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Vodka in Eastern Europe

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Chopin Potato Vodka

Chopin Potato Vodka

© Chopin Potato Vodka, used with permission.

So What Exactly Is Vodka?

According to liquoranddrink.com, prior to 2007, the European Union defined vodka as a distilled spirit made from any agricultural product. The EU's new legal definition says that vodka can still be made from any agricultural product, but if it is something other than grains or potatoes, the label must specify what the other ingredients are.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives defines vodka as a neutral spirit without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color. But, any self-respecting vodka drinker knows that vodkas vary widely based on what they are made with, typically potatoes or grains like rye, barley, wheat and oats. And cheaper sources of sugar starch like beets and corn are also used. In addition, there is a long tradition of flavored vodkas in Eastern Europe, which goes back to the days of home distillation when vodkas were infused with herbs, spices and fruit. Much to the disdain of the connoisseur, however, some of today's vodkas are being flavored with melon, bacon and other unusual ingredients.

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So Who Invented Vodka?

The word "vodka" comes from woda in Polish and vody in Russia, which means "water." The exact origin of vodka is unknown. The Poles contend they invented vodka more than 600 years ago, while Russians claim they were drinking it, probably as a medicinal elixir, as early as the ninth century.

Early Polish vodkas were made from grain. It wasn't until the 19th century that potato vodka was developed. Up until World War II, vodka was mainly consumed in Europe, Scandinavia, and Russia, but after the Russian Revolution, Smirnoff moved to the United States and started selling vodka to Russian immigrants. Still, it took until the 1950s for vodka to really catch on in the United States.

These days, vodka is manufactured in France (Grey Goose), Canada (Pearl, Iceberg), Israel (Stopka), Holland (Ketel One), Sweden (Absolut, Thor's Hammer), the Netherlands (Ursus, Vox), the United States (Skyy), and Ukraine (Perlova), but Poland's (Belvedere, Chopin, Luksusowa, Wyborowa) and Russia's (Stolichnaya) are still considered the best.

How Vodka Is Made

Grains or potatoes are processed into a mash which is heated to break down the starches into sugars. The sugars are distilled in copper column stills or copper pot stills by separating the alcohol from the water content of the fermented liquid, producing a high-alcohol neutral spyritus or eau de vie or rectified spirit. Often the product goes through two or more distillations to increase the strength, and a filtration process to purify it, but in many Eastern Europe companies, the distillate goes through minimal filtration so its distinctive character is preserved. Sometimes this base spirit is then cut with water to bring the vodka to the desired proof, usually 70% to 100%.

How to Drink Vodka

Expensive vodkas made in Poland and Russia are far too noble to be mixed into a cocktail. They should be drunk straight, ice-cold (store good vodka in the freezer, it won't freeze) and in a single gulp. Each shot is typically followed by a Russian zakuska or Polish zakąska (a small bite of food like herring, caviar and blini, pickled vegetables, smoked fish and smoked meats, pierogi, black bread, blintzes). It is said good vodka cleanses the palate by lifting strong flavors and mouth-coating fats off the tongue in preparation for the next bite.

Polish Vodkas

There is some dispute as to the earliest mention of vodka production in Poland. Some say the 1300s, others say the 1400s. It is known that, in 1546, Polish King Jan Olbracht granted the right to distill and sell spirits to every adult citizen. The szlachta (Polish aristocracy), demanded this privilege be revoked so that only they could make vodka.

By the 18th century, commercial vodka distilleries were thriving and by the mid-19th century, vodka was being exported throughout northern Europe and even into Russia! With the fall of Communism in 1989 and state-owned facilities, the vodka distilleries were once again under private ownership.

In Poland, vodkas are graded according to their degree of purity -- standard (zwykly), premium (wyborowy) and deluxe (luksusowy).

