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History of vodka


Home - History of vodka

 Russian vodka

 According to the definition in GOST R 51355-99, vodka is an alcoholic beverage produced by treating a water-alcohol solution having alcohol content 40.0 to 45.0, 50.0 or 56.0% containing or not containing additional ingredients with an adsorbent followed by filtration.

The word “vodka” is in all likelihood a diminutive of “voda” (“water”). In official documents, this term was assigned to a mixture of rectified alcohol and water only in 1936. Previously, a distilled strippant of grain mashes was called “bread wine” after the main original component or, even more simply, “alcohol”. The term “vodka products” was used to denote mixtures of distilled alcohol, water and flavouring agents, i.e. what we now call “distillery products”.

According to the food industry historian W.V.Pokhlebkin, the technology of bread wine was invented in Russia practically at the same time as other world-famous brands (wine alcohol in 1334, English Gin and Whiskey in 1485, Scotch Whisky in 1490 to 1494, German Schnaps in 1520 to 1522). Inspite of the lack of reliable written sources, it is highly probable that the technology was created in Moscow, in one of Kremlin monasteries in the period from 1448 to 1478. Distillation equipment could be brought to Russia along with Sophia Paleolog or by Byzantine monks who fled from Constantinople after its conquest by the Turks in 1453.

According to another version, vodka was created by monk Isidor. This Greek from Fessalia was a member of a Russian church delegation that attented the oecumenical council in Florence in 1438. The delegation also visited Venice and Ferrara where Isidor could be introduced to the distillation technology. For imprudent statements on return to Russia he was confined to Chudov monastery in the Kremlin. According to a legend, at the monastery he was allowed to carry out various experiments, including distillation. Isidor produced first vodka from grain. In the autumn of 1441 he made his guards drunk with his vodka and fled to Tver and then to Rome, leaving behind the first distilling apparatus.

Grain starch was dissolved in water by temperature cooking and then converted into sugars (saccharified) by adding relatively small amounts of sprouted grain (malt) as a source of amilolithic ferments (formerly known as diastasis). The main distinction of the alcohol production technology invented in Russia was the use of large amounts of unmalted grain. A close analog of the technology, the process for the production of American whiskey (Bourbon), was created only in the second half of the 18th century.

At a later time, to initiate alcohol fermentation, yeast barm was added to the resultant wort. There were no particular expedients in the methods of subsequent distillation.

Foreign wine-makers used either prefabricated sugar made from fruits and berries (vine, sugar-cane, apples, plums, agaves, etc) or pure malt (beer, whisky) for the fermentation.

Another feature of the beverage was the tradition to use it in the pure state without defect-disguising flavouring agents. Naturally, the quality of the initial alcohol had to meet higher requirements. The bread wine had to be colourless, the wine-makers tried to achieve “crystal” shine (“Clear as a tear”).

Alcohol for the beverages was mainly produced from rye, less often from more expensive cereals (wheat or barley), by “halving”, i.e. the amount of the resultant distillate was approximately 50-60% of the initial liquid, though it was a standard practice in the production of distilled beverages. Depending on the number of successive distillations, various grades were discriminated: Raka, made by single distillation of the brew, plain wine, made by double distillation, double wine, made by triple distillation, triple wine, made by quadruple distillation, and quadruple wine, made by quintuple distillation.


It was found empirically that in the case of distillation of strong alcohol (more than 45-50% be volume) it is difficult to separate nastily smelling fusel oils (higher alcohols of the fusel group), which is why alcohol was diluted with water before the next distillation. The same rule also applied to intermediate cleanings with sorbents (milk, bread, etc).

In 1785 in Saint-Petersburg the pharmacist Toviy Yegorovich Lowitz investigated the possibility of cleaning the alcohol stored in oak barrels and having therefore a yellow-brown colour and found that by mixing alcohol with raw coal it was possible to eliminate not only colour defects but also objectionable odour and taste of the alcohol. Due to partial oxidation of the alcohol to acetic acid and acetic ether, the resultant product had a soft taste and a special odour that was subsequently associated with vodka. This discovery was one of the main technical novelties that laid the basis for the vodka production technology as it is understood nowadays.

