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Vodka is defined as neutral spirits so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color. Neutral spirits are distilled spirits produced from any material at or above 190o proof. In the United States, neutral spirits are generally distilled from a mash of grain and are termed neutral grain spirits. Vodka is not aged, and is bottled at proofs ranging from 80 to 100o.

The objective with vodka processing is to remove as many of the congeners as possible so as to render the finished product free from any taste, aroma, and flavor. Neutral spirits, by definition, have little character since they are distilled at very high proofs, and contain only minute traces of fusel oils, aldehydes, esters, acids, and solids. Vodka processing is intended to remove these remaining compounds.

Charcoal has been found to be an effective purifying agent and is used in two ways. With one, the newly distilled spirit is filtered through charcoal. A minimum of one and one-half pounds of charcoal per gallon of spirits is required and contact time must be at least eight hours. The other method calls for mixing the charcoal and spirits and agitating them for eight hours or more. A minimum of six pounds of charcoal per one hundred gallons of spirits must be used. Since the distilling industry is capable of devising other, equally effective, methods, the government also permits vodka to be made with any other method which results in a product without distinctive character, taste, or aroma.

Vodka and gin are similar in that both are produced from neutral spirits. The difference between the two is that gin is processed to add specific flavors and aromas while vodka is processed to remove any elements which might provide flavor and aroma.

Although vodka is produced in the United States entirely from grains, it is possible to make it from any fermentable material since the objective is to produce a neutral product. The common belief is that vodka was traditionally made from potatoes. Some probably was but Russia and Poland, from where it originated, are mostly grain countries and it is likely that most Russian and Polish vodkas (at least the better ones) were, and continue to be, grain based.

Eastern Europeans, especially the Poles and Russians, have always been fond of flavored vodkas. A Polish specialty is Zubrowka, a vodka flavored with a grass found only in the forests of eastern Poland. Since these grasslands are inhabited by a particular species of bison or buffalo, the vodka is referred to as "buffalo grass vodka." The Soviet Union produces a "pepper" vodka called Pertsovka which is flavored with an infusion of cayenne and other ingredients. It has a spicy aroma and a fiery hot, lingering taste.

Vodka was pretty much unknown in the United States until Pierre Smirnoff (who fled Russia following the Revolution) sold the rights to his family's vodka formula to a Russian émigré living in America. Nothing really happened with the spirit however until 1946 when a bartender at the Cock 'n Bull on Sunset in Los Angeles mixed vodka with ginger beer to create the first Moscow Mule, the drink that paved the way for the Bloody Mary, the Screwdriver, the Vodka Collins, the Vodka Martini and a host of other vodka-based drinks.

Vodka has had an amazing success in the United States since World War II. It was not until the early 1950's that vodka sales were even separately reported in the trade statistics and, by 1975, they were the single largest sales category. By the mid 1980's, vodka accounted for nearly 23% of all distilled spirits sales in the United States, nearly as much as the combined total of bourbon and Canadian whiskies, the two next highest categories.

The reasons for this are vodka's neutrality, hence its mixability, and the consumption trend towards lighter beverages. Americans, by a wide margin, top the world in consumption of fruit juices and soft drinks, and vodka mixes exceptionally well with these beverages, without obscuring their basic character as other spirits do.

History of Vodka in Russia

Adapted from The Little Water of Life by Paul E. Richardson & Mikhail Ivanov, Russian Life magazine 1998.

1998 may well represent the 600th anniversary of the arrival of vodka in Russia. One writer from the 19th century noted that vodka appeared in Russia no earlier than 1398, when the Genoese began shipping vodka to Lithuania. Although this may be accurate, it was not until the mid- to late-1400's that distillation of vodka began in Russia. Within another 100 years, the state was starting to move in and set up a monopoly over the production and sale of vodka that would last -- but for a thirty year hiatus -- for the next four centuries. Over that period, vodka has come to play a vital role in Russian culture, in the financing of the Russian state, and, sadly, in the destruction of families and individuals due to alcoholism, abuse and accidents.

The Russian Drink

Many nations of the world have a singular drink that they have come to be identified with and that has come to be identified with them. For the French it is wine; the British and Germans have beer; the Japanese have sake; the Norwegians have aquavit. And, for Russians (and Poles, Belarusans, Finns and Ukrainians), it is vodka.

Wine is a bad fit with Russia's long winters and short growing seasons. Beer has always been popular in Russia but it is simply not a "serious enough" drink. It does not pack enough punch to unleash true feelings and passions.

Among the reasons for vodkas popularity are its unique ability (unlike wine or beer or even mead) to act as an accompaniment to any manner of feast or food (whatever is on hand). Another is the fact that it can be distilled from any type of grain or organic matter (again, whatever is on hand). Finally, the Russians found that the best vodka resulted from filtering with birch charcoal; not oak or pine, but birch, the tree of the Russian taiga.

