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Vodka is an alcoholic beverage distilled at a high proof from a fermented vegetable or grain mash. Proof is a measurement of the alcohol content. Each degree of proof equals a half percent of alcohol. Thus, 100 proof is that which contains 50% alcohol, 90 proof contains 45%, and so on. Because distilled vodka can have a proof as high as 145, all taste and odor has been eliminated, making vodka a neutral spirit. Water is added to bring the proof down to a range between 80 and 100.


The practice of allowing certain grains, fruits, and sugars to ferment so that they produce an intoxicating beverage has been around since ancient times. Fermentation is a chemical change brought about by the yeast, bacteria, and mold in an animal or vegetable organism. In the production of alcoholic beverages, yeast enzymes act on the sugars in the mash (usually dextrose and maltose) and convert them to ethyl alcohol.

It was in the tenth century writings of an Arabian alchemist named Albukassen that the first written account of distillation was found. Distillation was also said mentioned among the writings of the thirteenth century Majorcan mystic Ramon Llull. Distillation is a heating and condensing process that drives gas or vapor from liquids or solids to form a new substance. Distilled spirits are also known as ardent (Latin for burn) spirits.

There is disagreement among Russians and Poles as to which country was the first to distill vodka. Most historical references credit Russia. In any event, the drinking of vodka has been documented since the fourth century in eastern and northern Europe. In those regions, it was common to distill alcoholic beverages to a very high proof, eliminating any aroma or flavor.

Vodka remained primarily an eastern and northern European preference for centuries. It was not until the 1930s that it began to gain popularity in Western Europe and North America. A 1930 British publication, the Savoy Cocktail Book, was the first to include recipes for vodka drinks. The "Blue Monday" combined vodka with Cointreau and blue vegetable juice. A "Russian Cocktail" called for the addition of creme de cacao and dry gin to the neutral spirit.

One the primary vodka producers, the Smirnoff family distillery began business in 1818 in Moscow. A century later the distillery was churning out one million bottles daily. However, after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the family lost control of the business. In 1934, a Russian immigrant named Rudolph Kunitt, bought the American rights to the Smimoff name. Kunitt opened a distillery in Bethel, Connecticut, and struggled along for five years, at best only producing 20 cases a day. He sold his business to the Heublein Company in 1939.

Heublein executive John C. Martin found that vodka was especially popular in the California film industry and he cultivated those customers. In 1946, he met the owner of a Los Angeles restaurant, the Cock 'n' Bull, who was trying to unload an overstock of ginger beer. Since one of vodka's attributes is its ability to mix with almost anything, the two men experimented with a vodka and ginger beer concoction. They added a slice of lime, called their invention the "Moscow Mule," and had an instant success on their hands.

By the 1950s, New Yorkers were drinking vodka too. From 40,000 cases sold in the United States in 1950, vodka sales jumped to just over one million in 1954. The following year, 4.5 million cases were sold. By the mid-1960s, vodka nudged out gin; by 1976, it surpassed whiskey. By the end of the decade, the martini was more likely to be made with vodka than with it original ingredient, gin. At the close of the twentieth century, vodka accounted for 25% of the distilled spirits market.

Until the middle of the eighteenth century, vodka production was essentially a home-based, one-pot operation called batching. Heating potatoes or grains until the starch was released and converted to sugar made a mash. The resulting liquid matter was allowed to ferment, and then heating it at a high temperature to release the intoxicating vapors distilled the liquid.

Louis Pasteur was one of the most extraordinary scientists in history, leaving a legacy of scientific contributions which include an understanding of how microorganisms carry on the biochemical process of fermentation, the establishment of the causal relationship between microorganisms and disease, and the concept of destroying microorganisms to halt the transmission of communicable disease. These achievements led him to be called the founder of microbiology.

After his early education Pasteur went to Paris, studied at the Sorbonne, then began teaching chemistry while still a student. After being appointed chemistry professor at a new university in Lille, France, Pasteur began work on yeast cells and showed how they produce alcohol and carbon dioxide from sugar during the process of fermentation. Fermentation is a form of cellular respiration carried on by yeast cells, a way of getting energy for cells when there is no oxygen present. He found that fermentation would take place only when living yeast cells were present.

