HISTORY OF VODKA (Poland vs. Russia)
The oldest written traces of the word vodka were found on a Polish manuscript dates 1405 (more precisely in the Sandomierz Court Registry).
Around 15th century, the pharmacy was THE meeting point for all in every city, town and village in Poland & Russia. All social gatherings would take place there and the pharmacist’s role was very similar to today’s bartenders’ jobs…
A Polish document describes vodka as being a ‘lotion applied on the chin after shaving’ …
CEREMONIAL DRINKING – HISTORY OF TOASTING
The tradition of smashing glasses goes back as far as the 17th century in Poland. Polish revellers would literally break their glasses against each other’s heads as a toast to each other’s health. Those, whose skulls weren’t up to it, could shoot pistols (NB in the Lebanon, this tradition persists at weddings. In Palestine, the form is to shoot machine guns in the air as jubilant tribute). Otherwise, breaking glasses taken from ladies would be an oddly gallant tribute to the fair sex.
The custom of toasting in Eastern and Western Europe goes back a long way. In the royal banquets, in medieval times all over Europe, the united guests would convivially drink ceremoniously from one cup. This tradition still survives among the peasants in Poland where it is symbolic of friendship and trust. A more practical explanation is simply that the custom dates from a period before glasses goblets came into universal use, so there was literally only one cup for all.
By the Renaissance, toasting and drinking had already become an obsession with the nobility in Poland and also something more than a problem. One of the problems with toasting was that it was considered rude not to raise your glass and drink to your host, after which inevitably followed a host of others whose health had to be toasted. It could, and did, degenerate into a punishing ordeal.
Jedrzej Kitowicz, who chronicled the excess of the Polish 18th century aristocracy, writes that some barbaric noblemen would delight in learning the day following a drinking bout how their guests were found unconscious with broken teeth, limbs, stripped or with their purse stolen. The noble custom of toasting had generated into a sadistic ritual punishment.
Today, drinking vodka for a toast will normally involve drowning your glass in one gulp, do dnia i.e. all in one go. A second drink will follow very quickly to quote the old Cossack expression, ‘between the 1st and the 2nd toast, a bullet should not pass’.
RUSSIAN VODKA DRINKING ‘RULES’
Russians drink vodka, lots of vodka. Vodka drinking is a social institution.
The rules are:
* One never should drink alone: In Russia, this means making friends with the guy on the next bar stool or DRINK IN FRONT OF A MIRROR !!!!!!!!!!
* It is better to have a reason to drink: Russia still celebrates Soviet holidays and some other more folky holidays, just so that there are more reasons to drink. There are special holidays for just about every profession and military branch.
* Every shot must be toasted: Russian toasts are notoriously long and sentimental. The first toast is usually in honour of the holiday (birthday person, holiday, friendship is always a big one). The second toast is usually for the host. The third toast is for a woman’s love, but more generally, and more modern, just for love. After the third toast, anything goes. By that time everyone is usually loose enough and feeling in a better mood, so tradition takes a back seat to the spirit of the party.
All spoken toasts, and, at least, the first three are basically obligatory. It is possible to refuse a later toast, but it is common courtesy to tell your hosts at the beginning of the party that you do not intend to drink. It takes a strong will to refuse a Russian toast, but it is possible to do it politely by invoking health conditions or religion. Your host may not completely understand, but he or she will respect your choice.
* Once a bottle is opened it must be finished. You cannot save alcohol, unless you may need some for recovering in the morning.
* Never leave an empty bottle on the table: it’s bad luck.
* Once you pick up your glass, you cannot put it down until you finish your shot.
* You must drink the shot to the bottom: you can always ask for a small shot, but what ever you get you must finish. Ladies have different rules though. A lady doesn’t have to finish her shot, if she is drinking shots at all. Many times ladies will have wine while the men drink vodka or some kind of hard liquor.
* Whoever opens the bottle pours the first shots and then, whoever is toasting pours the next shot. If there is no real toast, but a consensus that the next toast is due, usually the host or a close friend will pour the shots. If a woman wants to toast, she can pour if she likes, but more usually her male friends or relatives will pour for her. If there is no host, then the shot will be poured by the person who is proposing to drink.
* The morning after a hard and long drinking party, one should alleviate any hangover by consuming more alcohol. If you do not intend to drink the rest of the day, then beer or champagne will do nicely. But if you plan on having a two-day party then, another bottle of vodka is opened.
ZIELONA GORA DISTILLERY
Luksusowa and U’Luvka are both made in the Zielona Gora distillery (Zielona Gora means Green Mountain in Polish) – so is Polska Cherry and many more brands...
A fountain just outside the distillery is available, giving the inhabitants of Zielona Gora the opportunity to enjoy free water all year - you can often see people with big plastic containers and empty bottles around the distillery, making it a part of people’s everyday life.
The same water is used for the dilution of Luksusowa & all other vodka brands distilled there.