The Birth of Vodka

The first Russian drink of choice was mead. Made from honey which Russia has always had in plentiful supply, mead is referred to in Russia's earliest written document -- The Primary Chronicle. It was mead which caused Grand Prince Vladimir to reject Islam as the state religion in 986 because it prohibits consumption of alcohol. He has been quoted as saying "For the Rus', drink is joy; we cannot be without it!" Vladimir instead embraced the more permissive Christianity imported from Byzantium.

The first spirits brought into Russia were referred to as zhiznennoy vody -- literally "living water" or water of life, and used for medicinal purposes. The process of distilling vodka in Russia seems to have begun in the early 1400s when visiting Genoese merchants demonstrated distillation for the Grand Duke of Lithuania (1426). A few years later, Russian clerics visited monasteries in Italy that were famous for their distilling. Grains (rye, wheat and barley) were the principal ingredients. Vodka at this time was called wine. Ordinary vodka was called simple wine; others, in increasing order of quality, were good wine, boyar's wine, and double wine, which was an extra-strong vodka.

Early vodka was not made from neutral spirits and was generally flavored. The crudeness of early distilling processes meant that many impurities remained in the vodka and had to be hidden by other, more pleasing, flavors and odors. Faith and Wisniewski, in their new book Classic Vodka, suggest that distilling in Russia derived from the widespread practice of extracting pitch from pine logs by boiling them in large pits -- they cite as evidence that the verb smolit long meant both the production of pitch or alcohol. Cover the pit, capture the steam and one could produce a poor form of alcohol and pitch in one process. By the end of the last century, according to Faith and Wisniewski, there were over 100 different flavored vodkas sold in Russia.

With increased sophistication in distilling and filtering vodka (filtering with charcoal was not discovered until the 1700's), rye became the grain of choice. About half of all Russian vodka was typically made from rye, wheat and potatoes being considered less desirable. It was also soon discovered that multiple distillations (with dilutions in between) led to purer vodkas, less burdened by congeners and odorous elements. By the 1700's, triple-distilling, together with birch-charcoal filtering, became the standard for finer vodkas, and made flavoring unnecessary. By the beginning of this century, the best Russian vodka was defined as that using Moscow river waters, distilled from grain (vs. potatoes) and diluted to a concentration of 40%.

The Tsars' Vodka

The growth of vodka distilling at the end of the 15th century was brought on by advances in distilling technology and new surpluses of grain, thanks to the introduction of crop rotation. Not surprisingly, at about this time, state and Tsar began to take an interest in vodka's earning power. Whereas Grand Prince Ivan III (1462-1505) had completely forbidden the production of strong spirits, Tsar Ivan IV ("the Terrible," 1533-1584) built the first kabak (tavern) for his oprichniny (palace guard) in Moscow, on the Balchug. Tradition has it that Ivan saw Tatar kabaks during his siege of Kazan (1552), and he decided to use the same principal of state-owned distilleries/taverns as a way to control the trade in spirits while profiting from them. Still, Ivan IV did not love drinking, and he restricted drinking in kabaks (which spread throughout the country during his rule) to Holy Week, Christmas and "Dmitry's Saturday" [until 1769, an October holiday to remember those killed in Dmitry Donskoy's famous Battle of Kulikovo field; after 1769, the day was moved to August 29]. At all other times, public drunkenness could lead to a prison term.

Tsar Fyodor (1584-1598), who succeeded Ivan IV, led a drive to tear down kabaks. But Boris Godounov (1598-1605) recognized the economic value of the vodka trade and ordered expanded building of kabaks, even allowing vodka to be purchased and taken off the premises.

By the early 1600's, the smallest towns and villages had their kabak. The end result was rising drunkenness, which Tsar Mikhail (1613-1645), the first Romanov tsar, combated with limited prohibition. Like Fyodor, he moved to tear down the kabaks, establishing drinking houses where wine was sold only on the premises. The tide turned again with the ascension to the throne of his son, Tsar Alexis (1645-1676), who allowed the building of one kabak in every town (and three in Moscow), which eventually multiplied of their own accord.

Perhaps more significantly, Tsar Alexis codified and institutionalized the state's monopoly over alcohol production and sale in his famous Law Code of 1649. Private production was to be punished brutally and all revenues from the sale of vodka went directly to the royal coffers.

This arrangement would continue more or less unchanged for nearly two hundred years, until another round of reforms, in 1861, removed the state monopoly on vodka production and sales, replacing it with an excise system. This hiatus of state control lasted just 33 years, but that was enough for some enterprising individuals -- most notably Pierre Smirnoff -- to become rich in the distilling business. In 1894, the state again gradually began to impose a state monopoly that was fairly complete by the time WWI began.

Temperance, or Not

During WWI, Tsarist Russia imposed a "dry law," which sought to keep army recruits sober enough to fight. And when the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, they extended prohibition on ideological grounds, arguing that the tsarist state sought to keep its subjects docile through liberal distribution of vodka. This may have had some truth to it since Catherine II once supposedly commented that a drunken people is easier to rule. Vladimir Lenin, a teetotaler, saw alcoholism as a disease that would keep Russia from moving forward to communism. Lenin said the proletariat, "had 'no need of intoxication,' it derived its 'strongest stimulant to struggle from its class position and from the communist ideal;' and what was needed was 'clarity, clarity and once again clarity.'" In 1922, at the 11th Communist Party Congress, Lenin would declare that there would be "no trade in rotgut."

