As Russian as Red Square, as Ukrainian as Yulia Tymoshenko and as Polish as Pope Jean-Paul II, vodka is the firewater of choice for some 300 million people, spread out in a 3000 mile sweep across the former Communist bloc. From Warsaw to Vladivostok, drinkers wax lyrical about the potency of this legendary colourless spirit. Which is prepared using everything from rye and wheat to potatoes and sugar beet molasses. Rest of the world considers vodka as the perfect mixer, with its neutral taste and powerful alcohol kick. However native drinkers prefer it neat, served in shot glass after shot glass after shot glass; it’s no coincidence that the word ‘vodka’ is a corruption of the Russian word for water!
History Of Vodka
Poland and Russia both claim to have invented vodka around the 9th century, but the first official record appears in the Vyatka Chronicle, written in Russia in 1174. Early vodkas were murky brews, full of impurities and capable of producing epic hangovers. And despite attempts to clarify the fluid using isinglass, a natural gelatin removed from the swim bladders of sturgeon. Mass consumption of vodka didn’t really take off until the 15th century, with the invention of pot distillation. And the creation of vodkas that don’t leave drinkers feeling like they are trample underfoot through the entire Russian Army.
It’s cold outside. You can tell because there’s frost on the inside of the windows. A border guard barks a command in Russian and an orderly appears with a bottle of Русский Стандарт (Russian Standard) and two shot glasses… Even if you can’t recreate the full Cold War ambiance at home, the essential first step is to chill your vodka to the right temperature – aim for around -18°C – and serve in a chilled shot glass. That way, the subtle tones that follow the initial blast of fire won’t be swamp by the alcohol. Look for hints of other flavours – a sweetness, a smidgeon of buttery creaminess or a citrusy tang – all marks of a superior vodka. Sip, don’t swig, then chase with a bite of pickle or preserved herring. Only a philistine would drink vodka without food!
Above all, the great thing about vodka is that you can make it from almost anything. Wheat, rye, sorghum, potatoes, sugar beet, grapes, soya beans, sugar, even milk whey and wood fibres. Almost anything that ferments can be distilled down to produce precious drops of ethanol. However, in the modern age, the vast majority of vodkas are made from grains, with wheat and rye marking out the premium brands. Differences between premium vodkas are subtle – a lemony tang here, a slight sweetness there. Comparing good vodka to bad vodka is like comparing Napoléon cognac to kerosene. Flavoured vodkas are the latest darling of the drinks industry, though not of true vodka aficionados. You’ll find vodkas spruced up with everything from raspberries and mango to cinnamon and salty liquorice.
Vodka was originally invented as a medicine. In the medieval period, this fearsome firewater was used as a tincture for treating everything from depression to the common cold. It even found a role in the production of gunpowder, used to dampen the powder grains during grinding to prevent spontaneous explosions!
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