Russian Vodka …
This notion in all languages of the world became as known and standard as Scottish whisky, Czech beer and French wines. Besides there are weighty reasons both historical and technological. Now many countries produce vodka of different assortment, different quality. But only Russian vodka is classical original beverage of this kind.
WHY? To answer this question definitely is extremely difficult, or rather impossible.
It would lead to simplification of the question and would not explain its essence. Judge yourself.
To tell, that vodka is the most ancient beverage, means to tell almost nothing about it. For the majority of national beverages of the world has ancient origin.
To tell, that vodka is a special beverage, means to tell humanely and unpersuasive. What is special? In what sense ‘special’? In fact all beverages differ from each other with something individual and special. Even bad beverages.
To praise vodka as a strong Russian alcoholic beverage, knocking down a healthy big fellow, means to put it in one line with banal notion about pseudo-Russian exotic: bears, troykas and samovars and – and so to vulgarize this beverage, instead of giving its original qualities. And historically it won’t be absolutely true: in Russia there were more strong and knocking down beverages much more ancient than vodka.
Briefly speaking, not any epithets: either the strongest or the most gentle – can explain the essence of Russian vodka’s originality. Therefor, not deafening, sonorous, empty advertising is necessary, but quiet and convincing story, diligent scientific information on growth and production of vodka in Russia and its characteristic distinctive features, allocating it from other alcoholic beverages of the world. Only such story will be convincing for a modern sane person for as paradoxical it may sound, Russian vodka is a beverage of sober people willing to remain sober. And if it’s all the same for the drunkard what to drink, it is far from being all the same for a considerable and reasonable person, as he should always remain decent and sober. And Russian vodka - and only Russian vodka - guarantees presence of clear mind and high spirits, despite of its proof. Why? How?
Our story will be about it. It is necessary to tell that the word “vodka” itself –– though has received wide world distribution – is not that ancient; it is much younger than the beverage.
Moreover, this notion appeared quite naturally only after qualities of vodka had been checked up by a long time national experience. And this word began some kind of an estimation of the most obvious, visible qualities of vodka. "Vodka" in Russian is a diminutive, caressing word from a word ‘water’, that is "vodonka", "vodichka". For crystal transparency equal to the sparkling transparency of mountain stream or a spring as the people called it. And the same notion was kept and assigned to it by scientists for its chemical clearness, mystery and simplicity, equal to simplicity and mystery of water, and also for the special production technology, where ideally pure water plays extremely important role.
Let me tell you the history of vodka creation first and then about modern technology of its producing. These two aspects are closely connected.
As it’s known, distillation of alcohol and production of spirit have been invented in France, in Provence, in the XIV century.
It is considered, that in 1334 A.Vilnev received the first wine alcohol. Then in other countries – in England (1485), Scotland (1490-1494), Germany (1520-1522), two-three centuries later production of whisky, gin and brantwein from grain and other raw materials by the same technological methods of distillation began.
In Russia the history of creation of strong alcoholic beverages began not with the invention of distillation. And this circumstance gave the whole production development of beverages in Russia completely another background and technological decision. That is the essence of difference and originality of Russian vodka, its secret!
Distillation and principles of getting alcohol were not known for the Russian at least up to the middle of the XV century. And the strong alcoholic beverages, created on the basis of fermentation of berry juices with honey, have existed in Russia since the end of the IX century already.
It would be logical to assume, that ignorance of distillation led to making product of lower quality littered with impurity, chemically not clean, not refined, and so badly influencing the health. Actually everything was the other way round.
Before acknowledging the distillation Russian honey makers used mechanical methods to clear fermented drinking honey, methods rather similar to methods of clearing of grape wines. They included not only mature and keeping, but also widely used honey freezing when fusel oils and other impurity were removed together with honey surface formed ice, and the concentration of honey thus even more increased. Simultaneously with freezing the "gluing" of honey was used which was carried out by such unique material as “karluk” - sturgeon glue.
All this gave qualitative advantage to Russian production of alcoholic beverages. And when it became clear, that it is impossible to achieve the same qualitative results by new method of distillation, as by former method of mechanical absorbing clearing of honey, they started to use ancient traditional methods in vodka production.
