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History
Production
Anecdotes
References

Lancaster Vodka Masterclass,

December 2007

 

 

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).

 

THE PHARMACY

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…

 

AFTER-SHAVE

A Polish document describes vodka as being a ‘lotion applied on the chin after shaving’ …

 

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THE ETYMOLOGY OF THE WORD VODKA

The etymology of the word vodka itself offers no real clue to the priority seekers. The word vodka is a diminutive of the word woda or water literally meaning “little water” in almost any Slavic language. Vodka, along with aqua vitae, akvavit, whisky and eau-de-vie, probably originally meant “water of life” or “magic elixir”, which the early alchemists revered as a divine potion with miraculous curing powers. Early use of the Polish word vodka can be found in a 16th century poem Wodka albo Gorzalka by a minor poet Jurek Potanski and in the library of the university of Krakow there is a reference to vodka in the work of a certain scholar S Falimir, entitles “On herbs and their qualities. On burning vodkas from herbs”, dated 1533. However the early Polish term for vodka was gorzalka. The root of the word comes from the Polish verb to burn. It meant burnt water i.e. alcohol which had been produced from a heating process in a still.

There is an amusing myth that the word Gorzalka derives from the sorry fate of an early alchemist K who literally burnt to death by self-combustion – this is the literal sense of gorzal K i.e. K burnt himself up.

 

BAD MANNERS

In the 15th and 16th century Eastern Europe, it was considered as rude to be sober in social gatherings.

 

MEDICINE CABINET

Up to this day some people in Russia still keep their vodka in their bathroom with the other medicines…

Some brands also sell bottles with appropriate size and shape to fit in medicine cabinets.

 

 

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’.

 

 

STRONG HEADS

An other notorious cult, having a ‘strong head’, i.e. the prowess of the triumphant champion who survives the longest at a drinking bout. The gallery of great Eastern European monarchs who were demon drinkers is long and impressive: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Alexander III… were all part of the proud lineage preceding Brezhnev and Yeltsin. The fact that Gorbachev did not drink a lot or at all earned him popular distrust in Russia.

There is a saying that the Russians only trust each other when they are drunk.

 

POLISH TOAST – NA ZDROWIE !

A ritual still practised today in Poland is for the host at a birthday or other celebration to drink individually to the health of each single guest. In fact what the host will really do most often, is go round with a glass (with water or sipped very slightly), and remain sober.

 

RUSSIAN TOAST – NA ZDOROVIE !

Toasts are an important tradition in Russia (and when dining with Russians elsewhere). It is considered in poor taste if you drink or take even a sip without a toast. If you do, people may comment that only alcoholics drink without a toast. 

 

ADVICE FROM RUSSIAN DIPLOMATS ON TOASTING

Good advice observed by diplomats serving in Russia is, when you feel it is going to be a long session, discreetly pour your vodka away (toss it quickly over your shoulder); once the toasting has seriously got under way and people are losing count, miss a round regularly. It shouldn’t be too difficult to be found out. And it is a practise (essentially dictated by survival) followed by many Russians at official functions. Gone are the days when at banquets there were special servants set to spy on guests to ensure that all guests drunk their glass to the end (those miscreants among the guests, who didn’t, were exposed and forced by violence to drink doubles…)

 

 

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.

 

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POLMOS MAP

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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ZUBROWKA

Zubrowka is the best known brand inside and outside Poland. Following the auctioning of the Polmos leading brands, Zubrowka now belongs to Polmos Bialystock, the prestigious plant in the East of the country, very fitting as it is close to the reserved where the last surviving European bison (called Zubry in both Russian and Polish – hence Zubrowka) still graze.

Zubrowka owes its complex aromas and flavours to the grass which comes from the East of Poland: Bielowieza reserve, shared by Poland and Belarus.

ZUBROWKA & THE BISON GRASS MYTH

The bison grass recipe dates back as far as the 17th century, and there are other producers inside and outside Poland which make it.

It is believed that the grass used to flavour Zubrowka has aphrodisiac powers.

Another legend behind the origin of the enigmatic grass vodka mentions the fact that hunters were trying to get the strength of a bison and were especially thinking of sexual strength more than anything, making it an obvious choice to flavour their spirits with the grass roamed daily by bisons.

 

ZUBROWKA & APPLE JUICE

Not everyone likes Zubrowka in Poland, many people preferring clear unflavoured vodka.

However the bison grass vodka is enjoying growing popularity with the younger generation, particularly as a mixer in a cocktail undeservedly little known in the West: ¼ Zubrowka to ¾ apple juice on the rocks: called Katanka after the movie Dances with Wolves.

 

 

FINLANDIA

Finlandia vodka is the biggest Finnish export brand.

 

FINLANDIA BOTTLE

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.

 

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ABSOLUT PRODUCTION

1kg of wheat is used for each litre of Absolut.

 

ABSOLUT ICONIC BOTTLE

Design inspired by old medicine bottle – it is also the 2nd most recognised object in the world, after the M from MacDonalds and before Coca Cola.


