Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Vodka (Polish: wódka; Russian: во́дка; Ukrainian: горілка, horilka) is a strong, clear, typically colorless liquor, usually distilled from fermented grain. It is commonly thought that the term is a diminutive from the Slavic word "voda" (woda, вода) for "water," although there exists another opinion, see below.
Except for insignificant amounts of flavorings, vodka consists of water and alcohol (ethanol). Vodka usually has an alcohol content ranging from 35 percent to 60 percent by volume. The classic Russian vodka is 40 percent (80 degrees proof), the number being attributed to the famous Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev.
The origins of vodka (and of its name) cannot be traced definitively, but it is believed to have originated in either Poland or Russia. Surprisingly, until recent times there were no serious historical research on vodka as a product. Nearly all research on vodka was in fact research of drinking and selling vodka, rather than of manufacturing vodka. Paradoxically, the weakening of the Soviet Union somewhat changed this situation (but the conclusive word is yet to be said). In the second half of the 1970s were two massive attacks on the priority and rights of the Soviet Union to market liquors named "vodka." The first assault was along the lines that the Russian Revolution "discontinued" Russia's trademark for vodka, which was "naturally" transferred to emigrated manufacturers of vodka, Smirnoff in particular, because of prohibition by Soviets, so that officially the Soviet Union started manufacturing vodka in 1923. This was refuted fairly easily. The second assault, by Poland, was more serious, and the Soviet Union undertook the historical research to substantiate Russia's priority, which was completed by 1979, and in 1982 the international arbitrage considered it convincing enough to grant the USSR the priority in vodka as Russian original alcoholic beverage and recognised the Soviet trademark motto "Only vodka from Russia is genuine Russian vodka."
The author of the research published his findings under the alias V.V. Pokhlebkin in the book A History of Vodka. (He is also known as an author of several culinary books). Despite the clear bias of the exposition in the book towards the goal (to prove the Russian priority), it is a serious, substantiated research and reveals quite a few facts, as well as debunks a number of myths, on the origins of vodka, both as product and as name.
Despite the judgement described above, Polish historians stand that the first written record of vodka occurred in Poland in 1405 in Sandomierz Court Registry (thus the Polish claim to vodka). In Russian language, the first written usage of the word vodka in an official document in its modern meaning is dated by the decree of Empress Catherine I of June 8, 1751 that regulated the ownership of vodka distilleries. At the same time, in the Novgorod chronicle in records dated by 1533 the term "vodka" is used in the context leading to the conclusion that it meant herbal alcoholic tinctures. Additionally, in a number of pharmaceutical lists the expressions "vodka of bread wine" (водка хлебного вина), "vodka in half of bread wine" (водка вполу хлебного вина) was used. Recalling that alcohol was long known as a basis for medicines, the above leads to a reasonable suggestion that the term vodka is a noun derived from the verb "vodit,'" "razvodit'" ("водить", "разводить"), translated as "to dilute with water." Hence "vodka of bread wine" is simply a water dilution of a distilled spirit. While the word could be found in manuscripts and in a kind of old Russian comics called lubok (лубок, pictures with text explaining the plot), it entered the Russian normative language (judging by lexicons) around the middle of 19th century.
Another possible explanation for the name is the Russian practice of using diminutives as endearing terms. For example, friends and family of a girl with the popular name "Svetlana" might call her "Sveta" or "Svetik", which means something like "my beloved little Svetlana". In the same way, a diminutive for "Voda" (water) would be "Vodka"—"my beloved little water".
Vodka was rarely drunk in the United States before the 1950s, but its popularity spread to the New World by way of post-war France. (Pablo Picasso once defined the most notable features of post-war France as "Brigitte Bardot, modern jazz, Polish vodka.") By 1975 vodka outsold bourbon, till then the leading spirit in the U.S. In the second half of the 20th century, vodka owed its popularity in part to its reputation as an alcoholic beverage that "leaves you breathless," as one ad put it — no smell of liquor remaining detectable on the breath. Its low level of fusel oils and congenerics — impurities that flavor spirits but that can contribute to the after-effects of heavy consumption — led to its being considered among the 'safer' spirits, though not in terms of its powers of intoxication, which, depending on strength, may be considerable (Pamela Vandyke Price, The Penguin Book of Spirits and Liqueurs [Harmondsworth & New York: Penguin Books, 1980], pp. 196ff.).
What is called "vodka" today, may be distilled from any starch/sugar-rich plant matter—traditionally grain such as rye (rye vodka is generally considered superior to other types) or wheat, but also potatoes and molasses, and sometimes even from byproducts of oil refining or wood pulp processing. Today vodka is produced throughout the world; there are many American producers, and Suntory even produces a vodka in Japan.
A common property of all vodkas, compared to other spirits, is that before any flavouring is added, it is neutralized as far as possible. This is often done by filtering it through charcoal. The idea is to remove everything except pure water and pure alcohol from the liquid. As a result, vodka has a very neutral taste and, if drunk unmixed, does not cause strong hangovers.
Apart from the alcoholic content, vodkas may be classified into two main groups: clear vodkas and flavoured vodkas. From the latter ones, one can separate bitter tinctures, such as Russian Yubileynaya (jubilee vodka) and Pertsovka (pepper vodka).
While most of the vodka exported to the West is unflavored, Slavic peoples make and drink a wide variety of flavored vodkas which have also become popular in the West. It has been a traditional way to make medicinal and homeopathic remedies. Flavorings include red pepper, ginger, various fruit flavors, vanilla, chocolate (without sweetener), and cinnamon. Ukrainians produce a commercial vodka that includes St John's Wort. Poles and Belarusians add the leaves of the local bison grass to produce Żubrówka or Zubrovka vodka, with slightly sweet flavor and light amber color. In Ukraine and Russia, vodka flavoured with honey and chilli pepper (Pertsovka, in Russian, Pertsivka, in Ukrainian) is also very popular.
This tradition of flavoring is also prevalent in the Nordic region, where vodka seasoned with various herbs, fruits and spices is the appropriate strong drink for all traditional seasonal festivities, midsummer in particular. In Sweden alone, there are some forty-odd common varieties of herb-flavored vodka (kryddat brännvin).
- Begg, Desmond. The Vodka Companion: A Connoisseur's Guide. Running: 1998. ISBN 0762402520.
- Clarke, Renfrey, and William Pokhlebkin. A History of Vodka. Verso: 1992. ISBN 0860913597.
- Delos, Gilbert. Vodkas of the World. Wellfleet: 1998. ISBN 0785810188.
- Lingwood, William, and Ian Wisniewski. Vodka: Discovering, Exploring, Enjoying. Ryland, Peters, & Small: 2003. ISBN 1841725064.
- Price, Pamela Vandyke. The Penguin Book of Spirits and Liqueurs. Penguin Books, 1980. [Chapter 8 is devoted to vodka.]
- Testimonies on reversal of privatization of Russian Vodka
- Slate: Which vodka is the best?
- How many calories are there in vodka?
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