By December 1919, new laws were enacted to severely punish private production of strong spirits. This was about as effective as Prohibition was in the United States. It has been estimated that at least a third of rural households were likely engaged in illicit distilling of alcohol in the 1920s. The government stepped up its anti-alcohol campaign for a time but eventually admitted defeat. In 1925, private homebrewing (the making of samogon) was allowed, as long as it was not intended for sale, while the state monopoly over production and sales continued. Henceforth, the battle against increasing alcohol consumption was mainly fought through education and propaganda. One writer claimed that, by the late 1920s, the average urban family spent 14% of its income on alcohol.

Forced industrialization would put an end to this battle. Once again, a Russian leader chose to use revenues from vodka to finance growth and national defense. By the end of 1930, Stalin ordered expansion of vodka production. By the late 1930s, the strength of vodka (which had previously been kept at 20%) was allowed to rise to its "natural" level of 40%. Stephen White, in his book, Russia Goes Dry, says that, by 1940, "there were more shops selling drink than meat, fruit and vegetables put together." During the war, vodka was issued to troops as part of their rations.

Vodka and the State

Stalin's move is not surprising. Since Ivan the Terrible established the first kabak in Russia, the Russian state has used proceeds from vodka sales to further its domestic and foreign agendas. And the Russian public has repeatedly obliged the leadership by consuming vast amounts of vodka. In the last century, upwards of 40% of all state revenue came from alcohol duties and sales. In this century, toward the end of the Soviet era, some estimates put vodka sales at 15-20% of the value of all retail trade turnover. Obviously, the state could not afford to ignore this "lucrative" source of revenue -- vodka production between 1940 and 1985 more than doubled (beer more than quadrupled and wine increased over eight-fold).

There is, however, a downside to this. From the 1940s to the 1980s, consumption of alcohol quadrupled in the Soviet Union. One independent study cited by Stephan White estimated that 15% of the Soviet population in the 1980s could be called alcoholic. White offers an exhaustive portrait of the social costs of increased alcohol consumption from the end of WWII to the present day: alcohol abuse became the single largest cause cited for divorce; by the late 1970s, life expectancy for Russian males had dropped to just 61 years; between 1960 and 1987, there was a population loss due to alcohol abuse in Russia of some 30-35 million persons; 74% of all murders committed in the early 1980s were committed under the influence of alcohol, as was the same proportion of rapes; in the early 1980s, 75-90% of absences from work were related to alcohol; economic production was said to drop by up to 30% following weekends and paydays; by one estimate, the economic losses from alcohol abuse in the 1980s were three times the amount taken in through taxes on alcohol.

But, long before the arrival of totalitarian communism, vodka had a dark influence on Russian culture. The state's dependence on revenues from alcohol sales encouraged alcoholism and alcohol abuse for hundreds of years.

Misha's Campaign

Fighting this vice (and repairing gashes in the social and economic fabric of the Union) was the impetus for Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign of the late 1980s. This attempt to make an alcohol loving (and dependent) country go cold-turkey was a vast political failure. It contributed perhaps even more than the loss of empire to the disdain with which Gorbachev is held in Russians' eyes. The campaign, which cut back on production and restricted sales and distribution of vodka as well as beer, wines and other spirits, succeeded in bringing about declines in official sales of vodka (cut by nearly half) and other alcohol products, as well as in actual consumption (estimated at a 25% decline between 1985-6). But the response from the public was increased production of samogon, which created a huge sugar deficit, increased deaths due to alcohol poisoning and decreased work efficiency since huge numbers of Soviets were waiting in lines to get vodka or wine.

Also, the campaign against alcohol consumption, insofar as it was effective, freed up purchasing power among consumers that would have otherwise been spent on alcohol. This, combined with the fall-off of revenues to the state from a decline in alcohol sales, contributed to massive shortages of all manner of consumer goods in the economy.

There were some gains, however, most notably in the health of the population. Life expectancies stabilized, birth death rates dropped, alcohol-related deaths on the job and off went down and the birth rate went up. Divorces declined. The public, however, was gravely dissatisfied with the means to these ends; Russians resented sobriety by government decree. And the government, for its part, was executing its anti-alcohol program unevenly, and on the sandcastle foundation of seven decades of socialist falsehoods. So it was little surprise that, as early as 1987, the cash-strapped Soviet government began relaxing many of its restrictions on sale and distribution. By 1990, White writes, the level of alcohol consumption had bounced back to its pre-campaign levels.

Enter the Market

As in many spheres, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the command economy changed the alcohol market radically. In the early 1990s, poorly executed "shock-therapy" reforms subjected the population of the Soviet Union and then Russia to a prolonged bout with hyperinflation. The state needed medicine to keep the beleaguered population at bay. Cheaper vodka was one answer. By some estimates, between 1990 and December 1994, consumer prices in Russia increased by 2,020 times for all goods and services, by 2,154 times for food products but by only 653 times for alcoholic beverages.