Sarna Rose, president of Poland Culinary Vacations, says, "For as long as Poles can remember, vodka has always been present at Polish celebrations, parties and wedding receptions. We cannot imagine any kind of party without a few bottles of vodka ... drinking vodka is a part of our Polish social tradition. In some parts of Poland, mainly in villages, there is an interesting tradition of stopping a bride and a groom on their way to church. Men usually gather and wish the couple good luck, in exchange they get one or two bottles of vodka."

In addition to unadulterated vodkas, Poland also has a rich tradition of flavored vodkas including lemon, pepper and bison-grass-flavored vodkas. Many Polish luxury vodkas have been named after famous Polish historical figures. Here are some of the most popular Polish vodkas.

Chopin Vodka is named after Polish composer, Fryderyk Chopin, and is a very smooth potato or rye vodka, which is distilled four times with purified artesian water.

Pan Tadeusz Vodka is a very common grain vodka named after Adam Mickiewicz’s (Polish poet, publisher and political writer) famous national epic "Pan Tadeusz." It is produced by V&S Luksusowa, Zielona Góra S.A. and was launched in 1999.

Sobieski Vodka is named after the Polish King, Jan III Sobieski, and has been produced since 1864.

Wódka Żołądkowa Gorzka can be translated as "bitter vodka for the stomach." It is an amber-colored vodka with herbal flavor. Żołądkowa Gorzka produces plain, fruit and herbal vodkas in traditional, mint, honey and bison grass flavors.

Krupnik is a sweet vodka known as honey liqueur produced by Destylarnia Sobieski S.A., Polmos Starogard Gdanski. It is often the preferred vodka by ladies.

Żubrówka or Bison Grass Vodka is a dry, herb-flavored vodka that is distilled from rye and flavored with a tincture of buffalo grass and produced by Polmos Białystok. The name Żubrówka comes from "żubr," the Polish word for the European bison.

Dębowa Polska is a rye vodka made with black elderflower and oak chips, giving it a darker color than traditional clear vodka.

Russian Vodka

Russians firmly believe that vodka was created by them. Commercial production was established by the 14th century. In 1540, Tsar Ivan the Terrible created the first government vodka monopoly with licenses handed out to the nobility (that's where the aristocratic Poles got the idea, as detailed above). It's a given that home stills or moonshining became very popular.

Estate-produced vodkas were of high quality and, as with Polish vodkas, infused with everything from acorns to horseradish to mint. The Russians are credited with, in 1780, being the first to use charcoal to filter vodka.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, Western European distillation techniques and equipment were being utilized. With the advent of the Communist party, all distilleries became government owned, and inferior products were relegated to the masses while party officials enjoyed "the real thing." Today, vodka production has returned to high-quality brands that Russia has always been known for. The best Russian vodkas are considered to be those made from wheat, while potato vodkas are sneered at by Russian distillers.

In Russia, vodka that is labeled osobaya (special) usually is a superior-quality product that can be exported, while krepkaya (strong) is a lower-quality vodka of at least 56%. Flavored vodkas are nothing new. They have been produced from the very beginning, sometimes to mask off flavors and then later because of demand. Here are some of the most popular Russian flavored vodkas.

Kubanskaya - Vodka flavored with an infusion of dried lemon and orange peels.

Limonnaya - Lemon-flavored Vodka, usually with a touch of sugar added.

Okhotnichya - Hunter's vodka is flavored with ginger, cloves, lemon peel, coffee, anise, other herbs and spices, sugar and a touch of a wine similar to white port.

Pertsovka - Pepper-flavored vodka, made with both black peppercorns and red chili peppers.

Starka - Old Vodka, from ancient recipes that can include infusions of everything from fruit tree leaves to brandy, port, malaga wine, and dried fruit, and sometimes aged in oak casks.

Zubrovka (Zubrowka in Polish) - Vodka flavored with bison grass, an aromatic plant favored by the rare European bison.

Here is more about Russian vodkas from Kerry Kubilius, About.com's Guide to Eastern Europe Travel.

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