Establishing himself as a serious, hard-working chemist, Pasteur was called upon to tackle some of the problems plaguing the French beverage industry at the time. Of special concern was the spoiling of wine and beer, which caused great economic loss and tarnished France's reputation for fine vintage wines. Vintners wanted to know the cause of I'amer, a condition that was destroying the best burgundies. Pasteur looked at wine under the microscope and noticed that when aged properly the liquid contained little spherical yeast cells. But when the wine turned sour, there was a proliferation of bacterial cells which were producing lactic acid. Pasteur suggested that heating the wine gently at about 120°F would kill the bacteria that produced lactic acid and let the wine age properly. Pasteur's book Etdues sur le Vin, published in 1866 was a testament to two of his great passions—the scientific method and his love of wine. It caused another French Revolution—one in wine-making, as Pasteur suggested that greater cleanliness was need to eliminate bacteria and that this could be done with heat. Some wine-makers were aghast at the thought but doing so solved the industry's problem.

The idea of heating to kill microorganisms was applied to other perishable fluids like milk and the idea of pasteurization was born. Several decades later in the United States the pasteurization of milk was championed by American bacteriologist Alice Catherine Evans who linked bacteria in milk with the disease brucellosis, a type of fever found in different variations in many countries.

It was soon discovered that multiple distillations produced a spirit of a higher proof and of greater purity. In 1826, Robert Stein invented the continuous still that allowed for repeated recycling of steam and alcohol until all of the spirit has been extracted. Aeneas Coffey improved Stein's design. Modern continuous stills usually contain three primary sections: still heads (where the vapors are collected), fractionating columns (where the ethyl alcohol is broken down), and condensers (where the vapors are reconverted to liquid).

Louis Pasteur's development of pasteurization began when a French distiller asked him for advice on fermentation. Pasteur's research led him to the discovery of lactic acid and its role in fermentation. Today, lactic acid is used as an inoculation against bacteria in the production of vodka.

At first, charcoal filtration was the universal procedure used to purify the vodka. Then at the beginning of the twentieth century, the process of rectification was developed. In rectification, the spirits are passed through several purifying cylinders designed to eliminate dangerous imperfections such as solvents, fusil oil, and methanol.

Raw Materials

Vegetables or grains

Because it is a neutral spirit, devoid of color and odor, vodka can be distilled from virtually any fermentable ingredients. Originally, it was made from potatoes. Although some eastern European vodkas are still made from potatoes and corn, most of the high quality imports and all vodka made in the United States are distilled from cereal grains, such as wheat. Distillers either purchase the grain from suppliers, or grow it in company-owned fields.


Water is added at the end of the distillation process to decrease the alcohol content. This is either purchased from outside suppliers or brought in from company-owned wells.

Malt meal

Because vegetables and grains contain starches rather than sugars, an active ingredient must be added to the mash to facilitate the conversion of starch to sugar. These particular converted sugars, maltose, and dextrin respond most effectively to the enzyme diastase that is found in malt. Therefore, malt grains are soaked in water and allowed to germinate. Then, they are coarsely ground into a meal and added during the mash process.


A microscopic single-celled fungus, yeast contains enzymes that allow food cells to extract oxygen from starches or sugars, producing alcohol. In the manufacturing of alcoholic beverages, the yeast species Sacchasomyces cereviseal is used. It is purchased from outside suppliers.


In the latter part of the twentieth century, flavored vodkas became popular. Thus, herbs, grasses, spices, and fruit essences may be added to the vodka after distillation. These are usually purchased from an outside supplier.

The Manufacturing

Mash preparation

  • 1 The grain or vegetables are loaded into an automatic mash tub. Much like a washing machine, the tub is fitted with agitators that break down the grain as the tub rotates. A ground malt meal is added to promote the conversion of starches to sugar.

Sterilization and inoculation

  • 2 Preventing the growth of bacteria is very important in the manufacture of distilled spirits. First, the mash is sterilized by heating it to the boiling point. Then, it is injected with lactic-acid bacteria to raise the acidity level needed for fermentation. When the desired acidity level is reached, the mash is inoculated once again.