The other supposed answer was "free" vodka. In 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a decree abolishing the 68-year-old state monopoly on the production, import and sale of vodka. It was replaced by a system of free production and trade of hard liquor based on licensing. This was a very Russian solution to the problems of the monopoly -- to completely overturn the status quo rather than tinker with it. The Financial Times predicted at the time that "the lifting of the state monopoly on vodka is political suicide for a country where economic and other difficulties provoke the people's desire to drown them in wine."

Market Players

After state control over the production, import and sale of vodka was loosened, distillers, importers and retailers (in the form of kiosks), sprouted like mushrooms after a rainstorm. At present, according to renowned alcohol expert Igor Serdyuk, there are some 1,300 licensed vodka "players;" some 250 vodka brands are registered with Rospatent.

One distiller that seems to be rising above the fray is Kristall, founded in 1901. Kristall, like all distilleries has been hit hard by bootlegging and government policies alike. At one point, annual production plummeted from over 340 million gallons (prior to Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign) to just 53 million gallons. But the distillery recently introduced new (supposedly fake-proof) bottles and is staging a comeback.

Foreign Vodkas

One absurdity, played out in other consumer spheres with the opening of the market, was the mass influx of Western vodkas. Consumers in the land that invented vodka began flocking in droves to international favorites like Finlandia, Absolut and Smirnoff. But the state, hard pressed to protect local producers (and knowing a good tax base when it sees it) has started introducing severe licensing and excise taxes on imports -- a move which will surely raise import prices even further.

Another problem brought on by the influx of imports has been exemplified by the Smirnoff vs. Smirnov dispute. Internationally-known Smirnoff vodka is a trademark and recipe that, over the course of this century, passed from émigré descendants of 19th century vodka baron Pyotr Smirnov to now be owned by the huge distilled spirits company IDV. But, when IDV decided to go into the Russian market (returning Smirnoff to its homeland, so to speak), it ran into one Boris Smirnov, a former KGB agent who founded a "Trade House of Pyotr Smirnov's Descendants" and started producing "Smirnovskaya" vodka. The trademark dispute over the right to use the name of Pyotr Arsenievich Smirnov and the title of "Purveyor to his Majesty's Imperial Court," has raged for three years. American Smirnoff has meanwhile started producing "Russian" vodka of its own at the St. Petersburg-based Liviz factory, while Boris Smirnov has, by most accounts, leveraged the "us vs. them" publicity of the long court battle to build his domestic vodka business.

The True Costs

The liberalization of the alcohol market has also opened up the bottom side of the market, letting in a flood of cheap, fake and often downright lethal vodka. Vodka consumption has been on the rise since the political failure (and public health success) of Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign. According to the Russian Academy of Sciences, by 1988 the combined death toll from alcohol poisoning, cirrhosis of the liver and alcohol-induced violence and accidents was down to 179 deaths per 100,000 -- a level not seen since 1965. But by 1995, according to government data, this rate had climbed to nearly 500 deaths per 100,000 (by way of comparison, the US rate for 1995 was 77). Nezavisimaya Gazeta recently estimated that 43,000 Russians die each year from vodka poisoning alone. And in 1997, the total number of alcohol poisonings from fake wine and vodka (both fatal and nonfatal) in Russia reached 90,000.

According to estimates by the Russian Health Ministry, alcohol consumption in Russia reached 4 gallons of pure alcohol per year for every man, woman and child in 1996. (Health Ministry experts concluded that, assuming most children were not drinking, adjusted adult consumption was 5 gallons of pure alcohol -- i.e., the rough equivalent of 10 gallons of 100-proof vodka per person, per year, vs. 2.1 gallons per adult per year in the US).

As noted above, in the past the Russian state benefited from (and perhaps encouraged) such excess consumption. Yet that is not the case now. Budgetary proceeds from the alcohol business have plummeted to an all time low of 3%, whereas in Soviet times, the infamous pyanye dengi (drunken money) accounted for one-third of the Russian budget. The reason? Money that should have come to the state in the form of taxes instead ended up in the pockets of bootleggers or corrupt state officials.

In today's Russia, vodka supports entire regions. The republic of North Ossetia's economy is reputedly based largely on sales of illegal spirits smuggled into Russia from Georgia. Former North Ossetian president Askharbek Galazov allegedly funded his entire election campaign with money from spirit trafficking. Then there are the many "charitable" organizations, like the National Sports Fund and the Russian Orthodox Church, which have allegedly exploited their privileged, duty-free status to make a killing importing and reselling wine and/or spirits.

Dragon in the Bottle

Thus, it soon became apparent that "free" vodka was dangerous and "cheap" vodka had some very significant social and economic costs. Pressed by immediate economic concerns (months-long wage arrears, namely to the army), in 1993 President Yeltsin issued a decree restoring the "state monopoly" on alcohol production. But this was easier said than done. Once the green dragon (a Russian folk idiom for alcohol) was out of the bottle, it was virtually impossible to put it back in.