The technology of distillation made major progress in the 1st half of the 19th century. During that period T.Ye.Lowitz produced absolute alcohol (1796), K.S.Kirkhof discovered starch-converting ferments of barley malt (amylase) (1814). Simultaneously in several countries yeast was described and classified as fermentation initiator (K.Latour in France in 1838, T.Schwann in Germany in 1837 and F.Kützing in Germany in 1839). In 1813 a continuous-mode plate distillation apparatus was designed by French engineers Sallie-Blumental. In 1867 A.Saval invented a multi-column batch-mode rectifying still, in 1881 E.Barbé developed a continuous-mode rectifying still.

Even greater advances were made in the second half of the 19th century. D.I.Mendeleyev investigated the phenomenon of contraction observed after mixing alcohol with water and laid the foundations of alcoholometry (1863-1864). In 1884 D.P.Konovalov developed the theory of separation of binary water-alcohol mixtures that was supplemented by M.S.Vrevsky who published fundamental articles on the theory of azeotropic mixtures in 1911.

After the advent of rectified alcohol, it was  adopted everywhere in Russia for preparation of grain beverages while multiple distillations in alambicks resulting in high losses of alcohol were given up.

Beverages produced by distillation, including fruit chacha, were outlawed, because the technology of rectification was (and remains) hardly feasible using homemade equipment. Distilled bread wine has lost its original name, was renamed “home-brew” and was soon forgotten. And what is more, domestic production of vodka that was for some reason called “popular” or “original Russian” vodka was regarded as a criminal act (the first decree on the fight against home-brew makers in the RSFSR was issued on December 19, 1919).

The beverage made using rectified alcohol had no formulation analogs: when used by foreign wine-makers to produce distilled beverages, such alcohol mainly plays an auxiliary role, such as preservation, stabilization of water-alcohol mixtures, etc.

Dilution of alcohol with water becomes an integral part of the technology. However, even in 1895 74% of vodka was prepared from rectified raw alcohol without passing it through wood charcoal.

When the state monopoly on wine production was introduced in Russia at the end of the 19th century on the initiative of Russian Finance Minister S.Yu.Vitte, a Technical Committee was set up at the Main Directorate of Non-Salary Dues and State Sales of Beverages, where the elite of Russian science of that time was invited to work: F.F.Belstein, D.P.Konovalov, M.G.Kucherov, N.D.Zelinsky, etc.

The Technical Committee developed and patented on January 31, 1894 the state recipe of vodka – “Moscow Special Vodka”, later dubbed “Monopolistic Vodka”. To control alkalinity and soften taste and odour of the alcohol, the recipe provided that small amounts of sodium bicarbonate and acetic acid should be added. It should be noted that no reliable written evidence of D.I.Mendeleyev’s participation in the work of the Committee or in developing the recipe has not been discovered so far.

The recipe set the strength of the beverage at 40% by volume (or almost exactly one third by weight – 33,30%), a figure surrounded by numerous legends and figments. Here are some of them: the recipe was developed by D.I.Mendeleyev and it was the subject of his Doctor’s Thesis; the strength was selected on the basis of long-term tasting investigations, the beverage has extraordinary physico-chemical properties, etc, etc.

First of all, it should be noted that most well-known brands of strong alcoholic beverages have the same or similar strength, which is by no means mysterious – in most cases it is determined by distillation equipment, subsequent processing of the beverage or, very seldom, by food preferences. For example, cognac has the strength of 40-45%; tequila, 35-55%; Whiskey, 40-50%, etc.

The Russian classification of bread wine brands was initially based on their quality: “Common Wine”, “Good Wine”, “Boyar Wine”. According to A.M.Naumov (1859), at the end of the 19th century vodkas were classified by strength – “Polugar” (“Semiburnt”), 38°; “Foamy Wine”, 44.25°; “Three-Sample Wine”, 47.4°; “Double Alcohol”, 74.7°.

