Behind the Label: Vodka

Stemming from the Russian word ‘voda’, meaning ‘little water’ (which likely reers to the distillation process), vodka originated in Russia and Eastern Europe over a thousand years ago, in an area known as ‘the vodka belt’ and comprising of Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and the Nordic and Baltic states. The oldest written reference dates back to 1405 in a Polish manuscript.

Vodka was originally of a very low quality until the ascension of Empress Catharina II, which brought about an industrialisation of the production process. Through this, the charcoal purification process was invented, transforming the drink to one of crystalline purity and the highest quality.

In the lead up to the 1917 Russian Revolution, the sales of vodka made up nearly half of the Russian government’s tax revenue. While it was banned under Lenin, Stalin ended the prohibition to speed up his programs of socialist revolution. The two World Wars saw vodka emerge as a popular North American alcohol after returning soldiers brought the drink home across the Atlantic. In the interwar period, there was a major increase in the production of western European and American-made vodka.

Today, as an unflavoured spirit, it is beloved for its ease in mixing and flavouring. It is made now from a number of starting ingredients (from the traditional potatoes to corn or molasses) because the charcoal filtration process makes sure that nearly no flavour or colour is left behind, leaving only ethanol added to distilled water to lower the alcohol volume. It is distilled three times to remove all impurities.

Global purists and Eastern Europeans agree: the best way to drink vodka is chilled and neat or on the rocks, depending on your preference. It is also common to find flavoured vodkas – these include mainstream flavours like vanilla or chocolate or regional flavours such as those flavoured with honey, pepper or even grasses.

But internationally, as one of the world’s most popular spirits, it is the drink of choice in a wide range of cocktails and mixes. You’ll find vodka as a central ingredient to the Bloody Mary, Moscow Mule, Screwdriver and Cosmopolitan.