 

ABSOLUT MARKETING

Absolut has been involved in over 100 fashion commissions since 1987, and collaborated with haute couture celebrities ranging from John Galliano to the late Gianni Versace.

Absolut based one of its ad campaigns (created by Herb Ritts) entirely on ice, on Versace and on the top models of both sexes. The models (Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Marcus Schenkenberg) embarked on a daring trek into the icy wilderness of Northern Sweden, where they were photographed in a gorgeous setting of intricately carved blocks of ice and ornate ice sculptures. The result is a magnificent collection of photos, perhaps the most sophisticated to date to promote vodka.

Absolut sponsors the only hotel made of ice in Northern Sweden.

 

 

CHOPIN

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).

 

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IVAN THE TERRIBLE – THE KABAK

Tsar Ivan the IV, better known under his nickname Ivan the Terrible, famous for decapitating his enemies and killing his own son.

In 1556, after a particularly successful rout of Russia’s last serious threat in the East, the tartars, Ivan the Terrible opened the 1st kabak, the Russian-tartar version of an inn or tavern, which was reserved exclusively for his personal guards, and built on the tartar/Muslim model he observed in Kazan. A few decades later it became the embrace-all name for any public place where common people could consume alcoholic beverages. At that time (and till the early 20th century), the bottle was a rare luxury and the taverns were regarded primarily as establishments for blending and conditioning spirit, and also as an instrument of collecting duties and controlling consumption. For centuries to come, the kabak remained the exclusive outlet for vodka and became a pernicious and much vilified instrument in the hands of the state. It promoted and influenced the culture of excessive consumption of vodka encouraging alcoholism and the loose morality which accompanies it – rowdy drunken gatherings downing vast quantities of vodka on empty stomachs (drinking without eating, being a centuries-old Russian taboo).

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WYBOROWA

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!

 

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XELLENT

First Swiss vodka because until 1999 governments prohibited distillation of grains and potatoes grown in Switzerland.

 

 

 

 

SMIRNOFF

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.

 

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STARKA

The only example of aged vodka. Literally meaning ‘old vodka’. Its origins are from the East of Poland and Lithuania, which was in the 17th century part of the powerful joint State of Poland. The tradition, according to myth, was for a father to lay down a barrel and literally bury it, only digging it up when his daughter could be given in marriage (which explains why local girls married young). It is rye spirit aged in oak, sometimes for as long as 20 years.  

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STOLICHNAYA

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.

 

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BELVEDERE

Beleveder is the second deluxe vodka to be created in Poland after Chopin, also from Poland.

The bottle depicts the official residence of the President in Warsaw, the Belvedere Palace, one of the most beautiful monuments in the capital city (there are only a few... I recommend Cracow!!!!).

Belvedere literally translates as ‘beautiful to see’ and the bottle is truly beautiful to see (through...)

 

 

KETEL ONE

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.

 

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ULTIMAT

Ultimat is a blended vodka with a very precise proportions of rye (15%), wheat (15%) & potato (70%).

The bottle (which justifies its price) is a hand crafted genuine crystal decanter with a removable label to make it a valuable gift.

Ultimat was the first Polish ‘deluxe’ vodka not available in Poland as it was only originally introduced in the USA & the UK.

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CIROC

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.

 

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U’LUVKA

Re-creation of legendary royal vodka from 16th century: alchemist Sendivogius & magical vodka that he distilled for the court of King Sigmund III saved him from incurable disease.

U’luvka is a blended vodka, which means it is not produced with only one raw ingredient, but instead it is the combination of rye (50%), barley (25%) and wheat (25%).

The teardrop-shaped bottle with its twisted neck stands out. The different elements of the symbol on the bottle represent spirit (the ‘T’ shape with the curved tail), soul (the question mark without the dot) and moon (the central dot).

 

 

 

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.

 

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STATS

In 2005, 4.5 billion litres of vodka were consumed.

In 2005 & 2004, 74% of all vodka consumed was produced in Eastern Europe.

 

THE VODKA CATEGORIES

3 distinct vodka categories :

-Standard (95% of total vodka Vol.): <£11. Category leader: Smirnoff (Category growth of 12%).

-Premium (4% of total vodka Vol.):  £11-£15. Category leader: Absolut (Category growth of 24%).

-Super Premium/ Luxury (1% of total vodka Vol.) - >£15 Category leader: Grey Goose. (Category growth of 11%).

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CORN VODKAS

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.

 

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SUGAR-BEET MOLASSES

Sugar-beet molasses, through a process of mute acquiescence, is grudgingly accepted as a quality raw material for vodka in traditional sugar-beet growing countries, such as France or Italy and partly Germany, Denmark and Poland. Molasses alcohol is extensively produced in Ukraine, but has a poor reputation as a quality spirit. It is shunned and ostracized in Mother Russia, and discreetly ignored in Northern Europe.

