Regardless of what the Poles or Swedes may say, we all know Russia makes the world’s best vodka. That’s because vodka has long been synonymous with Russian culture for the better part of six centuries. Over those years vodka has shared the literary limelight with many famous names and has become legendary in its own right. However, vodka’s legendary social status cannot diminish its economic importance. At times, Russians’ own spending on vodka has helped keep their country afloat financially!
Like many things in Russian history, the story about the origins of vodka involves a crazy monk. Isidore was his name and he is credited with distilling the first Russian vodka. Isidore traveled to Florence in the 1430’s as part of a Church delegation. There he learned about fermentation and distillation from the Italians. After he returned to Russia, he was more or less jailed at the monastery in Chudov for running his mouth. So, he tried his hand at distilling that which was abundantly available to him - grain. He was successful in distilling the first vodka from it. In 1441 he shared a batch with a few of the guards, got them drunk and made a run for it. After making his escape, he supposedly ended up in Rome. But as the story goes, he had to leave his distilling device behind. For a long time vodka was only produced in the Grand Duchy of Moscow. Now, it has expanded to other parts of Russia and the world at large.
By the late 1800s, taxes collected on vodka accounted for the bulk of Russia’s budget - over 40%. However, alcoholism had become so prevalent in Russia by then that both Chekhov and Tolstoy were involved in temperance movements. In 1894, Dimitry Mendeleev, a Russian chemist known for creating the periodic table of elements and a Professor at St Petersburg University was commissioned by Alexander III to improve the filtration, purification and overall production standards for vodka. It was Mendeleev that established a uniform standard of 40% alcohol by volume. During World War II, vodka became important for its antiseptic properties, and was used to clean soldiers’ wounds. Legend has it that after Chernobyl, people were wiped down with vodka in order to decontaminate them.
Smirnoff, the biggest vodka brand in the world, started off with a distillery founded in Moscow by Pyotr Arsenievich Smirnov in the 1800s, but is now British owned and no longer made in Russia. However, Vodka still being made in Russia seems to stand apart from the rest. For instance, Tovaritch! Russian Vodka claims to be the “world’s most awarded vodka” and recently received ‘Gold’ in 4 categories at the 2015 Spirits Business - Vodka Masters Awards, as well as 3 “Gold” and a “Master” Award the year before! It also received “Gold” at each of the 2015 & the 2014 International Spirits Challenge (ISC) tasting and won the “Gold Outstanding” at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in 2014. There’s Russian Diamond Vodka which won “Master” at the 2015 Vodka Masters Awards, “Platinum - Best in Show” at 2014 ISC, as well as “Silver” at 2014 SIP. Another “Master” and “Gold” award winning Russian vodka called Legend of Kremlin, claims to “still use Isidore’s original recipe, passed down for centuries”. All 3 are highly awarded premium Russian vodkas. It seems clear that the finest judges’ palettes agree the world’s best vodka is still produced in mother Russia.