For one thing, the means to the end is different from past crackdowns. Yeltsin's "monopoly" is nothing like that of the Soviet era. It is largely one of licensing and other regulatory measures, such as excise stamps and banning alcohol advertising from TV. There are mandatory tax points at distilleries to control "illegal leaks of spirits and vodka" from factories. Special excise stamps were introduced on alcohol (although all attempts to make them technically fake-proof have been in vain). A regional registry of all licensed alcohol producers and traders was compiled. In September 1997, Yeltsin dedicated his radio address to vodka, explaining to Russians that the government's success in bringing the alcohol market to heel is important not only for preserving the nation's health but also for maintaining a stable budget and paying pensions on time (a reality that many observers did not appreciate).

Little by little, the new measures have started to pay off. Two or three years ago, as much as 90% of Russia's alcohol market was widely believed to be "in the shadows." Today, this figure is down by nearly half.

600 years after it first appeared in Russia, vodka continues to play a pivotal role in Russia. While the specific issues may have changed somewhat, the general tensions have not. Russia cannot base a modern economy on revenues from alcohol. But it is a hard reality to avoid after so many hundreds of years of relying on the "green dragon." All the more so since vodka is become such an inalienable part of Russian culture and cuisine.

Paul E. Richardson & Mikhail Ivanov, 1998

Vodka Brand Descriptions

Absolut Vodka: Swedish vodka that is now the #1 premium vodka in the world. Introduced in 1879 as 'Absolutely Pure Vodka' which used a new distillation method called rectification (a way of removing unwanted by-products). The clear bottle is styled after an old Swedish medicine bottle. Made from locally grown wheat and well-water from the town of Ahus in southern Sweden where all Absolut is produced. Absolut removes most impurities while retaining enough trace elements to keep the character of the raw materials used. Smooth and light-bodied with some licorice flavors. 'Kindred Spirits' gives it a ** rating.

Absolut Peppar Vodka: Super-premium vodka flavored with natural jalapeño pepper and paprika flavors. The Tabasco-sauce-like flavors provide some heat (but not too hot). Definitely spicy. 'Kindred Spirits' gives it a *** (recommended) rating. Great for Bloody Marys.

Absolut Citron Vodka: Super-premium Swedish vodka blended with lemon, lime, mandarin orange and grapefruit flavors. America's third best selling imported vodka. Clean and intense aroma. Tart and tangy. 'Kindred Spirits' gives it a **** (highly recommended) rating.

Absolut Kurant Vodka: Super-premium Swedish vodka blended with black currants. Intense black currant nose and flavors with perhaps a hint of black raspberry. Very balanced. Tart and fruity. May be served straight on-the-rocks or mixed with berry juice. 'Kindred Spirits' gives it a **** (highly recommended) rating.

Belvedere Vodka: Imported from Poland, Belvedere is made from 100% Polish rye, distilled 4 times and charcoal filtered. It is made in a tradition that dates back over 500 years (the Polish invented vodka). The bottle is finished with a cork and features the Belvedere House which is the Polish equivalent to the White House. It has a distinct flavor of rye, is creamy smooth and has a clean finish.

Denaka Vodka: Vodka from Denmark that has sweet overtones and maple-syrup like flavors. 'Kindred Spirits' gives it a *** (recommended) rating).

Finlandia Vodka: Imported vodka from Finland. Made from locally grown grains and natural spring water that is filtered through glacial moraine rock. Requires no chemical filtration and does not use chemically treated water. Well balanced and blended. Deeply flavored. Semi-sweet with creamy, biscuity flavors with a hint of corn. 'Kindred Spirits' gives it a **** (highly recommended) rating.

Grey Goose Vodka: Ultra-premium vodka produced and bottled in France. Made with water from the Gente Springs where the water cascades over porous limestone, a natural purifier. The grains used are from the breadbasket region of France. Grey Goose is column distilled in small batches. Each bottle is handmade and depicts the grey goose in flight with the French Alps in the background. Smoky aroma with hints of mint and grain. The flavor is off-dry, has a moderate bite and has notes of wheat and cocoa bean. 'Spirits Journal' gives it a **** rating.

Ketel One Vodka: Premium vodka from Holland. Pleasing bouquet with hints of charcoal and anise. Mildly spicy and slightly sweet (for vodka) flavor. Rich texture. Long citrusy finish. 'Kindred Spirits' says it is one of the 'most complex and multilayered unflavored vodkas in the marketplace.' It gives it a **** rating (highly recommended). 'Wine Enthusiast' gives it 87 points. During the 1600's and 1700's, Holland became an important center of commerce for the grain trade. Because of their strategic locations at the mouth of the river Maas and on the North Sea, Schiedam, and later Rotterdam, were the sites of Holland's greatest auctions of grain. As a result of the availability of grain, these cities also became the heart of the European distilled spirits industry.

The Nolet Distillery was one of the first to open in the Dutch port city of Schiedam. Founded in 1691 by Joannes Nolet, it has been handed down from father to son for ten generations. Within the space of a few years, many more distilleries were thriving along the river. By 1882, there were 394 in the city of Schiedam alone. Today, only five distilleries remain. The Nolet Distillery is one of the most prominent in all Holland. Domestic sales account for the vast majority of its business. Export to the United States has only recently been undertaken.

