The word «vodka» has been known since the 17th century and
is most likely a derivative of «voda» (water). In the past,
other names were also used for the drink: wine (bread wine),
korchma or korchma wine, distilled wine, burning wine, burnt
wine and bitter wine among others. It is thought that the
drink itself, or rather its ancestor, a strong drink called
aqua vitae (Latin for «water of life»), was first brought
to Russia by Genoese merchants on their way to Lithuania.
They travelled via Moscow, where the foreign guests had an
audience with Prince Dmitry Ivanovich, called Donskoy for
his victory over the Mongol-Tartar army on the Kulikovo Field
by the River Don. Flattered by the hospitality of the Moscow
governor, they presented him with vessels with the above mentioned
spirit. However, our ancestors were not much impressed with
this distilled fermented grape juice. Mead and beer were more
popular in Russia at the time.
Time passed and in 1429, foreign visitors brought aqua vitae
to Moscow once again; this time it was served as the universal
cure. The liquid was appreciated at the court of the young
prince Vasily the Second Vasilievitch, who later lost his
eyesight in the feud with his relatives and got the nickname
of «Dark». As the drink was too strong, it was normally diluted
with water. It is likely that the idea of diluting alcohol
(that is what aqua vitae actually was) with water was the
starting point for manufacturing Russian vodka that was produced
from grain, which was abundant in Russia. In the 15th century
the monasteries of Russia began producing grain vodka.
As early as the beginning of the 16th century «burning wine»
was brought not to Russia, but from it. It was the first experience
of the Russian export of vodka that later would take over
the whole world. It is worth mentioning that in the end of
the 15th century the grand prince of Moscow and the Tsar of
all Russia, Ivan the Third (who had an astute and strategic
mind) introduced a state monopoly on the production and selling
of vodka, as well as on all other alcoholic drinks.
In 1533, the first «Tsar's kabak» was opened, a place where
various alcoholic drinks, including vodka, could be bought
and consumed. In the times of Ivan the Terrible kabaks were
rather widely spread. These places were mostly frequented
by the Tsar's guards, who had no qualms at parting with their
money earned with no significant effort. Moscow kabaks were
mentioned in the diaries and travel journals of foreigners
who visited the Moscow lands during the second half of the
16th century, calling kabaks them «Russian taverns». By the
way, the word «kabak» is not Slavic by origin. Its origin
is not known; the only thing that linguists are sure about
is that it was brought to Russia from somewhere in the East.
In kabaks, people drank, fought, played dice, but, unfortunately,
did not eat. The kabak business was very profitable for the
state; this is why the Rurikoviches, Boris Godunov and the
first Romanovs did not only keep the state monopoly, but made
it more rigid.
The 17th century was justly termed rebellious by the contemporaries
since it was a series of revolts and all sorts of roguish
activities. Alongside the «copper», «salt» and other revolts,
there were also the «kabak» revolts which were caused by the
kabak supervisors and their assistants' abuse of their positions.
Throughout Russian history, the manner of vodka production
and sales has changed many times. The system of wine lease,
the right to produce and sell vodka for a payment of a small
percentage of income to the state, that made the leaseholders
fabulously rich, was constantly being introduced and withdrawn.
Peter the First combined leases with the state sale of vodka,
trying to increase the income for the state to a maximum.
During the reign of Peter the Great, the dynasties of Russian
«vodka kings» started. In 1716, the first Emperor of all Russia
offered the aristocracy and the merchants the exclusive right
to distil wine.
In the middle of the 18th century, vodka was produced not
only by state-owned distilleries, but also by land-owning
aristocracy. Empress Catherine the Second, who favoured the
nobility and granted it numerous privileges, made wine distillation
the sole privilege of the aristocracy. The Empress's order
of March 31, 1765 allowed only the nobility to distil wine
and also freed them of all accompanying taxes. Rich merchants
that made their fortunes at the time when anybody could produce
vodka if he paid the «wine distillation tax» tried to share
in the ownership of distilleries with aristocrats or use their
names in the documentation. However, the government saw to
it that the privilege of the nobility was kept and mercilessly
punished those who disobeyed, confiscating such distilleries.
