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Lancaster Vodka Masterclass,

December 2007



A lot can be said about the history of vodka. Here are just a few main facts to remember. For more information, feel free to contact Juicy Shoot or go to the Anecdotes section.



Where does vodka originally come from?

This is still a mystery and has been a topic of arguments between Poland and Russia for centuries. Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania also claim vodka was born on their territory. What should be remembered overall is that vodka was born somewhere in the ex USSR.


What does the word vodka mean?

The etymology of the word vodka does not help historians in their search for the birthplace of vodka either: in all Slavic languages (Russian, Polish, Ukrainian etc), ‘vodka’ (Russian) or ‘wódka’ (Polish) is the diminutive for ‘voda’ or ‘woda’ meaning ‘water’: in other words ‘vodka’ literally means ‘little water’.

It is a very affectionate way of describing 'water' (in Polish you would nickname a friend named 'Agata' by calling her 'Agatka' - adding 'ka' - in order to show affection). This way of describing 'little water' can be explained by the fact that vodka was actually given more importance that 'water', being purer and healthier to drink.

This is also why vodka has been traditionally consumed in heavy quantites in Eastern Europe: from breakfast to well after dinner.



It is believed vodka was first made around the 8th or 9th century although it was at that time very different in taste, colour and smell to what we nowadays call vodka.

The quality of vodka was highly improved thanks to the knowledge of distilling spirits, which spread from Italy and France across Europe during the 13th and 14th centuries.

Originally vodka was distilled from the cheapest ingredients available locally (grains and potatoes) and was often flavoured with herbs and spices to mask its unpleasant smell and taste.


Before being used for recreational purposes, vodka was used as a medicine. Some texts describe various uses of vodka as anesthetics, a body rub and even an aftershave!

The pharmacy was a central place in each town and village of Eastern Europe where people gathered socially and purchased their curing little water.


It is not until the 15th century that vodka officially became Poland & Russia's national beverage and stopped being used solely for medicinal purposes.

In spite of all the argument and even the legal battle that took place between Poland and Russia, the oldest written document with the word ‘vodka’ comes from a Polish manuscript which was dated 1405. This is when, officially, the history of vodka started.


Vodka has been in the West barely 100 years: it was first introduced in the US as a ‘white whiskey’ in the 1930’s.

Today 25% of all spirits sales are vodka, which officially makes it the world’s most popular spirit.

This popularity is mainly due to the fact that vodka is commonly used as a cocktail ingredient or in mixed drinks and is regarded as a neutral spirit with no taste or flavour.

Western vodka is indeed distilled to be neutral when vodka from the East has distinct a character and flavour. These are the main vodka categories: Eastern vodkas (more traditional) vs. Western vodkas (more modern and generally aimed to be neutral).