Bread wine was mixed in a simple and accessible way – 50% of strong alcohol and 50% of water by volume. Pretty often temperature was not taken into consideration in metering the volumes, which affected alcohol concentration. Nevertheless, this proportion produced 38-42% alcohol content in the beverage and the mixture was called “semi-burnt” according to the method of determination – when ignited in a special 0.5 litre metal container (burner), the volume burnt was exactly 50%. The “semi-burnt” grade was the commonest bread wine in retail trade.

According to D.I.Mendeleyev, when alcohol and water are mixed, three types of hydrates are formed – those having a molecule of alcohol with one molecule of water (maximum content for 20.9% by volume at 20°C), three molecules of water (53.8% by volume) and twelve molecules of water (91.8% by volume). If alcohol concentration is below 53-56% by volume, C2H5OH . 12H2O hydrates prevail and water is present in excess, which is why the product has a watery taste. If the strength of the beverage is above this value, the content of C2H5OH . H2O is higher and alcohol is present in excess, which is why the product has a unpleasantly strong, dry taste. A solution with a strength of 53-56% by volume has a prevalent content of C2H5OH . 3H2O hydrates. Such a mixture has maximum viscosity and compression in the whole range of concentrations and should create a sense of palate fullness and softness, although no studies of biochemical and physiological properties of alcohol-water solutions of various concentrations can be found in the literature.

As can be seen, a 40% (by volume) strong solution has no special chemical or physical properties. Moreover, there is no evidence that Mendeleyev investigated less strong solution in his thesis.

All in all, the most likely reason for adopting 40% strength was a fiscal one. The production of alcoholic beverages was always under state control and development of the most accurate tax base has always proceeded hand in hand with both development of technologies and methods of “tax optimization” by taxpayers.

Initially the tax base in Russia was the number of buckets (12.999 l) of the product corrected for the strength of the semi-burnt beverage. The burning as a method for determination of strength was extremely inaccurate and left room for various abuses. In 1843 it was replaced with the areometric method using the Tralles glass alcoholmeter, but taxation was still conducted on the basis of the number of buckets of the semiburnt beverage.

In 1866 it was stated in the Regulations on Drinking Dues at the suggestion of Finance Minister M.Kh.Reitern: “the strength of wines, vodkas and other beverages produced from wine and alcohol should not be below 40 degrees in establishments for the sale of beverages in Great Russian provinces, Stavropol province and Siberian provinces and 38 degrees in retail trade establishments…”. Reduction of strength entailed the well-known effect of alcohol evaporation during storage in wooden barrels.

In later guidelines the strength of wine intended for sale was never decreased below 40% by volume and, as we will see later, this limit was adopted as a standard by the Soviet government.

Another well-known feature of the Russian vodka is the absence of volatile impurities of the initial brew, unachievable in distilled beverages even by multiple distillations.

The technology of vodka production has been always developing towards increased purity of its components (alcohol and water). Whereas only the content of fusil oils was measured before 1900 (averaging 30 to 250 mg/dm3 depending on manufacturer versus 6 to 8 mg/dm3 nowadays), measurement of the content of aldehydes, ethers, volatile acids (starting from 1967) and alkalinity as well as the qualitative test for methanol content using fuchsinosulfurous acid were introduced towards the beginning of the 20th century. Starting from 1980, measurement of the content of methanol in vodkas was carbon filter

In addition to rectification, purity of the beverage was achieved by adsorption of impurities using carbon filtration, which was obligatory even in the first Soviet standards. As noted above, only this treatment creates the special taste and flavour typical of vodka.

Initially, vodka was purified by filtration through raw wood charcoal that was loaded into copper filters tinned on the inside 0.7 m in diameter and 4 m high connected into batteries of 4 to 7 filters. The water-alcohol mixture contacted with charcoal for no less than 24 hours.

