Ghost Story: A History of Spirits

By Georgia Dodsworth

Yes, boys and girls, the happiest season of all is upon us once more, and what with Christmas formals, winter balls – and the fact you can drink wine at any time of day as long as it’s warmed up and there’s a cinnamon stick floating in it – it’s the booziest season too. Before we know it, the special day itself – and the only time of year it’s socially acceptable to drink advocaat – will have arrived, but in the meantime what is everyone really drinking?

According to Nielsen, over the next few years vodka is set to become the UK’s favourite spirit for the first time ever, but this is hardly new information for us at Durham. If you drink alcohol at all, chances are you’re already very familiar with the corrosive charms of everyone’s favourite house party essential – vodka might as well be a staple food here. But while we’re all experts at choosing which Tesco Value mixer will bring out the subtle nuances of the spirit, what do we really know about it and its history?

Aside from snow, bears, furry hats and the only world leader ever photographed riding a horse topless, Russia is pretty synonymous with vodka. However, there’s some debate among scholars of food and drink (it’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it) over whether the spirit’s first production occurred there in the 9th century, or in Poland a hundred years earlier. Either way, what they cooked up back then was very far from the vodka we know and love today, with a different taste, smell, colour and a comparatively puny alcohol content of about 14%.

Poland and Russia, along with Ukraine and the other Baltic states, make up the brilliantly titled Vodka Belt, and it was here where production really got going in the Middle Ages. The first written reference to vodka was in 1405 by the recorder of deeds of the Palatinate (wahey!) of Sandomierz in Poland, though the actual drink was called gorzałka (from an Old Polish word meaning “to burn” – sounds about right), while wódka referred to distilled alcohol mostly used for medicinal purposes. Polish physician Stefan Falimierz for instance claimed in 1534 that it could “increase fertility and awaken lust”, and it was also used as an ingredient in gunpowder – delicious!

In those days, the actual vodka-making process was pretty rudimentary: it was typically distilled twice, diluted with milk then distilled again (apologies to anyone reminded of a similar concoction from Ring of Fire). The result was an eye-watering 70-80% ABV, so it would be watered down and then flavoured. The basic product wasn’t standardised at this time either, so all sorts of wacky versions came about in the Vodka Belt, from the actually quite nice-sounding lemon, raspberry, cherry and watermelon to flavours like dill, birch, oak, pepper, mountain ash and horseradish.

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In 1572, King Jan Obracht of Poland wasn’t happy the common people were getting so much of that sweet vodka action, so he limited the production and sale of alcohol to the gentry. As the product was so popular and thus lucrative, from this time through to the 18th century vodka production became a full-on industry, and throughout Europe Polish vodka became a favourite of bleary-eyed members of the aristocracy and lower classes alike.

A similar situation was happening in good old Russia, but in 1863 the government monopoly on vodka production was repealed. Prices plummeted and vodka became available to poorer citizens too; parties and joyful parades through the streets ensued (not really, but I like to think so).

The citizens of Tsarist Russia loved vodka – at times up to 40% of state revenue was coming from taxes on the spirit alone! By 1911 a staggering 89% of all alcohol consumed in Russia was vodka (who knew Tsarist Russia and Klute had something in common?), and recent estimates suggest it has only dipped to around 70% in the 21st century.

Back in Poland, things weren’t going so well – after World War II the vodka distilleries were taken over by the Marxist-Leninist government, and to the dismay of alcoholics throughout the country, the sale of vodka was rationed in the 1980s. Many distilleries ended up bankrupt, but since then the industry has bounced back – as of 2010 Poland was the fourth-largest producer of spirits in Europe, and almost half of the expenditure on vodka production takes place there. It’s also the home to a vast array of yellow spiced vodkas, including Żubrówka (a.k.a. bison grass vodka), which is usually served mixed with apple juice, a drink apparently known in the UK as a “Frisky Bison”.

In recent years, the world of alcohol production has been shaken to the core by the so-called vodka war. Yes, it is as exciting as it sounds – it refers to heated discussions within the EU over what may or may not legally be branded as “vodka” (told you). The French vodka Cîroc, made exclusively from grapes, has enjoyed an increase in popularity over the last decade (attributed to brand ambassador Sean “Diddy” Combs), prompting anger from the purist countries of the Vodka Belt, who argue that only spirits made from cereals, potatoes and sugar beet molasses should be allowed to carry the real title.

If the Vodka Belt succeeds, its influence over the £8bn global vodka market will vastly increase, and Diddy and his grapes will be forced to retreat. Who will prevail? The battle rages on…

Nowadays, innovators within the vodka world seem to be taking inspiration from the Middle Ages (using inventive flavours that is, not using it to “awaken lust”): now you can buy vodka that tastes like marmalade, popcorn, grass, “electricity”, or even bacon (guess which country thought that one up).

So there you go – now you know a bit more about the spirit you thought you knew so well. Before you put the paper down to google “bacon vodka”, I hope you have a very merry Christmas, and please remember to enjoy your vodka (or gin, whiskey, wine, mint Baileys, etc.) in responsible amounts – after all, we can’t all drink like the Russians.

Photographs: Chris Hood and THOR via Flickr

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