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Vodka (Russian: водка) is a distilled beverage composed primarily of water and ethanol with traces of impurities and flavorings. Vodka is made by the distillation of fermented substances such as grains, potatoes, or sometimes fruits and/or sugar. Vodka is a spirit virtually unknown in the United States prior to the 1940's. Traditionally prepared vodkas had an alcoholic content of 40% by volume, but nowdays the standard Belarusian, Polish, Russian and Lithuanian vodkas are 40% alcohol by volume or what is known as 80 proof. The European Union has established a minimum of 37.5% ABV for any European Vodka tp possess the name. Beverages sold as vodka in the United States must have an alcoholic content of 30% or more. Vodka is traditionally drunk neat in the vodka belt countries of Eastern Europe and around the Baltic Sea. It is also commonly used in cocktails and mixed drinks, such as the Bloody Mary, Screwdriver, Sex on the Beach, Moscow Mule, White Russian, Black Russian, Vodka Tonic, and in a Vodka Martini.
The name vodka is a diminutive form of the Slavic word voda (water), interpreted as little water. The word "vodka" was recorded for the first time in 1405 in Akta Grodzkie in the court documents from the Palatinate of Sandomierz in Poland. At the time, the word vodka (Polish: wódka), referred to chemical compounds such as medicines and cosmetics' cleansers, while the popular beverage was called gorzałka - from the Old Polish gorzeć meaning "to burn". This is also the source of Ukrainian horilka (горілка). The word vodka written in Cyrillic (Russian: водка) appeared first in 1533, in relation to a medicinal drink brought from Poland to Russia by the merchants of Kievan Rus'.
A number of Russian pharmaceutical lists contain the terms "vodka of grain wine" (Russian: водка хлебного вина vodka khlebnogo vina) and "vodka in half of grain wine" (Russian: водка полу хлебного вина vodka polu khlebnogo vina). As alcohol had long been used as a basis for medicines, this implies the term vodka could be a noun derived from the verb vodit’, razvodit’ (Russian: водить, разводить), "to dilute with water". Grain wine was a spirit distilled from alcohol made from grain (as opposed to grape wine) and hence "vodka of grain wine" would be a water dilution of a distilled grain spirit.
While the word vodka could be found in manuscripts and in lubok (Russian: лубок) - pictures with text explaining the plot, a Russian predecessor of the comic, it began to appear in Russian dictionaries in the mid-19th century. It is, however, already attested in Sámuel Gyarmathi's Russian-German-Hungarian glossary from 1799, where it is glossed with "burnt [i.e. distilled] wine" (Latin: vinum adustum).
The word vodka was attested in English already in the late 18th century. A description of Russia by Johann Gottlieb Georgi, published in English in 1780 (probably, a translation from German), correctly explained: "Kabak in the Russian language signifies a public house where the common people can drink vodka.
Another possible connection of "vodka" with "water" is the name of the medieval alcoholic beverage "water of life" (Latin: aqua vitae), which is reflected in Polish okowita, Ukrainian оковита, Belarusian акавіта, and Scandinavian akvavit. People in the area where Vodka had its origin have names for it with roots meaning "to burn": Polish: gorzała, berbelucha, bimber; Ukrainian: горілка, horílka; Belarusian: гарэлка, harelka; Lithuanian: degtinė; Samogitian: degtėnė. In Russian during 17th and 18th centuries, горящѣе вино or горячее вино (goryashchee vino, "burning wine" or "hot wine") was widely used. It compares to German Branntwein, Danish; brændevin; Dutch: brandewijn; Swedish: brännvin; Norwegian: brennevin.
Scholars continue to debate the origins of vodka, and it remains an issue due to little historical material available on the subject of the origins of the drink. According to some sources, first production of vodka took place in the area of today's Russia in the late 9th century. According to the Gin and Vodka Association (GVA), the first distillery was documented over two hundred years later at Khylnovsk as reported in the Vyatka Chronicle of 1174. For many centuries, beverages differed significantly compared to the vodka of today, as the spirit at that time had a different flavor, color and smell, and was originally used as medicine. It contained little alcohol, an estimated maximum of about 14%, as only this amount can be attained by natural fermentation. The still allowing for distillation – the "burning of wine" – was later invented in the 8th century.
A type of distilled liquor close to the one that would later become generally designated by the Russian word vodka came to Russia in the late 14th century. In 1386, the Genoese ambassadors brought the first aqua vitae ("the water of life") to Moscow and presented it to Grand Duke Dmitry Donskoy. The liquid obtained by distillation of grape must was thought to be a concentrate and a "spirit" of wine (spiritus vini in Latin), from where came the name of this substance in many European languages (like English spirit, or Russian спирт, spirit). However, Encyclopædia Britannica states the first Russian vodka was made in 14th century, brewed by Sydnayaska Krueger of the Krueger family, which later evolved into the company now known as Smirnoff.
According to a legend, around 1430, a monk called Isidore from Chudov Monastery inside the Moscow Kremlin made a recipe of the first Russian vodka. Having a special knowledge and distillation devices, he became an author of the new type of alcoholic beverage of a new, higher quality. This "bread wine" as it was initially known, was produced for a long time exclusively in the Grand Duchy of Moscow and in no other principality of Russia. This situation persisted until the era of large-scale industrial production, thus this beverage was closely associated with the city of Moscow.
Until the mid-18th century, the drink remained relatively low on alcohol content, not exceeding 40% abv. Multiple terms for the drink are recorded, sometimes reflecting different levels of quality, alcohol concentration, filtering, and the number of distillations; most commonly, it was referred to as "burning wine", "bread wine", or simply "wine". Wine in the modern meaning of the word using grapes had to be imported and was only affordable for aristocrats and wealthy merchants. Burning wine was usually diluted with water to 24% ABV or less before drinking. It was mostly sold in taverns and was quite expensive. At the same time, the word vodka was already in use, but it described herbal tinctures similar to absinthe, containing up to 75% by volume alcohol, and made for medicinal purposes.
The first written usage of the word vodka in an official Russian document in its modern meaning is dated by the decree of Empress Elizabeth of June 8th, 1751, which regulated the ownership of vodka distilleries. The taxes on vodka became a key element of government finances in Tsarist Russia, providing at times up to 40% of state revenue. By the 1860s, due to the government policy of promoting consumption of state-manufactured vodka, it became the drink of choice for many Russians. In 1863, the government monopoly on vodka production was repealed, causing prices to plummet and making vodka available even to low-income citizens. By 1911, vodka comprised 89% of all alcohol consumed in Russia. This level has fluctuated somewhat during the 20th century, but remained quite high at all times. The most recent estimates put it at 70% in 2001. Today, some popular Russian vodka producers or brands are Stolichnaya and Russian Standard among others. Listed below are the major Vodka producers in Russia and links to information about each on Wikipedia. Clicking on the links will open a new browser window for the information on Wikipedia. Simply close the new window to return to this page.