Finlandia vodka is the biggest Finnish export brand.
Depicts a red sun and reindeers: this is a reminder of a famous Finnish legend saying that of you see the moon, the sun and reindeers at the same time, anything you wish will come true.
Every 750mL bottle of Chopin uses 40 potatoes! The potatoes used to make this luxury brand are hand-cultivated.
The Chopin family sued Chopin vodka for using the composer’s name in association with vodka (one of the Chopin catch phrases is ‘as harmonious as a Chopin’s melody’). Chopin vodka paid the Chopin family and kept the brand name. Since then another brand called Mozart vodka was created and it became a trend to name vodka brand after famous or historical people (i.e. McMahon, Van Gogh, Tito, Galileo, Ivan the Terrible).
Wyborowa was the 1st vodka brand to be an international trademark in 1927.
The name literally means select or choice.
It will almost inevitably be the vodka served in any quality restaurant in Poland to accompany any typical Polish dishes requiring vodka.
WYBOROWA EXQUISITE (formerly SINGLE ESTATE)
Famous architect Frank Gehry was chosen to design the iconic square bottle because of his Polish origins. He actually designed the bottle in less than 2 minutes on a serviette, in a Warsaw restaurant! Genius!
Number 1 worldwide produced under license in over 30 countries using the cheapest available raw ingredients.
In 1934, Smirnoff Vodka was launched & produced in the US initially as a ‘white whisky’ – the brand pioneered the idea of vodka having no taste or flavour.
During 1950s Smirnoff was the first brand to promote the idea of the cocktail to mass US market –starting with the ‘Moscow Mule’ conceived at the Cock n’ Bull in LA.
As Smirnoff Red is made in so many markets using localized production methods and local ingredients (various grains) tasting notes vary a great deal, the ABV varies in different markets also. The product is always Charcoal filtered to obtain a very neutral style of vodka.
Literal translation ‘for capital city’.
The bottle depicts Stalin’s famous Moscova Hotel in Moscow.
STOLI & PEPSI
A rather unexpected and unlikely high point in the fortunes of the Russian distilling industry during the decline of vodka in the final era of Communism was the contract signed in the early 70’s between PepsiCo and the Soviet regime, providing for a swap deal of quantities of Pepsi-cola concentrate against a large volume of bottles or bulk Stolichnaya and Moskovskaya vodkas. This was the beginning of the Stoli epic which was long to continue to the mutual benefits of both partners.
Ketel One is a family owned product. The Nolet family were originally producers of geneva (gin).
Every batch of their vodka is still tasted by a member of the Nolet family for approval, before being bottled.
The raw ingredients used for the production of Ciroc are hand selected Mauzac Blanc & Ugni Blanc grapes from high elevation vineyard.
The only grape vodka in the world: makes the Polish and Russian vodka associations very angry as they claim you just cannot make grapes vodka, they agree to say Ciroc should not be called vodka. With new EU regulations coming along, the status of Ciroc as a vodka might be changed, but for now there is no strict regulation.
The name ‘Ciroc’ is a contraction of 2 French words: cime, meaning peak or summit-top and roche meaning rock. This is in reference to the elevated vineyards where the grapes are grown and harvested.
IVAN THE TERRIBLE
Ivan the Terrible, the unspeakably ruthless and murderous first Czar of Russia, played a pivotal role in Vodka production and consumption. Ivan built the first taverns, (known as kabaks), for his equally merciless palace guard, the oprichniny, the 16th century precursor to the modern KGB. Ivan also initiated state owned distilleries in order to profit from the production and sale of vodka and other spirits.
Corn maintains a long-lasting love-and-hate affair with the vodka industry. For professional distillers, corn is the cheapest raw material, rich in starch and offering excellent yields of pure alcohol (up to 40% of the weight of the grain inputs). No wonder corn has been the alcohol distillers’ darling both East and West since the 19th century.
Unfortunately the resulting alcohol, unless rectified to perfection, may present a strong and unpleasant odor (in a way similar to the sweet ambrosia of gold toasted popcorn) and is poor in comparison to the neutral or bread-perfumed vodka. Specialists say that an alcohol distillery having problems with filters and busy distilling corn would make the neighbours think they suddenly found themselves inside a huge popcorn machine.
Where corn has always been a real nightmare is marketing. Advertising teams have traditionally done their best to use the fig leaf of the abstract vodka-label term grains to dissimulate the rather plebeian origin of corn-based alcohols devoid of any romantic associations with vodka traditions. After all, amid consumers, corn is more likely to conjure up the regular plains of the American Midwest, definitely more appropriate to promote the advertising material of its archrival bourbon, than the barren winter landscapes of Eastern Europe.
Conclusion: if your favourite vodka is distilled from premium grains, there is a distinct probability that it is distilled from corn, and most likely specifically from US corn. Even the Soviets allocated the lion’s share of their multi-million ton US corn imports in the 70’s and 80’s to a secret program for boosting the production of mass-market vodkas in order to meet the ambitious targets set by the 5-year plan.