There was extremely interesting thing. While other countries perfected the methods of distillation to achieve high cleanliness of alcohol product, in Russia they simply returned to pre-distillery method of alcoholic beverages production, but have returned not simply back to past, but applied old methods of clearing to the new semifinished item, received by distilling method. Thus there was not simply connection of different methods of improvement of vodka quality, but also new additional measures of mechanical clearing were developed more comprehensible to distilling spirit, than for honey. So, alongside with ‘karluk’ they began to use as coagulator-cleaners milk and egg fiber, the filtration of vodka was invented through birch coal, felt, river sand.
In Russia vodka production in mass amounts began since the middle of the XV century (between 1446 and 1478), and at the beginning of XVI century there are data on vodka export from Russia to the neighbouring Sweden (1505), where it was known from the Russians for the first time, not from the Germans.
Thus, production of vodka in Russia was studied since 150 after the invention of distillation in France, but before production of gin, whisky and brantwein in other West European countries.
We can tell, that by the middle of the XVIII century the quality top of Russian vodka was achieved, produced only in terms of landlord "domestic" production as since 1716 distillation became almost the privilege of noblemen, and large land and titled nobility has received the special right on cubes for doubling vodkas (the Decree dated the 6th of June 1751).
By the Decree dated March 31, 1755 said to confiscate all distilleries, which merchants as noblemen or even on equal footing with noblemen dared to have. Thus, practically in the second half of the XVIII century Russian vodka was only of "domestic" production, that guaranteed its high quality, as according to the ideas of the legislator, it was to table of exclusive layers of society mainly and was cleared by extremely natural animal protein-coagulator, in respect of any expenses. It was possible only in Russia in terms of absolutely free-of-charge work of serfs and the full property of nobility on natural resources. So, for Six buckets of vodka of the first distillation at least one bucket of milk or a half-bucket of egg fibers was necessary.
At that time a set of kinds and grades of Russian vodka appears, and the main attention of manufacturers was paid to this variety, instead of standardization. Each landowner was looking forward to having its own vodka mark. At that epoch exclusively "flavored vodkas" were called ‘vodka’. They were made of dilution with milk at the beginning redistillation of alcohol, and then, having distillated this mix for the third time, water and various vegetative aromas from Russian plants, berries, fruit or seeds of tree species (a birch, an oak, a hazel grove, a bird cherry, a juniper, etc.) and after that distillated again, i.e. vodka went through four stages.
Many grandees considered prestigious to have vodka with odour beginning with all letters of the Russian alphabet, and sometimes two - three vodkas on each letter. For example, such vodka as “Anisovaya” (anisic), “Beryosovaya” (birch), “Vishnyovaya” (cherry), “Grushovaya” (pear), “Dynnaya” (melon), “Yezhevichnaya” (blackberry), “ Zheludyovaya” (acorn), “Zveroboynaya” (St. John’s wort), “Irgovaya and Irnaya”, “Kalinovaya” (Guilder rose), “Limonnaya” (citric), “Myatnaya” (mint), “Malinovaya” (raspberry), “Nogotkovaya”, “Oblepihovaya” (sea-buckthorn), “Polynnaya” (wormwood), “Pertsovaya” (pepper), “Ryabinovaya” (ashberry), “Smorodinovaya” (currants), “Tminnaya” (caraway), “Ukropnaya” (dill), “Fistashkovaya” (pistachio), “Hrennaya” (horse-radish), “ Cheryomuhovaya” (bird cherry), “Shalfeinaya” (sagy), “Schavelevaya” (sorrel), “Estragonnaya” (tarragon), “Yablochnaya” (apple) were made.
Sometimes during the feasts at landowners’ an original entertainment was arranged, when visitors kept in mind a word, poured some drops of different vodkas starting with each letter of this word in a wineglass, and the landlord by taste of these "cocktails" tried to define the word. Sometimes experts defined such long and complex words, as "Navuhodonosor", including a mix of ten vodkas. All these facts testify not only the ingenuity of Russian "cocktail" composers, but also their high culture of drinking, for the main thing was preservation of clearness of mind, sobriety of judgement, high ability to distinguish nuances of aroma, to be able to allocate them from the most complex mix.
