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 Corkscrew  Share this article     Summary of Not Just Wine column  
  Not Just Wine Issue 21, Summer 2004   
VodkaVodka AquavitaeAquavitae Wine ParadeWine Parade  Contents 
Issue 20, June 2004 Follow DiWineTaste on Follow DiWineTaste on TwitterIssue 22, September 2004


The famous distillate from Eastern Europe countries is generally produced with grains, however it is also possible to make it from other materials, such as potatoes

 Vodka is a distillate of grains - mainly rye and wheat - with a crystalline transparency, very fine taste and a delicate aroma. It can be produced with potatoes, molasses and other vegetables. It probably takes its name from the added water, voda in Russian.



 They were probably Egyptians to make the first rudimentary equipments for distillation: alembic stills. At those times distillation was mainly used for the production of essences and also Romans used the same technique for the production of medicines. Only after many years the distillation process was used for the production of alcohol. At the end of the Middle Age, in the cities of Salerno, Toledo and Montpellier were produced the very first rudimentary alcoholic distillates used for the preparation of flammable liquids. We have to wait for Theophrast Bombast von Hohenheim in order to read the word alcohol in the sense we mean today. The distillation process was then elaborated in many places therefore giving origin to many products, each one having its history and traditions.

 The most used products for the production of brandies certainly were grains, both because they were locally available, where they were indispensable for the nutrition of people, and for the availability in markets, as well as for their relatively convenient price. The most common grain brandies are whisky, whiskey and vodka. Vodka is most typical Russian brandy known everywhere in the world. In Russia the origins of vodka are dated back to Peter the Great, despite it is not the only country to claim the origins of this distillate. Also Poland claims to be the homeland of vodka, because the history of this distillate in this country is as ancient as of Russia.

 Scandinavians and Slavic people of Northern Europe have taken, since many centuries, alcoholic beverages very seriously. The logical explanation is because of the particularly cold climate and this would compromise the transportation of beverage with low alcohol, such as beer and wine. These beverages, when transported in wintertime, tended to freeze therefore the volume increased and the precious load was lost. This contributed to the spreading of beverage with high percentages of alcohol that were immune to this problem. Before the spreading of the alembic still, the production of alcoholic beverages and spirits made use of a stratagem consisting in taking advantage of cold temperatures. As water freezes at 0°C (32° F) and gets transformed into ice, whereas alcohol needs lower temperatures in order to freeze, wine, beer or cider was fermented, and after it was frozen, it was possible to separate alcohol from water. This certainly was a less refined method, anyway it was a valid method for those times, even because there was no alternative available.

 It seems that in Eastern Europe the first distillate was produced by using beer and cider and it was called “perevara”. The distillate called “vodka” takes its name from the water added during its production, in fact in Russian “voda” means water. In the beginning vodka was prepared for medical purposes. Slowly distillation procedures become more and more refined and therefore it was possible to make a product that could be drunk for pleasure instead because one had to. The term vodka - in Poland known as “wodka” - was gradually used for identifying the renowned alcoholic beverage. In the beginning, as the distillation techniques allowed the production of a high alcoholic liquid, it was used as an ingredient for the preparation of gunpowder for rifles. Its colorless appearance and its neutral taste made this product very interesting for Sherry and Porto producers. Thanks to these characteristics vodka was particularly suited for the fortification of these extraordinary wines.

Vodka is frequently used for the
preparation of cocktails and it is appreciated by many as plain
Vodka is frequently used for the preparation of cocktails and it is appreciated by many as plain

 The origin of vodka is, just like the majority of products whose history is very ancient, uncertain and controverted. One of the countries which claims the origin of vodka is Poland. The first evidences are dated back to 1300's and were found near the city of Krakow, however the first written documents are dated back to 1400's. The progenitor of vodka seems to be okowita, probably derived from the Latin term aquavitae, used both as a medicine and a beverage, as well as for other purposes. In 1534 in a book about medicine it is mentioned vodka used as an after shave lotion, whereas aromatized vodkas with infusions of officinal herbs were very popular as a remedy for many diseases - such as depression - as well as for many pains. In 1546 the king liberalized the production and trading of vodka as well as of the products connected to this distillate, however the aristocracy insisted in having the exclusive privilege of producing and selling vodka. From the half of 1800's on, Polish distilleries were shipping both aromatized and natural vodka in every country of Northern Europe, including Russia. Currently, after the falling of communism, distilleries are managed by private companies again which export quality vodka worldwide.

 Even Russia is one of the countries claiming the origin of vodka and Russian are very convinced about that. Some evidences show the production and trading of vodka in Russia are dated back around the fourteenth century. In 1540 Zar Ivan the Terrible established the first State monopoly for vodka while reserving to nobles the right of distillation. This restriction had the consequence of the establishment of many clandestine distilleries all over the country. With time official distilleries began to produce vodka with higher and higher quality, both natural and aromatized. Even Zars were interested in the production of this brandy and they built in their palaces experimental distilleries in order to obtain a product of increasing quality. From the simple alembic still the production passed to the use of multiple distillations, until a scientist experimented the filtering by means of vegetal carbon in order to purify the distilled product.

