Vodka is among the most important category in spirits in the western world because of its popularity. The origin of vodka was the desire to preserve grain from spoilage, and rudimentary distillation was practiced throughout north-central Europe as early as the 14th century. Today, this region has developed a widespread culture of vodka consumption: cold, neat, and with food.
Pot still vodka was often made by the noblemen on their estates. This hobby of the aristocracy was made with a very small “heart” (that is, the middle, or purest, part of the distillation process), and was fined with milk and charcoal filtered to improve purity. There developed a long tradition of flavoring vodkas and having a library of different types of vodka. One driver for the popularity of vodka was the high price of French brandy and Italian liqueur.
Triple distillation of vodka began in Poland in the 17th century, but the quest for purity was driven to new heights as the Russian state researched continuous distillation. After the Russian revolution, Lenin feared that vodka was corroding the masses, and outlawed anything over 20% ABV starting in 1917, and it was not until 1930 that Russian authorities returned vodka to 40% ABV. In 1936, Stalin saw its usefulness and began to encourage its consumption, and during World War II, the Soviets issued vodka rations to its troops.
The product was brought to the U.S. by East European, Polish and Russian immigrants by the end of the 19th century, and vodka began to gain in popularity with the cocktail boom of the 1910s, making an appearance in San Francisco in 1914. In 1920, the Bloody Mary was invented in Paris. After Repeal of Prohibition in 1933, Rudolf Kunett purchased rights to Smirnoff and began to sell a small quantity, launching it with a cocktail contest that produced a "red" martini. Smirnoff’s "Leaves you breathless" was a successful ad campaign in the late 50s/early 60s. It was during the 30s that vodka gained currency among trendsetters in the U.S. and in London, and in the 40s it was brilliantly promoted by John Martin at Heublein.
During World War II, it became more fashionable since Russia was our ally and there was no whisky. A famous vodka cocktail from this period was the Moscow Mule, which was invented at the Cock and Bull in Hollywood; this iconic cocktail is comprised of vodka, limejuice and ginger beer.
In the late 40s, US consumers drank 200,000 gallons; by late 50s, we drank 10,000,000. By the mid 1970s, vodka became the number-one consumed spirit category.
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