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Aug. 18, 2022
Hundreds of years before rum, tequila, whiskey or gin, there was vodka. This popular spirit laid the path for other spirits and continues to lead the way today. From its humble origins to its naturally brilliant future, learn more about vodka over the centuries and how it has stood the test of time.
The story of vodka goes back a long, long way, and its origin is hotly contested. Some believe the first appearance of vodka took place as early as the eighth century in Poland, while others say the ninth century in Russia. Regardless, we do know vodka was created to be something you drank quick and neat, without tasting, primarily for its effect.
Back in its very early days, it wasn’t even distilled. They were developed by making bitter wines and powerful beers, and letting them stand outside overnight in the harsh sub-zero degree winters of Eastern Europe. Because water freezes at a higher temperature than alcohol, the water would rise to the surface and freeze. This could then be skimmed off, leaving behind a stronger spirit. This was repeated until the “wine” reached an ABV strength of around 25 – 35%. This method produced a spirit that was not particularly clean. Because it was full of impurities, it was often flavoured with fresh fruits, herbs and honey to mask the taste.
The first records that we have of an actual vodka distillery dates back to 1174. The Vyatka Chronicle mentions one in Khylnovsk, Russia. Distillation enabled vodka to reach higher ABV strengths, leading to a spirit much closer to the 40% ABV we recognize today.
After the middle ages, vodka became the spirit of the working class because it could be made cheaply. We also begin to see vodka being used for medicinal purposes — the vast majority of which we would no longer see as appropriate medical treatment. But one that still stands today is its help in treating poison ivy exposure. Vodka poured on the skin removes the urushiol oil which causes itchiness.
Around the year 1700, we saw the emergence of Polugar or “bread wine,” sometimes known as “historic vodka.” The word Polugar is believed to mean “half burnt,” because it could pretty much be lit with the strike of a match! Around the same time in Poland a drink known as Gorzalka, from the old Polish verb gorzeć, also meaning “to burn,” became popular. It was produced in freezing barrels and was a simple, rich, and toasty spirit distilled from grains, distilled entirely in a copper pot still.
To be palatable, these types of spirits would often be flavoured – usually with honey or spices such as caraway – proving that flavoured vodka is not as new as everyone thinks.
In 1830, an Irishman by the name of Aeneas Coffey built upon earlier column stills to create a more efficient distillation process with his continuous column still. He called it the Coffey Still and patented “continuous distillation.” This technique brought vodka into a new era because it allowed for a greater level of purity as well as higher levels of constancy.
The next big development happened in 1871 with the first rectification distillery, which means the spirit began being cleaned. This led to what we would now describe as true vodka — it would be recognizable today.
Political instability in the years preceding the Russian Revolution in 1917 caused wealthy Russians to start leaving the country, taking vodka with them around the world.
The first ever recorded recipe for a vodka cocktail appears in the book Beverages De Luxe from the St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans – a city many believe to be the birthplace of cocktails.
In 1914, Russia banned the sale and consumption of all alcohol, with the US not far behind. With the Volstead Act, the United States declared alcohol illegal six years later. This time of prohibition not only had a dramatic effect on how the country drank but also drove bartenders to Europe where they could continue their trade. It was here that many were introduced to vodka by wealthy Russians living in the likes of Paris and London. They concocted new vodka cocktails and took their newfound appreciation and recipes back to the states after prohibition ended in 1933.
This is when we find the birth of the Bloody Mary, and even the very early precursor to the Martini Cocktail — the Haughtinesse. The recipe calls for equal parts vodka and Italian vermouth, with a dash of anisette and orange bitters, then garnished with a green olive and lemon twist.
With Prohibition in the rearview mirror, bartenders returned home and were free to experiment with mixology. Vodka’s versatility made it the perfect partner for a wide variety of concoctions. Another early chapter in the storied martini cocktail's history is written.
John G. Martin bought rights to produce and distribute Smirnoff vodka in the US, which leads to explosive growth for the category. Compared to earlier vodkas, it tasted much more refined, and they licensed their recipe, allowing it to be made all over the world using 100% corn. That, and new marketing tactics, helped give them a reach far beyond any other vodka of the time.
Following the theme of many great drinks, the origin of the Moscow Mule is a little murky. But as the story goes, Jack Morgan, a restaurateur in Los Angeles, was having a ginger beer produced, but it wasn’t exactly flying off the shelves. His girlfriend at the time had also inherited a copper factory. Add in John G. Martin of Smirnoff (and potentially bartender Wes Price) and it all led up to a new recipe idea served in the iconic copper mug.
