”The XXth Century brought forth three great inventions: the blues in America, cubism in France and vodka in Poland.”
These words were spoken in the 1930s by Pablo Picasso. As for the vodka he slipped up by a century or six but he was (probably) right about Poland being the home of Vodka rather than Russia. The latter is a controversial contention due to the ongoing dispute whether Russia or Poland is the home of this noble spirit. Desmond Begg the author of Vodka Companion, A Connoisseur’s Guidebook writes the following:
“If any country can contest Russia’s claim to be the home of vodka, it is Poland. The problem for Poland, however, is that a Polish national champion with the patience and stature, let alone the patriotic zeal, of William Pokhlebkin has yet to emerge. Sadly, very little of any consequence has been published on the origins and development of vodka distillation in Poland.”

William Pokhlebkin is the author of a book entitled A History of Vodka. Curiously this eccentric and interesting book came to be due to an ongoing trade dispute. In 1977, the Polish state liquor monopoly (Polmos) sued the Soviet state liquor monopoly, charging that vodka was created in areas under Polish control at the time i.e. what we now recognize as Belarus, and therefore only Polish products could be called vodkas. The Soviet state liquor monopoly went to the Academy of Sciences, who asked Pokhlebkin, a fellow at the Academy's Institute of History, to research the subject. Pokhlebkin's research proved successful, as an international tribunal ruled in 1982 that the Poles were in error and that the Soviets did not have to think up another name for their vodkas.

Pokhlebkin concludes that vodka was invented in Moscow sometime between 1440 and 1478. To make his point, the author uses linguistics, close readings of chronicles, and heavy helpings of Marxist-Leninist analysis. The author's ideology shows most clearly in dismissing theories he thinks inconvenient by showing that the inevitable laws of history show a conclusion he favours. The book, although biased contains a lot of related interesting information. People interested in the history of brewing, for example, will learn quite a bit about the history of mead-making in Russia--and how the Russians developed a taste for vodka when the price of honey became prohibitively expensive.

Pokhlebkin also reveals himself to be a bit of a Muscovite vodka snob. Pokhlebkin argues that all vodkas (Russian or otherwise) except for Moskovskaya Osobaya are not true vodkas, since vodka, he says, has to be made from rye and other grains, has to come from water flowing from springs near Moscow, and cannot have any flavourings.

The oldest recorded mentions of vodka date to the XIIth century: “It is a wonderful beverage, it strengthens the body and diminishes life’s little hardships”, writes Arnaud de Villeneuve a renowned alchemist of his time. Desmond Begg claims that a spirit similar to what we call vodka today was first created in Poland in the XIVth century. According to Begg the Russians didn’t start making vodka for another 100 years.

To further muddle history some historians believe that the first distillers of Vodka were Persian and yet others claim the Arabs to have invented it.

To be really honest I do not really know whether Russia or Poland has brought us this spirit. A lot of evidence points to its inception in contemporary Belarus, which at the time was indeed part of Polish territories. I guess we will never know.

Polish Vodkas

Wyborowa, Luksusowa, Belvedere and Chopin are considered to be some of the top brands in the world. This has been confirmed many times by the juries of the Brussels based Monde Selection or American Spirits Competition. Desmond Begg (here he is again) has often taken part as a juror in these competitions. Below follows a list of some worldwide brands he has rated: The art of making vodka in Poland really hit its high at the end of the XIXth century. The most famous Vodka at the time was Baczewska, distilled by the Baczewski family in Lvov. Between the World Wars excellent Vodkas were distilled by Jakub Haberfeld of Oswiecim (Auschwitz) and Zygfryd Gessler of Bielsko Biala. In the unfortunate years of the People’s Republic of Poland the honour of Polish vodka was held high primarily by Wyborowa. Wyborowa is a vodka with a long tradition and a registered trademark since 1927, one year prior to the trademarking of Smirnoff. The brand was famous enough to warrant setting up a distillery in Mexico. Unfortunately the state-led Polmos monopoly led to a degradation of quality and its disappearance from many foreign markets.

The only vodkas that remained popular abroad were Zubrówka (Bison Vodka), Starka and Krupnik. Bison Vodka was particularly popular in the US and Japan. The FDA at one point questioned Bison Vodka due to the stem of grass inserted into each bottle to give it its distinct flavour. To my knowledge it never disappeared from the market there though.

In the 1990s Polish vodkas began to reconquer foreign markets. The quality was improved and the manufacturers returned to old recipes. Thanks to these efforts Wyborowa joined the exclusive ‘millionaires club’ the name given to vodkas selling more than one million cases each year. 60% of Wyborowa is exported today and in 2002, 2 million litres were exported to Canada and the USA.

The Chopin and Belvedere brands enjoyed spectacular success in the last years. The management of the Phillips Beverage Company (owner and exclusive distributor of the Chopin brand) decided that if wines, cognacs and whiskies have a premium segment, so should vodkas. They introduced the Chopin brand and priced it in the premium range. From 1995 they spent $60 million on marketing. This gamble paid off, last year (2002) they sold 4 million bottles of Belvedere and 500.000 bottles of Chopin in the USA alone

Pernod Ricard (owner of the Wyborowa brand) and the Phillips Beverage Company are gearing up for new marketing campaigns. This is caused by the intensifying competition in the premium segment. The major competitor of Belvedere and Chopin is the French Grey Goose (mentioned in one of the writeups above). Right now the two Polish brands dominate the premium market in the US, they currently hold 40% of it. Pernod Ricard is intensifying its campaign to promote Wyborowa; it is currently ranked number six by sales volume behind brands such as Stolichnaya, Smirnoff or Finlandia. It is currently the fastest growing brand so this ranking may soon change.

I spoke a lot about the US market because it is by far the most important vodka export market in the world. More than 50% of all exported vodka is consumed there. As Gn0sis has pointed out the Russians consume a whopping 4 billion litres of vodka each year (about half of which is reported to be bootlegged) making them the most prolific drinkers, they mostly drink 'domestic' though. According to legend the career of vodka in the US started, when a Los Angeles bartender invented a mixed drink relying on root beer. He first tried it with gin and later whisky. This experiment didn’t catch on until he mixed it with vodka and limejuice. This was the birth of the Russian Mule. Our amorous superhero, James Bond and his preference for vodka martinis also played an important role in the popularization of vodka.

Vodka Quality

To determine the quality of vodka you must pay attention to the following factors:
  • Scent
  • Clarity
  • Colour
  • Flavour
It is also important to determine the content of side-products intorduced during the fermentation (impurities are introduced during fermentation and not distillation) process.* These include methanol and aldehydes. Flavour, clarity and taste are still determined by degustation by the kipper** and of course consumer. The contaminations are determined by using modern technologies.

*Vodka making in short: grain or potatoes are crushed and mixed with water. They are then heated to convert the starch into sugar. This results in a thick sweet liquid called wort. Yeast is then added to the wort and after fermentation the mixture results a beer like liquid with about 6% to 8% alcohol. This is called wash. The wash is distilled to create raw spirit and if necessary it is distilled more.

**The vodka equivalent of the wine or whisky sampler. Where can I apply for that job??????


The Vodka Companion, A Connoisseur’s Guide by Desmond Begg
A History of Vodka by Pokhlebkin, William. Translated by Renfrey Clarke.
Various spirit market reports.