There is one more interesting thing; Russian cocktail composers paid the greater attention to taste, instead of an external bright sight of a cocktail. At last, the fact, that these mixes were scanty and on the basis of homogeneous alcoholic product - only vodkas, which also illustrates their harmlessness. No wonder, what exactly at that period, especially since the end of the XVIII century, the glory of the quality of Russian vodka widely distributed in Western Europe. They start to export it out of the limits of the country, but not as the goods, but only as “gifts” from Russian aristocrats. Ekatherina II did not consider shameful to present vodka to Frederick the Great and to Voltaire, to send it to Swedish king Gustav III and to great Swedish botanist Charles Linney. The latter, by the way, even wrote the whole research devoted to vodka: "Vodka in hands of the philosopher, the doctor and the commoner ", issued in 1790.
Certainly, Russian methods of high-quality "domestic" vodka production became extremely expensive and slowed down its production, interfered its development in more significant sizes. However, the fact that vodka was not considered only as "commodity clause" in terms of a serf economy, has rescued it from quality reduction, from the necessity to compete with cheap vodkas of distillery production in the countries next to Russia Lithuanias, Poland, Prussia.
At the beginning of the XIX century, after Napoleon defeat and the engagement of Russian armies to Paris in 1814, Russian vodka "debuted" at restaurant "Veri", which was rented by Russian government to feed generals and officers of Russian army, and for the first time it became accessible also to the elected circle of the French public.
Despite of all pamperedness and strictness of the Frenchmen to good cuisine and beverages, and in spite of their getting used to grape wine, vodka was appreciated for its nature, cleanliness, noble without any impurity taste, that is by the same criteria which were laid to the best grape wines and cognacs.
However the XIX century prepared serious tests to Russian vodka, which could end, probably, with its loss if but unsurpassed qualities saved it.
As it is known, since the end of the XVIII and especially the first half XIX centuries wide production of commodity spirit developed on the basis of distillation of cheap potato raw material in Germany and in Poland entering then the structure of Russia. Cheap German Schnapps and Polish "gorzalka” quickly won the European market and even start to penetrate into Russian. Nevertheless in this situation some Russian distillers, possessing enough extensive Russian home market, could not resist the temptation of huge profits, which only one transition from grain to potato production of vodka promised, and furthermore the refusal of old traditional ways of clearing of extremely expensive product. Part of the distilleries in the western provinces of Russia, in Byelorussia began to transit when vodka producing to potato raw material, especially after the 60-ies of the XIX century.
However two rather significant factors, which saved it from quality degradation, prevented it from the deterioration of Russian vodka character.
Consumers themselves, who got used to both rye and rye-wheat Russian vodka and didn’t want to recognize potato vodka, put the first barrier.
How could ordinary consumers notice these distinctions and to what degree were they essential to them? It is very easy. The usage of potato and syrup vodka inevitably causes unpleasant consequences as a headache, and symptoms of poisoning as well, because of fusel oils contained in it and other impurity. They, even in the scantiest amounts being present in such vodkas, influence the organism not only tipsier and destroying, but also change the character of intoxication, causing animosity instead of good-natured fun.
If grain alcohol can be completely exempted with the help coagulators and filters from harmful impurity, but to exempt them from potato alcohol especially by industrial products is practically impossible. Even scientific chemistry as scientists emphasized repeatedly, is not able to separate fusel oils from potato spirit by distillations only. It is possible to try to remove or muffle a fusel smell by various odours, smart receptions of falsification, however the consumer distinguishes all the same, though later, by disgusting heaviness in head, what he is dealing with - with natural grain or potato vodka.
Thus, the first criterion of definition of quality is simple and obvious. It is clear that the opinion of the consumer in Russia, from time immemorial got used to pure grain wine, played a main role for continuation of production of grain spirit though cheapness of potato vodka, it is especial for poor layers of Russia’s population then, was rather attractive.
The second barrier – even more powerful than consumer’s opinion – was the introduction of the state monopoly for vodka production and sale in Russia in 1894. Alongside with fiscal interests of the state and aspiration to prevent abusing of individual vodka producers, the reason of this step of the government was the desire to struggle with the drunkenness arising of substandard alcoholic beverages consumption, coming to Russian home market at the period of 70-80-ies of the last century from the western areas of the Empire - Poland, Lithuania, Byelorussia, where they began to make cheap potato vodka.
