A Brief History of Vodka

On Sunday, April 22, the Southern Food & Beverage Museum hosted an in-depth history lesson and guided tasting from Grey Goose Vodka Ambassador Nathan Reffell and Drinkmaster Ian Reilly. We tried six different vodkas that represented different eras and approaches to the spirit, from the earliest, a Russian Poulgar or “bread wine,” to Grey Goose’s classic recipe. Nathan walked us through the story as we sipped, starting with the beginning.

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Vodka predates every other spirit, although Russia and Poland still argue about where it originated. Probably first appearing in the 700-800’s, vodka actually predates distillation, although those early versions were nothing like what we drink today. The first known distillery was located in Khylnovsk, Russia in 1174, and it seems like the spirit was mostly used for medical purposes (just about any medical problem could be solved with vodka!) until the 1700’s when early Poulgar was really developed using potstills. We sampled the modern day version of poulgar and found it very flavorful, with a grassy, bready, rye-ey profile. Apparently, Russians would tinker with the flavors of poulgar, experimenting with different grains and hosting 8-course dinners with a different paired poulgar for each dish.

The next big step for vodka was the invention of continuous distillation by Aeneas Coffey in 1830, and that’s when we started to see a more modern form of the spirit. For the next hundred years, Russia and Poland were the main powerhouses of vodka production and drinking, although New Orleans can lay claim to what appears to be the first recorded vodka cocktail recipe in the US. In 1911 “the Russian Cocktail” made at the St. Charles Hotel was “a straightforward mix of vodka and an imported rowanberry cordial, this “Russian Cocktail” was tasty, but perhaps a trifle obscure to become popular,” David Wondrich reports.

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During Prohibition in the US, many bartenders from the States found their way to Europe, where vodka was making inroads and cocktails with vodka were quite popular. When they returned post-repeal, they brought the drinks with them, and it was a cool, in-the-know spirit for drink lovers, like today’s Fernet-Branca or Underberg. Then came the three-martini lunches and Moscow Mules, Bloody Marys and Cosmos, and James Bond’s shaken-not-stirred cocktails. Vodka companies sprang up to fill the demand, and an arms race of distilling, flavoring, and marketing combined to make vodka one of the most popular spirits in the world.

In between sips of vodka, we also enjoyed a few classic cocktails, starting with an updated vodka-soda, then a delicious Gypsy Queen from the Russian Tea Room in NYC, finishing up with a classic dry martini.

Many thanks to Grey Goose for their excellent discussion and delicious cocktails, as well as to Katie’s Restaurant for their fortifying pasta and bread pudding! Vive La Vodka!

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Gypsy Queen Cocktail

  • 2 parts vodka
  • 1 part Benedictine
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters

Stir with ice, strain into a chilled glass, and garnigh with a lemon twist.