own vodka and as well as trusted brands, there are obviously cheap imitations on the market. In a former period of my life, I worked as a shop assistant in a wine store in an English village. At the same time I was also working in the local pharmacy and I can recommend this as a fool-proof method to get to know the locals if one is living in a village as either they will be picking up medication or they will be picking up a bottle or two of something! Anyway, as part of the job, salesmen and women representing various wine, liqueur and spirit companies would often sponsor a tasting evening and alongside the customers there would be the opportunity to taste whatever was being promoted. This was useful because nothing sells a product like personal knowledge. So it was here where I was able to taste Grey Goose vodka which hails from France. It is very smooth and quite different from standard brands. Although it is not an expensive brand, neither can it be considered ‘cheap’ and a bottle sells in Malaga for €50 (approximately US$60). Not unaffordable, but perhaps not the first choice for just any Friday night. So instead of my favourite Grey Goose, I have a bottle of some unknown brand in my cupboard which is currently accompanying my journey of making the perfect Bloody Mary with Lovejoys Bloody Mary Mix (LBMM). I am still experimenting, but once I am satisfied with the exact measure of ingredients, quantity of ice, perfect glass and accompanying snacks, my findings will be shared and all will be invited to try my personalised recipe with the vodka of your choice. Until then Na zdrowie! Cheers!