 The production of vodka in Russia was also the origin of a constant growing both in quantity and, in particular, in quality, also thanks to state contributions, the inventive of Russians and to alembic stills imported from Western Europe. Authorities continued to promote the quality of vodka by financing researches. In 1902 “Vodka Moskovskajia”, a rye vodka with 40% of alcohol to which was added non distilled and non aromatized water, was decreed by law as the reference point for the whole Russian production. The production of Russian vodka reached excellent qualitative levels although the quality product was only reserved to the higher classes, whereas the common people could only afford lower quality products. The falling of the wall of Berlin, as well as the change of the geography and politics in Eastern Europe, did not change the way vodka is produced. Today in the new Russian Federation, as it was in Soviet Union and in the pre-revolutionary Russia, quality vodka is consumed by higher social classes and part is also destined for export, whereas common people can only afford cheaper brands of mediocre quality.


 Talking about the rest of the world, vodka was imported for the first time in the United States of America in the twentieth century in order to satisfy the requests of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Besides this particular case, the selling of vodka in the United States have been scarce for many years and until the end of World War II. As it may sometimes happens, in order to make a successful product it only takes an original idea and a proper advertisement campaign: this is the case of the American market. A merchant of liquors from South Carolina began to advertise his product by using the slogan “Smirnoff, the white whisky. No taste. No smell”. The idea was very appreciated as well as the vodka. The selling increased also thanks to the success of vodka as an ingredient for many beverages and cocktails. Its characteristics are well suited to the extravagant blends used in many cocktails all over the world. Today vodka is the most common white brandy also thanks to its versatility and the skill of producers and of their successful advertisement campaigns. Having a good product is not enough, it also takes the capacity of being able to sell it.

 Eastern Europe certainly is the homeland of vodka, however other countries have developed a technique for the production of spirits as well. Besides historical vodka producers - such as Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - there is also Sweden where a vodka of increasing quality is being produced, both natural and aromatized. Finland, for example, produces vodka from grains and in particular from wheat. The American production must be, by law, limited to non aromatized vodka. In Central America local production is concentrated on molasses vodka, destined to export in order to be blended to other products. Australia produces a small quantity of vodka and it is almost destined for domestic consumption. In Asia, with the exception of rather small places, the best vodkas are the ones produced in Japan.


Types of Vodka

 At the beginning of production, when distillation techniques were still rudimentary and improvised, the finished products were aromatized in order to hide the low quality. With time the technique was improved and the best distillers began to produce vodkas without adding any aromatic substance. Later, when everyone had acquired a good experience in distillation and non aromatized vodka was a consolidated goal, producers resumed to make aromatized vodkas in order to offer the market new products and new sensations. From the first experiments, aromatized vodkas have dramatically improved their quality. Today can be found vodkas virtually aromatized with every fruit, although the most successful ones are produced with fruits like black currant and orange.

 The most common aromatized vodka types are:


  • Kubanskaya - vodka aromatized with lemon and orange peel
  • Limonnaya - vodka aromatized with lemon and to which is added sugar
  • Okhotnichya - the “hunter's vodka”. A particular distillate, aromatized with clove, ginger, lemon, anise, coffee and other herbs to which is added a wine similar to white Port and sugar
  • Pertsovka - aromatized with black pepper grains and red hot pepper
  • Starka - “old” vodka, a very ancient tradition. It can be infused with anything, from dried fruit to fruit tree's leaves, from Port to Málaga as well as brandy. Some producers make use of oak barrels for the aging of the product
  • Zubrovka - (zubrowka in Polish) vodka aromatized with herbs

 There is no universal classification for vodka. Every country has its method for distinguishing quality and the characteristics of its products. In Russia vodka is produced with refined alcohol from wheat and processed with active carbon. It is classified as: osobaya, that is special, a high quality product, and krepkaya, that is strong, a product having a high percentage of alcohol of about 55-57%. In Poland the first productions took place at the beginning of 1400's however its spreading was in fifteenth century. In the beginning was used wheat but at the end of eighteenth century were used potatoes as well. The most ancient distillery of Poland certainly is the one of Baczewski family, who was capable of spreading both in the local and foreign market. Currently it is being produced with double rectified rye alcohol which is then allowed to age. Vodka is being classified according to the level of purity: luksusowy corresponding to deluxe, wyborowy corresponding to premium and zwykly corresponding to standard.

 In the United States of America there are no distinctions just because American vodkas basically are neutral distillates, therefore there is no need for a classification. The first Finnish brandies were produced with grains but as America was discovered, and with that potatoes as well, this plant was used for the production of the famous distillate. Finnish are proud of their tradition and prefer calling their distillate with the typical name viina instead of the generic name vodka.