In the early years, the Nolets built an international market for their products and export sales far exceeded domestic sales for over two hundred and fifty years. The Nolet family expanded their business interests, eventually building their own glass and cork factories as well as a printing company. In 1793, fifth generation owner Jacobus Nolet built a four-story windmill named "The Whale". It was, and remains today, the tallest grain milling windmill in the world. In the early 1800's, the Nolet Distillery acquired it's own clipper ships. These sailing ships left Schiedam laden with empty glass wine and port bottles which were sold to France and Portugal. They also carried distilled spirits to be sold on the west coast of Africa. The ships returned to Holland with their holds full of grain purchased in Russia. The Nolets traded with the Romanovs, the family of the Tsar, until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. So close were their ties that the Nolet family was granted the right to use the double eagle from the Tsar's own crest. The Nolet Distillery began using the Double Eagle as its trademark in 1804, a tradition that continues to this day.

Hand crafted in traditional copper pot stills, Ketel One is the smoothest vodka imaginable. Born of a gentle coal fire under the watchful eye of the Master Distiller, Ketel One is created in limited quantities to preserve its exceptional quality.

Only the heart of the distillate, the center of each batch, is considered fine enough to be called Ketel One. The first 100 gallons, and the last, are separated and discarded as being either too harsh or too weak. What remains is consistently the smoothest and most elegant. This special technique is time consuming and costly but can only be accomplished by using pot stills. The result more than justifies the added care and expense as is readily apparent with the first sampling of Ketel One.

Luksusowa Vodka: Potato vodka from Poland. The nose has an earthy element, probably from the potatoes it is made from. Medium full body. Wet stone, citrus and smoke flavors. Rich heavy texture. Sweetish finish that disappears rapidly. 'Wine Enthusiast' gives it 88 points.

Original 80 Vodka: Imported Polish vodka. Made from artesian well water and 100% rye grain using only the hearts of the grain shaft. The grain is cleaned six times before the distillation process begins. Distilled a minimum of six times to remove congeners, aldehydes and esters (impurities). Then tested by taste experts to see if more distillation is needed. Filtered a minimum of three times. Finally the viscosity is tested to make sure ice crystals do not form when cold. Keep in the freezer and serve straight or with ice.

Russian Roulette Vodka: Russian vodka made from 100% wheat and artesian well water, put through an 80-step purification system, and finished with a touch of natural bee honey. Label has the same graphics as the original Russian label.

Stolichnaya (Russia)

Stolichnaya Cristall Vodka: Ultra-premium vodka from Russia. Made from the same winter wheat and clear glacial water that are used in all of the Stolichnaya vodkas. Cristall is double distilled in a process that is five times slower than ordinary vodkas and bottles only the best vodka from the center of the distillation tank. Nose of rose, dry cereal, and cream. Flavors of chocolate and vanilla. Full-bodied. 'Kindred Spirits' gives it a ***** rating which is the book's highest recommendation. 'Wine Enthusiast' gives it 90 points.

Stolichnaya Ohranj Vodka: Russian vodka flavored with orange zest, juice, and pulp. Medium body. Flavors of orange, lemon, and anise. Cool, icy finish. Good mixed with orange juice for a Screwdriver or an Orange Blossom. 'Wine Enthusiast' gives it 96 points.

Stolichnaya Vodka: Super-premium vodka from Russia. Made with winter wheat and glacial water, Double distilled using quartz and activated charcoal filtration. 'Kindred Spirits' describes it as 'potent, kicky...' with 'deep licorice and herbal flavors' and gives it a *** rating (recommended). Smoky with a touch of fruit. 'Wine Enthusiast' gives it 87 points.

Stolichnaya Strasberi Vodka: Russian vodka flavored with fresh strawberries.

Stolichnaya Kafya Vodka: Russian vodka flavored with a blend of natural coffee beans.

Stolichnaya Persik Vodka: Russian vodka flavored with essence of fresh peaches.

Stolichnaya Vanil Vodka: Russian vodka flavored with natural extracts of vanilla beans.

Stolichnaya Zinamon Vodka: Russian vodka flavored with natural oils of cinnamon bark.

Stolichnaya Rasberi Vodka: Russian vodka flavored with fresh raspberries.

Tanqueray Sterling Vodka: English vodka made from carefully selected grains, and triple distilled in small batches. Produced by the same company that makes Tanqueray Gin. Its unique taste is a result of Old Tom, a pot still that has been in continuous use for over 200 years. It is the third largest premium imported vodka in many markets. Fruity bouquet. Sweet and creamy. 'Kindred Spirits' gives it a *** (recommended) rating.

Burnett's Vodka: Domestic vodka with aromas of herbs and charcoal-like flavors. Uses a quadruple distillation and triple charcoal filtering process. Very dry. The initial taste can be harsh but mellows quickly. 'Kindred Spirits' gives it a *** (recommended) rating.

Five O'Clock Vodka: American vodka made from 100% grain neutral spirits. Produced at the oldest family distillery in the U.S. (Laird & Co.)