  • 3 The mash is poured into large stainless-steel vats. Yeast is added and the vats are closed. Over the next two to four days, enzymes in the yeast convert the sugars in the mash to ethyl alcohol.

Distillation and rectification

  • 4 The liquid ethyl alcohol is pumped to stills, stainless steel columns made up of vaporization chambers stacked on top of each other. The alcohol is continuously cycled up and down, and heated with steam, until the vapors are released and condensed. This process also removes impurities. The vapors rise into the upper chambers (still heads) where they are concentrated. The extracted materials flow into the lower chambers and are discarded. Some of the grain residue may be sold as livestock feed.

Water added

  • 5 The concentrated vapors, or fine spirits, contain 95-100% alcohol. This translates to 190 proof. In order to make it drinkable, water is added to the spirits to decrease the alcohol percentage to 40, and the proof to 80.


  • 6 Alcoholic beverages are stored in glass bottles because glass is non-reactive. Other receptacles, such as plastic, would cause a chemical change in the beverage. The bottling procedure is highly mechanized as the bottles are cleaned, filled, capped, sealed, labeled, and loaded into cartons. This can be done at rates as high as 400 bottles per minute.

Quality Control

Although tasters draw off quantities of vodka for sampling throughout the distilling process, most of the controls on vodka quality come from local, state, and federal governments. At the federal level, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms issues strict guidelines for production, labeling, importation, advertising, and even plant security. For example, charcoal-filtered vodka imports are not permitted. Flavored vodkas must list the predominant flavor (pepper, lemon, peach, etc.) on the label. The relationships between suppliers and producers are strictly regulated as well.

Where to Learn More


Grimes, William. Straight Up or On the Rocks: A Cultural History of American Drink. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Grossman, Harold J. Grossman's Guide to Wines, Beers and Spirits. 7th edition, revised by Harriet Lembeck. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1983.


Lancut Distillery. (March 9, 1999).


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Prior to the twentieth century, the Russian word vino indicated the class of beverages known in English as vodka. The term refers to all alcoholic drinks made from distilling grain. (Confusingly, vino could also mean wine.) The Russian word vodka usually referred to the higher grades of spirits.

Precisely when spirits appeared in Russia is difficult to discern. Some historians note references to vodka in written chronicles as early as the twelfth century. Others argue that spirits arrived in Russia in the late fourteenth century. One source claims that Livonians and Germans were granted permission to sell aqua vita, or vodka, in certain areas of Moscow in 1578. A commonly held view is that drinks such as present-day vodka spread to Russia only in the sixteenth century when Russians learned the art of distilling grain from the Tatars. The most widely held consensus is that vodka came from the west in the first half of the sixteenth century, but its consumption was initially limited to foreign mercenaries.

From the outset, the government exercised control over the trade in spirits. Beginning in 1544, the state owned and regulated drink shops (kabaki ) that distilled and sold vodka in the towns. The Law Code of 1649 extended state control to all the Russian provinces and established a monopoly over production, distribution, and sale of spirits, from which the nobility were exempt. In the mid-sixteenth century, the state began farming out the rights to collect taxes on vodka, and by 1767 liquor tax farming spread throughout the empire as the primary means of extracting revenues from vodka until an excise system was set up in 1863. The excise system, however, made regulation difficult, so in 1892, Minister of Finance Sergei Witte introduced a reformed state monopoly. Except for a brief experiment with prohibition from 1914 to 1925, the state retained a monopoly over the vodka trade until 1989. Throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, liquor taxes comprised between 26 and 33 percent of all state revenues.

Historically, peasants drank mead, ale, and beer on festive occasions. Since vodka involved distilling, peasant households did not have the equipment, technology, or resources to produce their own. In its quest for revenues, the state expanded commercial production and sale of vodka to the rural population throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With the expansion of the vodka trade, the use of beer was increasingly replaced by vodka as the favored ceremonial drink among the lower classes.

