According to legend, the first recipe for Russian Vodka came from a monk by the name of Isidore , his first batch was made in the Chudov monastery which happens to be within the Moscow Kremlin. His special knowledge of distillation devices helped him concoct this new high quality alcoholic beverage. His new “bread wine” was initially only known and exclusively produced by the Grand Duchy of Moscow and in no other principality of all of Rus. This only changed after the industrial era arrived and mass production made it available to a larger audience. Thus since then it has been closely associated with its birthplace, “Moscow”.
“Aqua vitae” or better known as the “water of life” made it way to Moscow via Genoese ambassadors. They brought to Moscow and presented it to Grand Duke Dmitry Donskoy as a gift. This – water of life – was typically prepared by distilling wine; it was sometimes called “spirits of wine” in English texts, a name for brandy that had been repeatedly distilled.
Early on this elixir would become known as “Burning Wine” (quite appropriate), Bread Wine, or in some cases just plain wine. Up until the middle of the 18th century the alcohol content remained about 40% ABV with the multiple names for the drink being reflected by different levels of quality, alcohol concentration, filtering, and the number of distillations. Today it’s is difficult to imagine a person who would not associate Vodka with Russia. This is perfectly normal, because it has been a very important part of Russian history for centuries.
“To your health”
There was a point in history of the drink that it was used for medicinal purposes. The herbal tinctures had an ABV of 75%, thus the term “Vodka” was born. Prescriptions filled had a label indicating what it was and ever since then the name stuck. Since the grape wines of the times were drink only for the aristocrats, and burning wine which was mostly sold in taverns wasn’t cheap, Vodka became the staple drink of the masses, thus the toast that most Russians offer up before drinking, “To your health”.
It was in a decree pronounced by Empress Elizabeth on June 8, 1751, which regulated the ownership of all the vodka distilleries that the term “vodka” would be used in an official Russian document. It was through policy that the consumption of vodka was promoted, the ruling class would become the beneficiaries since all manufacturing of the drink would be made by them. It’s easy to conclude that a state of drunkenness was induced and imbibed by the government. It would become the drink of choice for many Russians despite who benefited.
The initiation of a “Tea (Vodka) Tax”
Happy times came in 1863, vodka production began to increase after the government’s monopoly was repealed. This caused the prices and productions to become a lot less expensive giving access even to citizens with the modest of incomes. Not skipping a beat the Tsarist government initiated heavy taxes on the production of vodka. It became a key element of revenue providing at times up to 40% of the states income.
The Grip of Vodka
At the turn of the 20th century consumption of vodka amounted to 89% of all alcohol consumed in Russia. This level has fluctuated somewhat during the 20th century, but has remained consistently high through the years . To understand the grip vodka has on Russian culture, one need only to look at its name: vodka is a diminutive form of the word voda — Russian for water. The average Russian drank and still drinks up to 4.75 gal. per year.
“The Mineral Water Secretary”
Drinking increased after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union. Although personally fond of vodka, Boris Yeltsin abolished the state monopoly and instituted laws to keep drinking in check. He outlawed sidewalk liquor kiosks — prompting merchants to build tiny phone booth–size stores instead. He also raised the price of vodka, which only encouraged the black market for samogon. He wound earn himself the nickname Mineral’nyi Sekretar (“The Mineral Water Secretary.”)
Moscow’s and Europe’s drinking habits similar
Today alcohol consumption is finally beginning to decline after years of abuse.
The government’s most effective measure so far has been to shut down many moonshine factories, which accounted for an estimated third of vodka production, according to Vadim Drobiz, director of Russia’s Research Center for Alcohol Markets.
“The [authorities] have gotten serious about illegal production of alcohol, and a lot of illegal plants have been closed by the regulator recently,” agrees Daria Khaltourina, co-chair of the Russian Coalition for Alcohol Control, who estimates that the consumption of hard liquor began to fall in 2005.
The changing work ethic has already had a big impact on drinking habits, “People in big cities are richer and better educated and overall have a different lifestyle,” says Khaltourina. “In Moscow the level of alcohol intake, health problems and deaths caused by alcohol are very close to the European average. But provinces still have the horrible drinking habits typically found in northern countries: bingeing on huge amounts of alcohol.”
A little side note: Three years ago when I first arrived here in Russia it was common to see drunkards everywhere, today it’s a rare sight. Things are looking up!