Gilbey's Vodka: Domestic vodka made with 100% grain neutral spirits. Smooth clean taste, good for mixing.

Gordon's Vodka: The number three domestic vodka in the U.S. 100% grain neutral spirits. No citric acid blender is added. Consistent flavor and quality.

Popov Vodka: American made vodka distilled from grain. The #2 selling vodka in the U.S.

Rain Vodka: Made exclusively from organically-grown American grain and Kentucky limestone water. Micro-distilled four times and filtered through diamond dust and charcoal. Entire package is recyclable.

S. S. Pierce Vodka: American vodka made from 100% grain neutral spirits. Double filtered. The S.S. Pierce company dates back to 1831.

Senators Club Vodka: American vodka made from 100% neutral grain spirits. Produced at the oldest family distillery in the U.S.(Laird & Company).

Skyy Vodka: Domestic premium vodka that uses a four-column distillation and triple filtration system to remove impurities and congeners (impurities that form during the fermentation process). This produces an extremely clean, satiny and refined vodka. Nuances of cacao and grain flavors. A light but not lightweight vodka. 'Kindred Spirits' gives it a *** (recommended) rating.

Smirnoff Vodka: The #1 selling vodka in the U.S and the world. Originally produced in Russia, the recipe found its way to America in the early 1900's. Made with grain and demineralized water and filtered through exclusive hardwood charcoal. Mild aroma and flavors. Dry, crisp and clean. A subtle vodka.

Smirnoff Vodka 100 proof: American made vodka. Medium-full body. Flavors of mint, wet stone and charcoal with strong herbal tones. Rich texture. 'Wine Enthusiast' gives it 88 points.

Smirnoff Citrus Twist: Flavored American vodka. Made with Smirnoff vodka and natural citrus flavors. Refreshing lemon, lime taste. Clear. Aromas of lemon with some lime and orange. Tart lemon flavors that overshadow any taste of grain. 'Kindred Spirits' gives it a *** (recommended) rating.

Teton Glacier Vodka: Potato vodka hand made in America. Uses Rocky Mountain well water and is triple distilled to remove all impurities and congeners. Charcoal and crystal filtered. Sold in 750ml reusable glass decanter.

Don Cossack Light Vodka: The first 'Light' vodka produced in response to consumers' changing lifestyles. It is 53 proof and has 1/3 less calories and 1/3 less alcohol. Can be substituted for regular vodka with any traditional vodka mixers.

Gordon's Orange Vodka: Domestic vodka flavored with essence of orange from the West Indies. 100% grain neutral spirits. Lower proof (60) than regular Gordon's Vodka.

Gordon's Citrus Vodka: Domestic vodka flavored with lemon, lime and oil of orange from the West Indies. Aromas and flavors of lime are predominate. Sweet and slightly tart. 'Kindred Spirits' gives it a *** (recommended) rating.

Gordon's Wild Berry Vodka: Domestic flavored vodka. Red berry and tutti-frutti aromas. Quite sweet and fruity.

Vodkas From Various Countries

Adapted from an article by Anthony Dias Blue, Bon Appétit, July 1997


Black Death is a novelty premium made, until recently, in Belgium from sugar beets. As of September 1997 however, it is made in England, from grains. Although the producers had a run-in with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms over the vodka's name and grim packaging, Black Death prevailed and is now widely available. Fresh, silky and slightly sweet, it's the only vodka that comes in pop-top cans as well as glass bottles.


Tanqueray, known primarily for its gin, also makes an elegant premium vodka called Tanqueray Sterling. Packaged in a frosted-glass bottle, it is crisp and smooth with plenty of character. A tangy citrus version satisfies those who are looking for a dash of extra flavor.


The Frïs brand (pronounced "freeze") comes in a striking beveled bottle. But it's this vodka's taste — clean and satiny with fragrances of herbs and spice and a mild sweetness — that will win you over.

While most vodka producers use a clear bottle to emphasize the purity of their drink, Danzka hides it in an attractive aluminum canteen. This lively, dry premium is also made in a citron version.


Packaged in a bottle that looks as if it were carved out of glacial ice, Finlandia will melt your heart with its smooth, mellow, easy-drinking character. Although a veteran on the vodka scene, it has two new flavored versions, cranberry and pineapple.


Ketel One, handmade in the same family-owned distillery for three centuries, may be the smoothest of all vodkas, with a hint of vanilla aroma and a soft finish. Royalty, presented in a

blue bottle, has a similarly refined texture and a clean flavor.


The Poles and Russians may argue over the birthplace of vodka, but what is beyond dispute is the excellent quality of the latest Polish vodkas. A stunning example is Belvedere, which is made entirely from rye and comes in a frosted bottle that depicts Belvedere House, the Polish equivalent of the White House. Another is the exceptional Luksusowa, one of the few commercial vodkas that still use potatoes as a base. The result is a superb drink — full-bodied, slightly smoky and quite satiny.