The vodka martini cocktail became an icon of the silver screen with the release of the first ultra-famous spy movie. While the leading man preferred his “shaken, not stirred,” that’s not how we recommend it. This star turn may be just one factor that contributed to vodka’s rise in popularity.
Absolut vodka was released to the global market in 1979. It took Russian and Polish tradition and refined it using Swedish manufacturing techniques and Swedish wheat. It was a step up in quality, paying far more attention to the raw ingredients (wheat from Ahüs) and a more advanced distillation process.
But perhaps its real success was the emergence of an iconic advertising campaign, which featured the Absolut bottle, exploding the category further and embedding vodka into the worlds of art, music and culture.
Ketel One launched, using a copper pot still — a process typically used to make gin. It’s worth knowing that a copper pot still can only be used to re-distill a vodka. It needs to be distilled separately first.
In the same year, Dick Bradsell created the first Espresso Martini Cocktail in London and laid the groundwork for a vodka cocktail renaissance. Today there are many different variations to experiment with.
Another great drink to emerge at this time is the Cosmopolitan. It was one of the first vodka cocktails that used a flavoured vodka, which helped drive flavoured vodka’s popularity, and it brought cocktails to a mass audience.
Former mortgage broker Burt Butler “Tito” Beveridge II launched his own vodka, Tito’s, out of Austin, Texas in 1997. He started by creating a vodka made from wheat but switched to corn years later, buying in a raw spirit from a company who sourced their corn from all over the US. He then re-distilled this spirit in a copper still.
Up until 1997, the story of vodka is one of gradual evolution. From its creation in the early eighth or ninth century, vodka steadily evolved from the initial rough spirit drunk purely for effect, towards a progressively more refined spirit.
But in the mid-‘90s, two men looked upon this trend of refinement – of removing natural character from vodka, of negating the effects of its ingredients – and wondered if vodka was losing its way. They asked: what if a vodka could harness and celebrate its raw ingredients, and be recognised for its natural tastefulness instead?
Entrepreneur Sidney Frank teamed up with cellar master François Thibault to develop a sophisticated new spirit that would set the standard for vodka. And thus begins the story of Grey Goose.
We led the way with a whole new perspective on how vodka should be and inspired the category. We stopped aiming for odorless, tasteless spirit, and started to celebrate its natural character and qualities. Sidney and François took an entirely new approach by focusing on ingredients meant to be experienced: pure French water and the finest French bread-making wheat. Everything was sourced and produced in France, giving it a unique character. Other vodkas took note and stopped going after the holy grail of “purity” and started to strive for taste and character by paying closer, more careful attention to the inherent qualities of their ingredients and process.
This focus on taste may have also contributed to a proliferation of flavours, as the industry, for better or worse, released flavour after flavour after flavour. Grey Goose began releasing flavours as well, but our process remained unmatched. We continued to focus on the quality of our two mainstays — French wheat and water — while incorporating other natural flavours for a curated collection of delightful tastes.
Grey Goose L’Orange, made from freshly-picked Florida oranges, was launched in 2001, while Grey Goose Le Citron, made from the fabled Menton lemons of Southern France, launched in 2003. Then in 2006 we launched Grey Goose La Poire (made from French Anjou pears).
In addition to our flavoured vodkas, we released highly coveted limited edition bottles, including Grey Goose VX (finished with a hint of Cognac) in 2014 and Grey Goose Interpreted by Ducasse, a vodka gastronomique, in 2016.
Grey Goose helped literally redefine vodka. For the longest time, the United States Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) defined vodka as an odorless, tasteless spirit. After multiple years of Grey Goose and other vodka brands complaining for this outdated definition, the TTB agreed the old definition no longer reflected people’s expectations from a vodka and dropped it. This backed up what we already knew to be true: different vodkas can and should be allowed to be, well, different.
From its humble, utilitarian beginnings, to its post-prohibition proliferation, to its ubiquity and slight backlash of the early 2000s, vodka has an interesting history. And now, led by bartenders conscious of its possibilities, vodka is making a comeback of sorts — if you can say it ever truly fell out of vogue. It’s valued amongst the best bars and bartenders, who appreciate it as a spirit that allows them to demonstrate their technique and imagination. In the same way chefs are now inspired by the preparation of a humble vegetable as the true test of their skills, vodka – the conception spirit – remains a great way to showcase one’s creativity, and one’s appreciation of natural taste.
And who knows what the future will bring. While Grey Goose is a vodka with a global reach, François is still involved in every element and still tastes every batch. That personal touch extends to everything we do. We continue to work with leading bartenders to serve their creations all over the world, and at some of the world’s best parties, such as the BAFTAs and GRAMMYs.
And we continue to foster conversation, innovation and inspiration all around the exciting world of vodka. We aim to be a big part of its history for centuries to come.