It is not surprising then that the largest part of vodka
was produced in the estate of the nobility and the quality
of the drink was unsurpassable. The producers attempted at
high quality water cleaning and used natural proteins: milk
and egg white.
It is also interesting to note that home-made vodka, unlike
that of the state distilleries, was mostly flavoured. During
the process of making home-made vodka, the alcohol was distilled
three times, water and various plant flavours were added,
and then the vodka was distilled once more for the fourth
time! According to contemporaries, the tables in the estates
of the nobility bore decanters with drinks that today we cannot
even imagine! Sophisticated gourmets considered it a point
of honour to have all sorts of vodka with flavours whose names
started with all letters of the Russian alphabet. With cherry
and pear, blackberry and acorn, caraway seed and dill, bird
cherry and sage what a number of berries, roots and tree seeds
was used for flavouring the traditional Russian drink! And,
almost every landowner had his own special sort of vodka!
In the 19th century, beginning with the Patriotic War of
1812, the Russian treasury got less, the rouble underwent
inflation, and the government introduced a state monopoly
on vodka in the largest part of the Russian empire, except
for Siberia, where it was useless to control the leaseholders,
anyway. It is quite characteristic that after the war with
Napoleon was over, Russian vodka was highly appreciated in
France and it was not considered to be just one more exotic
drink, but something noble and pure, brought to the French
by those who defeated Buonaparte.
Russia, the system of vodka production and sale kept changing.
After the reforms, first, the excise system was introduced,
then the ideas of the best way to sell bread wine were considered.
Before 1885 vodka was sold only in buckets (12.3 litres);
now bottles became more widespread.
The invention of this vodka is connected with the name of
the famous chemist D. I. Mendeleev. The scientist had been
searching for the ideal volume and weight ratio of alcohol
and water for a year and a half and after having solved the
problem published his findings in his doctorate dissertation
«On Combining Alcohol and Water». Mendeleev's conclusions
were appreciated and successfully applied in alcoholometry
and vodka production. In 1894-1896 the national standard for
vodka was established and the state monopoly on vodka that
gradually spread all over the country was introduced
The prohibition measures that were first introduced during
the war with Japan of 1904-1905 are alone worth a separate
detailed story. There is also the «prohibition law» introduced
by the government of the Russian Empire on August 2, 1914
and officially cancelled by the Soviet government only in
1925. It is notable that the above mentioned monopoly on vodka
led to a certain decrease in the number of alcoholics (anumber
that was quite scary in the beginning of the 20th century).
To a great extent this decrease was influenced by the regulations
for selling vodka - in many regions vodka could be sold only
before 8 p.m. However, this limitation did not work in St.
Petersburg and Moscow.
It is not surprising then that in 1953 the «Moscow Special»
was awarded a gold medal at an international exhibition in
Switzerland. Among the items in the museum's collection, visitors
will recognise the well-known «Stolichnaya» label without
difficulties. This brand became very popular both at home
and abroad as soon as it appeared on the market. In May 1985,
the beginning of Gorbachev's era, the sadly remembered document
«On the Improved Measures Against Drunkenness and Alcoholism»
struck a heavy blow to the national liquor and vodka industry.
Although after 5 years time the absurd decision was considered
erroneous, Russia can still feel the damage today.
On June 7 1992, the first Russian president, B. N. Yeltsin
issued the Decree on the Abolition of the State Monopoly on
Vodka. As a result, the country was flooded with low quality,
very often fake, and therefore, hazardous product. The effect
of this widespread fake vodka was so apparent, and the budget
losses so noticeable, that in a year, on June 11, 1993, the
new presidential decree was issued. This time it was called
«On theReestablishment of the State Monopoly on Production,
Storage, Wholesale and Retail of Alcoholic Products».