After treatment in charcoal filters, vodka was passed through quartz sand filters, then stored in finishing copper tanks, whereafter delivered to the filling room.

One should not idealize the quality of vodkas produced at that time, most of them had not only “a very slight smell of fusil oil”, but also “an abominable, very strong smell of unpurified alcohol”.

Development of the vodka production technology was resumed only after the end of the First World War and the Civil War. In January 1924 the government of the USSR took the decision on resumption of industrial production of alcoholic beverages.

Back in 1907 R.V.Ostreiko patented steam activation of peat that made it possible to produce carbon having enormous porosity that became known as “activated carbon”. In 1915 N.D.Zelinsky was working on an adsorptive gas mask for the needs of the Russian Army and developed steam activation of hardwood coal (seasoning the coal at 850°C in the presence of excessive water vapours).

In 1924 A.N.Shustov used such coal of the Norit grade instead of raw carbon for purification of vodkas for the first time. In view of its high activity, the time of the contact between the water-alcohol mixture and coal was reduced from 24 hours to 30 minutes. In the case of a longer contact, vodka became enriched with aldehydes that resulted in an unusual bitter taste.  

There were three methods of purification: according to the Moscow method carbon was mixed with the water-alcohol mixture, stirred for 30 minutes and then, after settling, decanted; according to the Kiev method, carbon in a special meshed drum was lowered into the tank and stirred; according to the Tula method, filters were used through which from bottom to top the water-alcohol mixture being purified was passed.

In 1940 instead of the existing method V.M.Komarov and F.Maisky developed a dynamic method involving treatment of the water-alcohol mixture with activated carbon and recovery of spent carbon directly in the columns using vapour and air.

Thus, by the beginning of the Great Patriotic War the vodka production technology was already developed in general. Vodka was produced virtually only from grain and purified using exclusively birch and lime active carbon. To prepare table vodkas, top quality alcohol was used made using periodic rectification and intermediate dilution of alcohol with water, the so-called “prima-prima”. It was selected by the “halving” method – no more than 60% of the volume being distilled.

In 1948 production of vodka was resumed and new processing improvements were introduced: all distilleries had to use the dynamic method of treating water-alcohol mixtures with activated carbon and double-flow sand filters, water softening was now performed by ion exchange.

During the Soviet period, in the view of changes in alcohol production technologies and increased requirements for alcohol purity, standards for vodka were also changed. The first “Soviet” vodka was produced in 1925, but was still called “bread wine” (it was dubbed by the common people “Rykovka” after the name of the Chairman of the USSR Council of People's Commissars A.V.Rykov) and had the strength of 40% by volume. Subsequent regulations were approved in 1941, 1950, 1967, 1980 and, already in Russia, in 1999.

Recipe manuals specifying compositions of vodkas and distillery products were regularly published and republished (the last one, in 1981). It should be noted that whereas only 8 formulations of vodkas, 5 formulations of special vodkas and about 280 formulations of distillery products existed before 1998, after revocation of the State monopoly for the production of distillery products more than 5000 names of vodkas and about 2500 names of distillery products were registered.

Efforts of many generations of scientists and practitioners resulted in a national product that absorbed historical, nutritional and technological traditions of the Russian people and pretty often had a sacral meaning for Russia: juxtapose the dates of introduction of vodka monopolies and alcohol prohibition with the dates of decisive, often tragic, turning-points in the history of the country.

By the decision of the international arbitration tribunal in 1982, priority was assigned to Russia for vodka as an original Russian alcoholic beverage as well as exclusive right for advertising vodka under this name in the world market. Also, the main advertising motto, “Only vodka from Russia is genuine Russian vodka!”, was recognized. On June 5th, 2003 Rospatent registered “Russkaya” vodka as specifying the name of the place of origin of the product.

Filtration technologies of vodka

History of vodka

Carbon processing

Preparation of components

Pre-filling filtration

New workings out



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