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History of Vodka

Vodka’s early rise was limited by the existing distillation technology. Pot stills had to be cleaned between each distillation and were very inefficient for producing a clear, neutral spirit. The column still patented by Aeneas Coffey in the 1820s would revolutionize production. Column stills are able to distill continuously, eliminating the cleaning step; and they can distill to over 95% ABV, well above the traditional products such as Polugar at 38.5%.

One of the first producers to take advantage of this was Lars Olsson Smith in Sweden; he began advertising his Absolut Brannt or “completely pure” vodka starting in the 1879. Olsson’s brand name was later shortened to just Absolut.

This increase in efficiency was a boon for the Russian Tsars who raised money by auctioning off regional distillation rights, coming to a peak when Tsar Nicholas II ordered the construction of over 100 distilleries. As a result, Russian vodka consumption per capita peaked at 14 liters or 3.6 gallons of pure alcohol per year by 1914! That’s the equivalent of about 3 ounces of 80 proof vodka every day for every man, woman, and child.

Despite its incredible growth, vodka’s chance at becoming an international spirit would come to a screeching halt during World War I, the 1917 October Revolution and the nationalization of industry, which included distilleries. In the USA, the First Red Scare would come to a head in 1919 and Prohibition would arrive a year later, making it a bad time to try selling Russian alcohol. It would only begin making scarce appearances in European cocktail books in the late 1920s.

Following the repeal of Prohibition, vodka was still seen as a foreign oddity in the USA, drank primarily by immigrants and visitors from Russia and Eastern Europe. Charles Baker in the popular 1939 book The Gentleman’s Companion weighs in that “vodka is not necessary to a small or medium sized bar.” 

Russian bars, most notably the Russian Tea Room in New York, would have been the only places one could guarantee a supply of vodka. The Russian Tea Room also gave us one of the first American vodka cocktails on record in 1938: the Gypsy Queen, which consisted of vodka, Benedictine, and bitters.

Original author: Michael Lindgren
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