History Of Vodka

The Brief History Of Vodka That You Probably Didn't Know

You may have heard about the fights between Poland and Russian on the subject of the history of vodka.

Since vodka’s introduction into the West, it’s boasted of being tasteless & odourless.

Indeed the US  government initially defined vodka as a clear, neutral spirit so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without discernible flavour or aroma.

Vodka’s earliest campaign in the West even claimed to “leave you breathless”. So, denied its heritage and introduced as the white whisky, vodka was a successful iconoclast and a certain hit with the young but denied any recognition of its own product realities.

Now, the EU defines vodka as a spirit in which the characteristics of their raw materials are selectively reduced and this defines, more accurately, many of the vodkas that emanate from the East and some of the more recent vodkas created in the West. These remain the purest of spirits while retaining some character from their raw materials.

Vodka, the world’s most popular spirit, remains pretty functional in the East where, historically, it’s usually been drunk neat, a refuge from life’s horrors and an aid to the digestion of fatty foods.

In the West, vodka’s been drunk more as a lifestyle statement than because of what’s in the bottle. So long as it was clean and neutral, few had reason to know about vodka’s product realities except perhaps its alcoholic strength.

The future looks very different as Westerners now call for so-called vodkas with character, whether they be traditional vodkas from the East or vodkas with taste, texture and aromatics, now distilled in the West.

Related:  When You Learn About Vodka You Will Never Think They Are All The Same Again


Vodka is probably the world’s oldest spirit but Russians and Poles disagree about the origins and neither has the definitive evidence to support their claims.

Russia gave us the word ‘voda’, meaning water and ‘vodka’ meaning ‘little water ’ though Poland has similar words ‘woda’ and ‘wodka’.

The diminutive ‘ka’, when used in the middle ages, meant better, a description most likely true of vodka because water, at that time, not only tasted bad but could be very unhealthy too.

What is true is that Poland was distilling vodka for medical use by the 11th century and, by the  17th century, vodka was Poland’s national drink.

In Poland

3 copies of a lifestyle book, dated 1405, contain mention of how to infuse your “vodka” and in 1534 a Polish encyclopaedia of medicine & science explained how to distil herb vodkas and suggested using vodka to cleanse the skin after shaving or to rub on after a bath to remove unpleasant odours!

Making vodka was less restricted than in Russia and in 1546, King Jan Olbrecht issued a decree allowing every citizen the right to make vodka. As a result, distillation was very much a family affair, and by the sixteenth century there were 49 commercial distilleries in the town of Poznan alone. In the centuries that followed vodka distillation and consumption became established at all levels of Polish society and today Poznan remains a major centre for the production of vodka.

In Russia

Alcohol production was first documented in the 9th century, but spirits were thought to have arrived in Russia through Italian traders in the 14th century. Early distillations were likely for medicine or even gunpowder rather than for drinking but only a century later, a monopoly on distillation and sale of spirits was imposed in Moscow, suggesting that,  by then, levels of consumption were already considerable. In the 1540s the Russian Tsar Ivan 'the Terrible' established his own network of distilling taverns, making sure that profits went straight into the Imperial treasury. He outlawed taverns that were outside his control and banned distilling by potential rivals. