Perceived as an essential part of Slavic identity, vodka as we know it today was strongly influenced by the technological progress of the industrial revolution. Consumed in Eastern Europe since the 15th century, it was not until the 1930s that it entered the wider world as a ‘table spirit’, following widespread use of the column still.
East vs West
Initially produced for medical, military and industrial purposes, vodka spread in Russia from 1895 onwards, much helped by nationalisation, wiping out all traces of the rye-based spirit that until then had been made in pot stills.
Vodka and its flavoured versions began to conquer Western Europe and the United States in the 1950s, eventually becoming a mainstay of the ‘back bar’. Exploring and experimenting with different ways of making vodka themselves, the United States and France in particular, began to compete with these traditional vodkas, meeting with the disapproval of the Slavic countries, who required a spirit with more aromatic complexity.
The spread of the word ‘vodka’
Having first arrived in Russia in the 1870s, the early column stills enabled alcohol to be produced at a lower cost. Like the first grain whiskies being distilled in Scotland during the same period, distillers took advantage of this innovation to start creating vodka in its modern form. In addition to the traditional grains (rye and wheat) used by the countries that originally produced vodka, some had been using potatoes since the early 19th century, which were considerably cheaper.
At the beginning of the 2000s, the introduction of Cîroc vodka by the Diageo group triggered hostility between the traditional vodka-producing countries and those that had been more recently converted. The composition of this vodka distilled in France, from grape alcohol, was a source of controversy... A controversy that was eventually brought before the European parliament!
They were two points of view. Traditionalists believed that only spirits made from grain, potatoes or sugar beet molasses should be entitled to use the description of ‘vodka’. According to them, these raw materials were the source of a specific range of flavours that could enable each vodka to be distinguished. For the modernists, flavour, and by extension the nature of the raw materials, played an insignificant role in the production of vodka. It was the production method that was the key to vodka’s appeal.
Beyond the debate on the importance of vodka’s flavour, there were economic and financial issues that also influenced the decision taken at the end of 2007. In 2006, a German politician suggested that the precise nature of the alcohol used should be indicated on the label in cases where it was not made from the traditional ingredients. This proposition was adopted, to the disappointment of the traditionalists, who had hoped for more restrictive regulations.
EASTERN OR WESTERN STYLE?
The Eastern European and Scandinavian countries now not only take great care over the issue of the raw materials, whether its is grain, potato or molasses-based alcohol, but also over the distillation, responsible for their product’s aromatic identity, which they do not, under any circumstances, wish to see ‘softened’ by improper filtration.
Canada and the United States relied on corn and molasses for their production. France was more unusual, in that it developed a process based on grape alcohol. However, the key characteristic of all these vodkas is their extremely subtle flavour, obtained through numerous distillations and filtrations carried out at the various stages of production, both at the start of the process within the still, and later on via a layer of carbon.