By wide private production which developed in Russia since 60-70ies of the XIX century it was difficult to the government to establish the state control over vodka quality, and especially over primary raw material. That is why one of the first control measures was at first the restriction of number of vodka distilleries and firms releasing vodka. So, in 1860 there were almost 5000 factories, in 1870 – 4000, in 1890 – 2050. Then, when this measure didn’t help anymore, they decided to implement the state monopoly. To tell the truth, one more attempt has been made to lean on some private concerns in vodka production before. But it didn’t give any results as the methods of production of state, exclusive vodka, developed by the most outstanding Russian scientists-chemists, considerably surpassed those, which were used at private factories. The government implemented hot clearing of wine spirit – rectification – at state factories already in 1880. By the beginning of the XX century all state alcohol was rectified, and services of private firms were refused.
It is typical, that at that time Spain bought exclusively Russian state pure grain spirit for making its well-known wines - cherry, malaga. Since the end of the XIX century Russian vodka and grain spirit were also imported for wine production by such countries of classical winemaking, as Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and Bulgaria.
One of the central measures provided by introduction of wine (vodka) monopoly in Russia was scientific invention of modern technology the application of which private distillery owners, worrying only about profits, could not afford. Such outstanding Russian chemists as L.N. Shishkov, Ì.G. Kucherov, the founder of periodic system of chemical elements D.I. Mendeleyev and academician N.D. Zelinsky took part in the development of modern vodka technology with preservation and improvement of traditional methods of its production and clearing.
The scientifically designed technology included not only repeated filtration through felt and activated charcoal, but also the method of gluing for the best grade vodka production.
These of vodka are really crystal - not only physically, but chemically as well. Moreover, in modern conditions of general city atmosphere pollution with exhaust and other harmful gases, Russian vodka is ideally chemically pure, richly aerated - possesses surprisingly salutary clearing influence on the organism at its moderate consumption about 30-50 grams a day as preventive doze against poisoning with phenolic, aniline, chloric and fluorine containing connections inhaled by a person during the day.
In 1884 special "The Technical Committee" was created in Russia, the task of which included the control over production and vodka quality. D.I. Mendeleyev took active part in committee’s work, besides such outstanding Russian scientists, as Ì.G. Kucherov, D.P. Konovalov, A.A.Verigo, etc.
He suggested not only to keep, but also officially ratify the notion “vodka” for the Russian grain spirit, called until then mostly as wine, grain wine, gorilka, pennik and less often as vodka. The former notion concerned only the high-quality product of mainly "domestic" production, gone through long and careful clearing.
The notion "vodka" was applied as the only thing and lexically the most correct for this primordial Russian alcoholic beverage since the end of the XIX century when uniform for the whole country technology of vodka preparation was accepted, and its quality was guaranteed by the state. Thus exclusively the great value had that circumstance that D.I.Mendeleyev's offer about diluting the alcohol with water to 40°-alcohol volume (80 proof) in vodka. D.I. Mendeleyev proved that to achieve exact 40° dilution is possible only when grain alcohol is mixed with water exactly in weight, instead of volumes.
Drink ability arises a 40°-alcohol volume (80 proof) of vodka, its better assimilation by organism, and secondly, uttermost catching of all impurity, especially fusel weights which at higher concentration of spirit are dissolved by it up to the degree, that no filters and adaptations are capable to remove them, can be created only at such cultivation as D.I.
Mendeleyev established. Thus, modern vodka is the result not only of the tradition of application of natural means produced on the basis of century experience as mostly raw material and in clearing methods, but also the result of deep scientific search and calculation that guarantees reception of chemically pure harmless product.
If you want to give vodka some "domestic character", to test the taste of a beverage of old times and simultaneously to achieve its greater softness, velvetiness try to draw it a bit of grasses and spices according to customs of the XVIII century. It is the best way to use the following aromas: St. John’s wort, dried lemon or orange peel. They give the best flavouring and aromatic effect in combination with Russian vodka. Others, especially artificial aromas can only spoil its taste. The main thing is to dry up tops of St. John’s wort or dried peel well. Then add some leaves or peel directly to a bottle with vodka and to let them to be kept for a week or a week and a half. You’ll get three beverages fine in color, crystal in transparency: pale emerald from wild orange, citric-yellow from citric dried peel and inimitably deep gold-crimson shade from St. John’s wort. They themselves form unique colourful still-life, which a person with the most refined taste will be able to appreciate it in its value, especially on the table served with cold snack. As for aroma and taste of these beverages one can give them original estimation only when tasted them personally for there are no words, apparently, in any language of the world, even in Russian...