Stolichnaya, Russia's premier vodka, is a model of that country's robust style. The label's latest luxury product is the velvety Stoli Gold. Last year the company brought out six jazzy new flavored vodkas — vanilla, strawberry, peach, cinnamon, raspberry and coffee.

A favorite communist-era vodka, Moskovskaya, has recently been introduced to the United States. Made in Moscow, it has a slightly peppery finish. Ultraa Vodka is a silky, creamy-textured émigré from St. Petersburg. Kremlyovskaya is a whisper-clean spirit that debuted in 1990.

The most historic vodka name in Russia is Smirnoff. After the fall of communism, the Smirnoffs (who had emigrated to France and then to the U.S.) returned to Moscow, where they now produce a brisk, dry, elegant premium called Smirnoff Black.

Russian Roulette is distilled from wheat grown in the regions of Stavropol and Krasnodar and finished with honey.

From the countries of Latvia and Estonia come the delicious Zelta and Volganaya vodkas, respectively.


Absolut is now the best-selling foreign vodka in America. Absolut Kurant is their latest release.


In the last several years, we have seen the emergence of a few handcrafted premiums in the United States. There's Skyy, a lovely San Francisco spirit, and the newly arrived Teton Glacier, a unique vodka made in Idaho — from potatoes, of course.

Anthony Dias Blue, Bon Appétit, July 1997



The Russians have a centuries-old tradition of flavoring their vodka with fruits and herbs to suit the season and various celebrations.  Pertsovka (pepper), Limonnaya (lemon) and Okhotnichya (herb-infused hunter's vodka) were introduced in the U.S. starting in 1984. But flavored vodka really caught on with the popularity of Stolichnaya Ohranj, considered by many to be the finest flavored vodka available. 

Now the tradition expands with the first-ever launch of an entire line of flavored vodkas — new Stoli Flavors. 

These six distinctively flavored vodkas are expanding old perceptions of vodka as odorless and flavorless.  But make no mistake, the new Stoli Flavors are definitely vodka.  Each exhibits the smooth character of the finest Russian vodka, with the added dimension of clean, natural, flavors and aromas. 

Stoli Vanil is enhanced by the pure essence of Madagascan and Indonesian vanilla beans.  The mellow flavor of vanilla with a hint of butterscotch beautifully complements the smoothness of Stolichnaya. 

Stoli Kafya is made from the finest spirits, distilled from wheat and clear glacial water, it is then married to a special blend of beans from Guatemala, Costa Rica, Mexico, Indonesia and Colombia to achieve its unique taste; a subtle, nutty, roasted coffee bean flavor

Stoli Strasberi is enhanced with the juices and oils of full ripened strawberries, picked when their natural sugars are at their peak. . 

The oils of Sri Lankan cinnamon and Chinese cassia lend Stoli Zinamon its "red hot" taste. 

Sure to be a favorite, Stoli Persik is flavored with the aromatic essence and oils of rare, luscious white peaches. 

Stoli Rasberi features the luscious flavor of raspberries.  Like its fruity siblings, Stoli Rasberi has a delicate flavor with just the right amount of sweetness. 

True to the Stolichnaya tradition, each of the new Stoli Flavors is double-distilled in Russia from superior winter wheat and soft glacial water.  After filtration through quartz and activated charcoal, the vodka is then blended with all-natural flavor elements before a third and final filtration. 

These new Stoli Flavors offer an array of choices for creating innovative concoctions. Vodka lovers are limited only by their imaginations. Flavors also add a great twist to classics like martinis, or can be served simply on ice with sodas or juices.  Even staunch purists can enjoy the new Stoli Flavors in the traditional Russian way: icy cold and straight up! 

Cristall Moscow Signature Vodka 

There is only one original Cristall Moscow Signature series vodka.  Cristall vodka is a special and unique patented formula which can only be produced by its registered owner, the Cristall distillery in Moscow, Russia.  From its inception Cristall has had, and continues to hold, the honor of being Russia's finest, ultra premium vodka.  Its quality and tradition come from an exclusive formula which cannot be duplicated. 

Every ounce of Cristall is twice passed over a bed of pure crystal, and filtered through carbon granules made from the wood of Russia's Native Birch.  This unique distillation process creates a Russian vodka so exceptional it has become a mark of excellence with unmatched appeal for the uncompromising customer. 

There are eight automatic vodka bottle lines as well as four liqueur, "nastoyka" (a kind of liqueur), and "nalivka" (a kind of fruit liqueur) lines under operation.

The ancient buildings (the distillery is a monument of industrial architecture) harmonize with modern mosaic interior and modern constructions. Well-equipped stores have been built of late and the output of export shop doubled after reconstruction.

In the beginning of the century the distillery's output was 2.6 million deciliters of vodka of five or six denominations. Today, the annual manufacture is 10 million deciliters embracing 70 denominations. The distillery pays 20 per cent of its export revenues and more than 8 per cent earnings in the Russian state budget. Annual income runs into many billions of rubles.

Cristall Vodka is distributed and sold throughout the United States by McCormick Distilling Co., Inc., and is Imported by Frank Pesce International Group Ltd.  Boca Raton, Florida  40% Alcohol (80 proof) 

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