Production of Vodka

 Vodka is being produced by fermenting an infusion of simple sugars mainly derived from grains, however there can be used also molasses, potatoes and beets as well as other products. Despite the fact vodka is produced with a great variety of grains and plants, wheat and rye are the classical sources of sugar for the production of this distillate. Every country and every distiller have their preferences, their secrets and their production techniques. Whereas Russian quality vodkas are produced with wheat, the lower quality products are derived from molasses. American distillers virtually use every type of raw matter.

 After having chosen the raw matter it is then chosen the type of alembic still to be used. Some distillers prefer the batch alembic still, just like the one used for the production of Cognac, in which the product is being distilled one time and then distilled again in order to increase finesse and alcoholic percentage. This procedure, when considered from a purely technical point of view, is not very efficient, although from a qualitative point of view it is the one allowing the extraction from the raw matter of some of its aromatic characteristics. Vodka obtained from a batch alembic still will be different from the one obtained from an “efficient” column alembic still that will make a perfect product although characterless. With the exception of some cases, vodka is not aged in wood. After the distillation process the product is ready for being commercialized, however some producers prefer to age some of their products. Not all vodkas are limpid and transparent because this distillate is frequently aromatized or colored with countless varieties of fruit, spices, herbs and even hot pepper.


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  Not Just Wine Issue 21, Summer 2004   
VodkaVodka AquavitaeAquavitae Wine ParadeWine Parade  Contents 
Issue 20, June 2004 Follow DiWineTaste on Follow DiWineTaste on TwitterIssue 22, September 2004


Review of Grappa, Distillates and Brandy


Distillates are rated according to DiWineTaste's evaluation method. Please see score legend in the "Wines of the Month" section.

Grappa Acqua dei Messapi, Tauŕ (Italy)
Grappa Acqua dei Messapi
Taurì (Italy)
(Distiller: Distilleria Astigiana)
Raw matter: Pomace of Negroamaro
Price: € 21,00 - 50 cl Score: Wine that excels in its category
This grappa is colorless, limpid and crystalline. The nose reveals intense, clean and pleasing aromas of hazelnut, blueberry, raspberry and caper with alcohol pungency pretty perceivable. The taste is agreeable and intense with well balanced sweetness, perceptible alcohol although not excessively pungent, intense flavors, good roundness. The finish is intense and persistent with a pleasing sweet hint and flavors of raspberry and hazelnut. This grappa is produced with the pomace of Taurino's Patriglione wine. Alcohol 42%.

Grappa Grahia, Tauŕ (Italy)
Grappa Grahia
Taurì (Italy)
(Distiller: Distilleria Astigiana)
Raw matter: Pomace of Negroamaro
Price: € 24,00 - 50 cl Score:
This grappa shows a pale amber yellow color, limpid and crystalline. The nose reveals good personality with intense, clean and pleasing aromas of vanilla, toasted wood, dried plum, banana, caramel, chocolate, hazelnut, pear and hints of hay, alcohol pungency almost imperceptible. The taste is round and intense with pleasing sweetness and not excessive alcohol pungency. The finish is intense and persistent with flavors of caramel, pear and banana. This grappa s produced with the pomace of Taurino's Patriglione wine and it is aged for 19 months in cherry wood casks previously used for the aging of white wine. Alcohol 42%.

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  Not Just Wine Issue 21, Summer 2004   
VodkaVodka AquavitaeAquavitae Wine ParadeWine Parade  Contents 
Issue 20, June 2004 Follow DiWineTaste on Follow DiWineTaste on TwitterIssue 22, September 2004

Wine Parade


The best 15 wines according to DiWineTaste's readers. To express your best three wines send us an E-mail or fill in the form available at our WEB site.

Rank Wine, Producer
1 Turriga 1998, Argiolas (Italy)
2 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Capitel Monte Olmi 1999, Tedeschi (Italy)
3 Anjou 2001, Domaine de Montgilet (France)
4 Rioja Reserva Era Costana 1999, Bodegas Ondarre (Spain)
5 Alto Adige Gewürztraminer Kolbenhof 2002, Hofstätter (Italy)
6 Barolo Cicala 1999, Poderi Aldo Conterno (Italy)
7 Franciacorta Cuvée Annamaria Clementi 1996, Ca' del Bosco (Italy)
8 Margaux 2000, Ségla (France)
9 Brunello di Montalcino Prime Donne 1998, Donatella Cinelli Colombini (Italy)
10 Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Emile 1999, Maison Trimbach (France)
11 Aglianico del Vulture La Firma 2000, Cantine del Notaio (Italy)
12 Harmonium 2001, Firriato (Italy)
13 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Villa Gemma 1999, Masciarelli (Italy)
14 Syrah Winemaker's Lot Vic 3, Concha y Toro (Chile)
15 Vouvray 2002, Château Gaudrelle (France)

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  Not Just Wine Issue 21, Summer 2004   
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