POLAND vs. RUSSIA, THE LEGAL ISSUE
One of the less known episodes in the stormy history of the relations between Poland and its mighty neighbour was the bitter international dispute over the legal right to use the word vodka as a brand name. In the late 70’s the Poles, much to the outrage of the Russians, decided to bring a legal action against them. The Poles sought a ruling in their favour from an international forum giving them the exclusive right to use the word vodka as a Polish brand name.
A great deal was at stake: national pride, protection of a cultural tradition and, above all, a share in an enormous potential export market, which, in fact, was slipping out of the hands of both litigants in favour of the Western start-ups. The Russians quite justifiably contended that vodka was not unique to the Poles and had been made and consumed in Russia for centuries.
Technically, winning the exclusive rights to a generic type as opposed to a brand of spirit is possible. In the 90’s, Mexico wrestled for the exclusive rights of Tequila, and won them from the E.U. Now, the Mexicans are suing South African investors, who set out to distil a spirit (to be called, unsurprisingly, tequila) from a type of agave similar to the one growing in Mexico and considered by local farmers as a noxious weed.
The Russians were quite taken aback but undeterred, and launched a counterattack against the characteristically defiant Poles, relying on the scholarly research of a certain Mr. Pokhlebkin, hitherto renowned essentially as an author of cookery manuals. This time the miracle of David vs. Goliath did not happen. In 1982 the case was put to an international arbitration and the Russians won thanks largely to the sterling efforts of Mr. Pokhlebkin. His research, which was published later (in 1991) in a lively if controversial book, was the basis of the Russian’s case. Although written from an overly Russian stance, Mr. Pokhlebkin’s book is nonetheless one of the more enlightening accounts of vodka’s history.
ALCOHOL - DISTILLATION
Historians agree that the discovery of the distillation of alcohol (or re-discovery, since it may have been invented long before by Babylonians) should be attributed to the Arab scholars active in Spain in the 9th century AD, who had preserved in their schools the learning of the Ancients during the dark ages. Al-kuhe in Arabic means light fluid. Hence, al-cohol.
Vodka’s earliest beginnings date undoubtedly from the period of the discovery or re-discovery of distillation of pure alcohol, especially from beer, by the alchemists in the 14th century onwards. In the Christian world, for the first time wine spirit (literally ardent water) was mentioned by Marcus Graecus early in the 13thy century. The quaint misleading coinage water-of-life, or aqua vitae, is popularly attributed to a French friar, Arnaud de Villeneuve (1250-1314).
This was in the history of alcohol an important milestone. Prior to then alcoholic beverages had been obtained through fermentation, the most popular being of course wine and beer, although mead was also much esteemed.
The first reference to “distilling beer” was made in the 15th century when another Frenchman, Gilles de Gouberville, distilled cider and produced the first portion of apple bandy – calvados – in 1553. The French have kept the lead in the distillation techniques ever since.
The pure alcohol spirit obtained from distillation in alembic stills was considered by the alchemists to be a divine and miraculous elixir prolonging life through its medical powers. They called it aqua vitae – or the water of life. The earliest spirits consumed as alcohol in the West retained this appellation. French and Italian eau-de-vie, Scotch whisky, all have the same etymological roots.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE BOTTLE
The bottles used by the best known Polmos brands of vodka offer rather little to get excited about (which is of course a tribute to their contents, explaining their success). The more extravagant bottles introduced by Chopin, Belvedere and their followers are a recent and not uncontroversial development. Traditionally, many Polish vodka bottles shapes owe their origins to the world of the apothecary and the alchemist. The old association of vodka with healing elixirs and as something to be kept in the medical cupboard explains this.
Today it is quite conceivable that a brand could seek to establish its image essentially on its bottle rather than the actual qualities of the vodka itself. Somewhat reminiscent perhaps of the foray of Rene Lalique, the fashionable French glass designer, into the world of perfumes, with the luxurious bottle as the centrepiece of its brand.
So is it possible that a glassmaker may one day launch its own brand of vodka? The answer is yes. This is virtually what happened when the Polish luxury vodka Belvedere was launched. Its principal selling point was the distinctive bottle manufactured by the eponymous company in France co-founded by Polish émigrés.
The beginning of the story is the creation of Chopin by Polmos Siedlice – a luxury potato vodka with an elegant crystal-like bottle bearing a portrait if the composer. Chopin was quickly followed by Belvedere, Krolewska and a host of other variants on the same theme: attractive glass ware with the brand having the name of a celebrated historical figure or site.
42 Below is named due to New Zealand, its country of origin, lying on the 42nd parallel. It was created in 1996 by Geoff Ross who first started distilling in his garage with a still his wife bought him. Hooked, he made the move from the advertising industry to set up his 42 below vodka brand and sold the first bottling in 1999.
This very unique vodka is distilled from GM-free wheat and undergoes 35 levels of filtration.