The reason is simple: still well into the 70’s rectification techniques did not allow molasses to be processed into a sufficiently neutral spirit. The spirit derived from molasses was particularly nasty in smell and texture. A century ago the newly installed Russian imperial alcohol monopoly banned outright the use of molasses spirits for vodka production. It would appear that spirits such as Anisette or Absinthe are strongly flavoured in order to mask the fairly unpleasant smell of molasses – a sticky leftover from sugar processing.

The French, in order to quench their insatiable thirst for the likes of Pernod and Ricard, had no other solution but to use the locally produced molasses alcohol, and creating a formidable distilling industry, which in the 80’s managed to develop and master on a large scale a new quality called surfine, neutral enough to be used successfully in vodkas. This novel rectification technique, costly but efficient, remains to be implemented on a large scale in Eastern Europe, where quite often the ancestral equipment still turns out a low-quality grade – unusable even in the most basic vodkas.

No one will be in the least surprised that to date there has been no marketing director who has dared to assert on the label of his vodka that the spirits is distilled “from premium molasses whose exclusive origins is the quality district of Brie-sur-Marne”… The vodka makers’ principal tool was and still remains silence. If the vodka label is silent about whether the vodka is distilled from grains or not from grains, you can rest assured it must be vodka from molasses spirit.

In its defence it must be recognised that molasses alcohol is cheap and it allows sugar-manufacturing companies to improve their balance sheets, and it has a right for existence.

It is worth noting: molasses alcohol even has one important advantage: it never contains methanol. So a slightly lesser probability of a headache than after a generous glass of grain Stoli.

 

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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.

 

 

VODKA IN NAPOLEONIC TIMES

The Napoleonic troops invading Moscow in the Autumn of 1812 found an empty city with hundreds of unattended vodka cellars (which was duly reported to Paris by French Minister of war). Whether it was a tactical ruse of the Russians or not, the rampant and desperate alcoholism of the French soldiers and officers, who absorbed record amounts of the newly discovered Russian spirit, was one important reason why Napoleon had to retreat. In turn, Russian troops invading Paris in 1814 brought their own vodka, and gave rise to a quaint legend that the origin of the word bistro is Russian.

In Russian bystro literally means quickly and the word was often used by Cossacks seeking rapid service – unfortunately, etymological evidence suggests the word may have existed in French well before then.  

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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.

 

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HOW VODKA BECAME THE NUMBER 1 SPIRIT IN THE WORLD

In the West, vodka really took off in the late 40’s and early 50’s thanks to a surge in cocktail consumption, and the emergence of new fashionable mixes – Moscow Mule, Bloody Mary and Screwdriver. The cocktail was to remain the pillar behind vodka’s selling mechanism for the next 40 years. Western-made vodka was, logically, tailored to become an element of the cocktail. Smirnoff was the 1st to start though others later joined.

The phenomenal growth in consumption since the early 70’s had led to the emergence of dozens of brands, and to the resurrection of dozens of others. The biggest growth was enjoyed the most international brands – the likes of Absolut and Finlandia. Vodka ceased to be domestic, Russian of Polish vodka. It became international or imported, while the Russians and Polish state bureaucracies continued to lose their market share.

In 1967 vodka passed gin in popularity in the US thanks to, among other things, 007 Vodka Martinis. In 1976, whiskey was the next victim in its path, and vodka became America’s top selling spirit.

The 80’s and 90’s turned another chapter: the reappearance of flavoured and aromatic vodka. It was paradoxically a historic return to vodka’s aristocratic origins.  

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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.

 

FILTRATION – CHARCOAL

The absorbing qualities of charcoal were initially not as obvious as it mat seem now. It took 3 centuries of vodka history before a Saint-Petersburg apothecary, Dr Lowitz, discovered in 1785 that spirit distilled with charcoal is somewhat purer; later he figured out that simple filtering or even shaking or stirring spirit with charcoal was enough.

This remarkable achievement of one apothecary was unfortunately eclipsed by another great pharmaceutical discovery: that of Dr Pemberton, the historic founder of the Coca-Cola recipe, exactly a century later.

Since the 20’s, activated carbon filters, of the type used in gas masks, became widely used, while the overall design of filters remained basically unchanged. High-tech ceramic filters are somewhat in vogue with the more sophisticated bottling units since the past 20 years.  

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42 BELOW

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.

 

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GREY GOOSE

Launched in the US in 1997, Grey Goose enjoyed immediate success, but the UK had to wait until August 2000 before it crossed the English Channel from Cognac where it is made. Grey Goose was made for the American market by an American. It was the idea of Sidney Frank (legendary drinks marketer) whose vision was to create a vodka that his fellow Americans would be only too happy to pay a premium for. France, particularly Cognac, is perceived by Americans as being a place where quality spirits are produced, so that’s where he sourced his new vodka.

Sidney Frank died a contented billionaire in January 2006 at the age of 86, as a couple of years earlier he had sold Grey Goose to Bacardi for $2.2 billion, the highest price ever paid for a single spirit brand.

 

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