The origin of the name vodka comes from the Slavic word "voda" for "water." The first versions of vodka were reputedly developed in either Poland or Russia in the 8th or 9th centuries, though the documentation is unclear. The Gin and Vodka Association claims that the first distillery for vodka was reported in the Vyatka Chronicle of 1174 AD, and though it contained little alcohol (about 14%), it still went through a similar distillery process as modern vodka.
In Poland, vodka began mass-production in the early 1400's, as is documented in the Akta Grodzkie (recorder of deeds) in Poland. Though vodka as well as other Polish spirits were typically used as a medicinal tools with heavy cleansing properties; it was not long before vodka morphed into "gorzalka" (from the Polish word "to burn"), which was enjoyed as a libation.According to Russian folklore, a monk named Isidore of the Chudov Monastery, created the first recipes of vodka which was referred to as "bread wine" in the 15th century. It was developed in the Grand Duchy of Moscow for many years, is closely associated with that city, and was a popular drink for Russians of all class distinctions. The word vodka was first documented in 1751, in a decree regarding vodka distillery laws by Empress Elizabeth. In the 19th century, traditional wine made from grapes became so expensive that oftentimes only the aristocrats could afford it. This caused the lower classes to search for other means of staying warm and merry in the winter, and when the government promoted the consumption of Russian-made vodka, it only further established this as the drink of choice for Russian natives. During the Russian revolution, when the Bolsheviks confiscated private distilleries, many Russian vodka makers fled and established their trade in other countries. One of these emigrants relocated to Paris and collaborated with a Russian-American there, rebranding their product as Smirnoff in 1934. When Smirnoff was later sold to a US company, vodka gained recognition in western culture.
Vodka is distilled from any starchy plant such as potato, corn, rye, wheat, etc. It is a combination of water and ethanol, made from the fermentation of these starches, whether grains, potatoes, or fruits. Vodka contains about 40-50% alcohol content, and products for sale in the USA under the title vodka are required to have a minimum alcohol content of 40% to retain the name. In centuries past, the more expensive kinds of vodka were typically distilled twice, diluted with milk and distilled again with water. After this, the liquid was distilled a fourth and fifth time before going to market. The 18th century used other method of purification, which included anything from charcoal to felt and sand as filters. Today most vodka distilleries sell 95% ethanol to bottling companies, which then mix, filter, dilute and often flavor the vodka before branding and marketing the product.
In 1534, author Stefan Falimierz wrote that the herbs in vodka could increase fertility and lust, believed to function as an aphrodisiac. Vodka was also used as a cleaning agent in medical procedures, and was a common disinfectant for medical tools and wounds. Soaking vodka with herbs and plants has been used for centuries to create tinctures for numerous ailments and congestion. Doctors would administer alcohol baths (using vodka) to feverish patients, in order to bring the body's temperature down. The alcohol from vodka has also been used in unique other ways, such as freshening up fading flowers by adding some drops of vodka and sugar to the vase. Vodka has been known to soothe the burning of a jelly fish or ray stings; it has been added to volumnizing shampoos, treated laundry stains, and will attack mold and mildew stains if sprayed and soaked on the spot directly. Vodka also has been applied as a mouth-wash when mixed with aloe gel and spearmint oil, as well as a furniture polish. With the high clarity and alcohol content, the practical uses of vodka seem almost limitless.
Vodka has long been used in sauces, to create a fresh, peppery savor. Vodka is commonly paired with seafood, used in searing scallops, shrimp, and steaming clams. It has been used in preparing pork, chicken, or mixed into soups and pasta; but often makes more of an appearance in desserts. Vodka sauce can be made from chocolate, mixed with sweet creams or cheeses, and often is used in rich desserts such as chocolate ganache tartes, orange cheesecake etc. As vodka is a light alcohol, it is enhanced with citrus fruits, often being matched with orange, lemon, grapefruit, etc.
Vodka can range from homemade, black market vodka (whose low-quality has been known to be dangerous and a health hazard), to clean unflavored vodka, to innumerable flavors, as well as the highest concentration of ethanol (95% alcohol content) known as Everclear. However, the consumption of vodka varies per county and personal preference. In Russia and much of Eastern Europe, usually vodka is consumed straight, while those in western cultures enjoy cocktails and mixed drinks. These include vodka martinis, vodka tonics, screwdrivers, or black/white Russian, Bloody Mary, etc. Other favorites are cosmopolitans, and a range of martinis flavored with apple, lemon, chocolate, espresso, key lime pie, or orange are all popular choices.
Globally popular vodka flavors include: red pepper, ginger, all ranges of fruity flavors, vanilla, spices, honey, cherry, dill, hazelnut, horseradish, juniper, lemon, mint, mountain ash, oak, peppermint, raspberry, black currant, herbs (like sage and sorrel), and water melon.
Some of the most popular brands include: Absolut Vodka which is famed for delicious flavors like mango, Acai berry, as well as combinations named after cities like Los Angeles, New York, etc. Grey Goose is very popular due to the quality of the product, both for unflavored vodka as well as classics such as La Poire (pear). Chopin Vodka (named for the composer) is a Polish brand of potato vodka that has won respect as one of the smoothest vodkas on the market. Belvedere, another well-loved Polish vodka, is made 100% from rye, and filtered four times with charcoal. Smirnoff has held its own since 1934 and is increasing in popularity for its flavored options. Prices for these brands can range from $65 and below ($60 for the award-winning Belvedere Vodka; $49 for the award-winning Chopin Vodka, and Grey Goose's La Poire sells for $28).
The most expensive vodka in the world is called the "Billionaire Vodka" which undergoes a very specific and elite distillation process. First the vodka is ice filtered, then passed through Nordic birch charcoal, then filtered through diamond dust and crushed gems. When this vodka is finished with the distillation, it is stored in a platinum, diamond encrusted case designed by Leon Verres, and set with a neckband of channel cut diamonds. The price for a bottle of Billionaire Vodka goes for $3.75 million.