Since it was invented in the late 14th century, vodka has become one of the world’s most popular and recognizable alcoholic beverages in the world. This clear, virtually odorless liquor is the keystone ingredient of a broad range of ionic cocktails, from gimlets to Moscow Mules to Bloody Marys, to screwdrivers to alcohol ice pops. It also goes well with other hard liquor, such as gin and whiskey.
But where does vodka come from? Although the answer is somewhat contested, most historians believe that vodka was first developed in Russia and certain eastern European countries like Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus in the late 14th and early 15th centuries.
Those early versions, however, would be unrecognizable to modern imbibers.
The journey from the first vodkas to the liquor we know today took hundreds of years and several innovations—and even a couple of world wars. Let’s look at the history of vodka and how vodka is made.
Alcohol was introduced to Russia in 1386 when merchants from Italy brought wine to Moscow. Although the Russian government outlawed the drink as “harmful,” it led to the discovery that alcohol could be distilled from grains and starches. The earliest vodkas were distilled from:
According to Russian legend, vodka was invented by a monk named Isidore in the Chudov Monastery in Moscow around 1430. Although the earliest known written mention of vodka appears in a Polish manuscript dated 1405, it was Isidore’s version—known as “bread wine,” for the grains it was distilled from—that really caught on.
Later in the 1400s, the first grain distilleries in Russia were opened. Tsar Ivan III created a state monopoly on the production and sale of “bread wine,” which lasted until the reign of Catherine the Great in 1762, who decreed that members of Russian nobility could produce Russian vodka for personal use on their own land.
Allowing homebrewing of vodka led to a range of experiments and innovations in the production process, such as infusing various herbs, berries, and other fruits. Most notably, a filtration method was developed using charcoal that remains instrumental to achieving vodka’s neutral, adaptable flavor.1
Vodka Goes International
For centuries, vodka was a drink primarily produced and consumed only in Russia, eastern Europe, and some Nordic countries like Sweden. After World War I, however, soldiers who had been introduced to vodka during their service helped popularize it in the west.
By the time World War II started, in 1939, vodka was being made in western countries like the U.K and the United States. Today, unlike champagne, tequila, or other liquors, which can only be made in certain regions, vodka can be—and is—produced anywhere in the world.2
How is Vodka Made?
Vodka is made by extracting alcohol (ethanol) from a mixture of grains, starches, or fruits, known as “mash.” Today, in addition to the wheat, rye, and barley of its original recipe, vodka mash can include:
In general, vodka production involves three steps:
- Fermentation – Fermentation refers to the process by which the ingredients of the vodka mash are converted to alcohol. The mash is mixed with water and heated to break down substances, and yeast is added to convert sugars to ethanol.
- Distillation and Dilution – Once fermentation is complete, the ethyl alcohol is distilled, a process that removes impurities and other substances from the alcohol that could influence its flavor or texture.,The distiller removes the remaining water during this process, which increases the liquor’s alcohol-by-volume measurement (ABV). Often, premium vodka is distilled multiple times to ensure a higher-quality liquor and smoother taste
- Filtration – The final step in the process is filtration. Filtration is necessary because it removes unwanted minerals and other elements left behind by the water and yeast used in fermentation. Because of the tiny pores that characterize its surface, charcoal is a popular method of filtering vodka. Lava rocks and quartz crystals may also be used.3
Once the vodka has been sufficiently filtered, it’s ready to be bottled—provided it meets a few regulatory standards regarding its ingredients, bottling proof, and other factors. For instance, in the United States, vodka can contain no more than two grams of sugar per liter and must have an ABV of at least 40% (80 proof), among other regulations.4 Still, that’s a lot of alcohol content that could knock you out if you’re not careful.
SLIQ: Vodka Cocktails That Stand the Test of Time
Although its origin story might be cloudy, true vodka never is. Its neutral, versatile profile makes it a reliable drink, on its own or mixed into various cocktails. Vodka is also perfect for any season because it mixes well with other beverages and flavors.
For spring, you can do no wrong with a Vodka Martini, but if you really want to kick it up a notch, try an April Rain, which adds lime and vermouth to the mix. Some fall themed cocktails worth trying when autumn sets in include Apple Cider Lemonade Slushie, Spiced Pear & Cranberry Frozen Martini, Moscow Mule and Frozen Rosé Collins. Winter is another perfect season for vodka cocktails because, like the Russians say when it comes to vodka, “warm on the inside, cold on the outside.”
At SLIQ, we always use domestically sourced vodka that’s been distilled seven times over, ensuring that our premium frozen alcoholic beverages are as flavorful as they are chilly. And for even more good times, try our additional daiquiri popsicles, whiskey ice pops and frozen margarita pops.
- Russia Beyond. Russian Vodka: A History https://www.rbth.com/articles/2012/12/12/russian_vodka_a_history_20971
- Drinks & Co. Vodka: The History and Origin of the Clearest Distillate https://www.drinksandco.co.uk/blog/vodka-the-history-and-origin-of-the-clearest-distillate
- Taste of Home. What is Vodka Made From, Anyway? https://www.tasteofhome.com/article/what-is-vodka-made-from/
- Difford’s Guide. The Definition of Vodka. https://www.diffordsguide.com/g/1171/vodka/definition