By the nineteenth century, vodka was the single most important item in lower-class diets. In the villages, peasants drank vodka at church festivals, rites of passage, family celebrations, weddings and funerals, and any special occasions in the life of the rural community. Such ceremonial drinking was as much an obligation as it was a pleasure. Tradition and custom demanded drunkenness on certain occasions, and those failing to respond dishonored themselves before the community. In order to avoid this stigma, families often spent their last pennies, and even sold property, to purchase vodka for an upcoming event. A funeral could not be arranged, a wedding conducted, or a bargain sealed without the required amount of vodka. To be binding, every type of transaction had to conclude with all parties wetting the bargainsharing a drink of vodka. Custom established firm norms on the amount of vodka to be provided, below which a peasant family could not go without being shamed.

Vodka was also a valuable exchange commodity used to maintain networks of patronage and manipulate village politics. Often decisions concerning the levying of taxes, election of officials, or the punishment of offenders depended upon who bought whom how much vodka. A defendant or petitioner could ply village elders with vodka to insure a favorable outcome; this was known as softening up the judge. Once a punishment had been decided upon, the perpetrator often treated the village to vodka in order to win forgiveness and readmittance into the community. It was also common for the victim to treat the community to vodka, thereby affirming his or her acceptance of the punishment.

The political and economic uses of vodka were linked in the important village institution of work parties. Seeking to gather as many people as possible to get an urgent task done, such as repairing a road or bridge, building a church, or bringing in the harvest, the host would supply copious amounts of vodka. The provision of drink signaled his respect for the peasants, and they reciprocated by working for respect. Vodka was the reward for their labor, but more importantly, it symbolized the mutuality of the exchange, reinforcing the web of interdependent relationships in the community.

From the 1890s, as Russia embarked upon a course of modernization, vodka retained its centrality in the everyday lives of the working classes. With the beginning of industrialization, millions of peasants entered the urban workforce bringing their traditions with them, especially the practice of wetting the bargain. In the village, sharing a drink of vodka signified an equitable economic arrangement had been made. In the hiring market, former peasants forced potential employers to wet the bargain before they would agree to the terms of employment. The toast was a type of social leveling, forcing employers (at least symbolically) to respect the workers' dignity and humanity.

Practices at the workplace centered on drinking vodka strengthened shop solidarities, reinforced hierarchies among workers, and symbolized a rite of passage into the world of real workers. Among male workers in shops, commercial firms, and factories, each new man underwent an initiation rite, which involved obligatory buying and drinking of vodka. Often, a newcomer was not addressed by name but called "Mama's boy" until he provided the whole shop with vodka.

With the accelerated growth of the urban working class during the rapid industrialization of the First Five-Year Plan (19281933), the practice of treating with vodka took on greater significance, and in most factories it became nearly impossible for workers to receive training or secure the proper tools without bribing foremen with vodka. It was quite common for skilled workers to demand payment in vodka for training new recruits. As with rural communities, in the factories custom set firm limits on the amount of drink required. So prevalent was the practice of treating, a nationwide survey conducted in 1991 revealed that the workplace was the primary place for imbibing. Moreover, in 1993 average consumption levels were placed at one bottle of vodka for every adult Russian male every two days.

See also: alcoholism; alcohol monopoly; food


Christian, David. (1990). 'Living Water': Vodka and Russian Society on the Eve of Emancipation. Oxford: Clarendon.

Christian, David, and Smith, R.E.F. (1994). Bread and Salt: A Social and Economic History of Food and Drink in Russia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Herlihy, Patricia. (2002). The Alcoholic Empire: Vodka and Politics in Late Imperial Russia. New York: Oxford University Press.

Phillips, Laura. (2000). The Bolsheviks and the Bottle: Drink and Worker Culture in St. Petersburg, 19001929. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.

Transchel, Kate. (2000). "Liquid Assets: Vodka and Drinking in Early Soviet Factories." In The Human Tradition in Modern Russia, ed. William B. Husband. Wilmington, DE: SR Books.

Kate Transchel

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vod·ka / ˈvädkə/ • n. an alcoholic spirit of Russian origin made by distillation of rye, wheat, or potatoes.

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vodka Made from neutral spirit, i.e. alcohol distillate mainly from potatoes, with little or no acid, so that there is no ester formation and hence no flavour. Polish vodka is flavoured with a variety of herbs and fruits.

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vodka XIX. — Russ. vódka, dim. of vodá WATER.