And one more friendly advice: as well as any other noble beverage one should drink vodka gradually, with small drinks, enabling it to wash all oral cavity. To swallow vodka a volley is a nasty taste. It is similar to champagne, Russian vodka demands some ice to prove to be the best way. Therefore it should be drunk only strongly cooled.
The extremely important fact to estimate vodka’s original value as a beverage necessary at a feast, is also those food components which should accompany it, or as they are called in Russian – snacks.
Vodka is an expensive beverage and also requires expensive snacks: caviar, salty and smoked red fish, salmon, sturgeon, stellate sturgeon, pickled mushrooms, pancakes and pel'menis.
Without nourishing and saltish snack vodka is not capable to produce all its qualities, it is a necessary accompaniment to it. By the way, good effect give not only expensive caviar and sturgeon, but some cheaper products - Dutch, Scottish and Icelandic herring with boiled potatoes and fresh green onions, pickles and gherkins, sauerkraut flavoured with a spicy onion and black pepper. These snacks give vodka the opportunity to shade its best flavouring qualities and at the same time do not give any chances for intoxication. With proper vodka snack a person always remains the mister of position, can always completely control himself and receive only stimulating aesthetic effect from vodka drinking, instead of rough intoxication. To say, that "vodka is artful" is incorrect. One must just know how to drink it. So, for example, it is not recommended to drink vodka with cheese, boiled fish, hot and cold sausages, for which other beverages more properly suit. It is not in wain that vodka gets its origin in Russia: unknown inventors, who created it, completely matched it to national Russian table. That is why, whether we like it or not, vodka mostly benefits in combination with traditional Russian dishes, and also with similar piquant snacks of other peoples.
Do not forget about it, please, and you will enrich the pleasure and confidence that you were not mistaken, having chosen true Russian vodka as a worthy beverage for the dearest visitors...
And to conclude there is one more essential moment. Alongside with original Russian vodka from the USSR the foreign consumer frequently faces vodkas made by various firms in the USA, England, Germany and other countries.
What is the relation of these beverages to natural Russian vodka? It’s obvious, that high reputation of original Russian vodka couldn’t excite temptations at many emigrants from Russia to reproduce it overseas and to acquaint the West with its advantages.
Expecting unawareness of the majority of consumers abroad about the nature of vodka, these emigrants either by themselves or more often through intermediaries began to produce pseudo-Russian vodka under former firm or other "exotic" Russian names with the use of Russian national motives on the labels.
Why do we call them pseudo-Russian vodkas? First of all, they were considered as those in Russia till 1917, and even earlier, at once after implementation of monopoly in 1894-1896 and establishment of the state standard on vodka. All vodkas, which did not meet this standard, could not meet it, to be exact, were related to the category of pseudo-Russian vodkas. They were also supposed to be sold as completely another product. So, Keglevich’s "vodka" was made from black treacle acoording to the special recipe and did not relate to the category of grain vodkas. "Vodka" of the princes Eristovs in general was not Russian grain, but Caucasian, fruit-berry, and before the Revolution had the name "kizlyarka", i.e. kizlyar vodka, by the place of production in Kizlyar, Caucasus. Though this vodka was better than potato vodkas (if it was made from local Caucasian raw material) and quite often was called as "Russian cognac" by people, its compounding, aroma, taste, property have nothing in common with traditional Russian vodka. At last, "Smirnovskaya Vodka" though was only grain by raw material (not rye, as state, but wheaten) before revolution, however and it was not given the honor title "cleared", which was given only to the premiums of so-called "exclusive" (state) vodka.
Precisely the same situation was with other vodkas, produced before the Revolution in Russia by private firms: all of them essentially differed from the standard of the state Russian vodka remaining outside of reach of private firms.
Therefore we with good reason declare, that only vodka from Russia is natural Russian vodka.
The Candidate of Historical Sciences V.V. Pokhlebkin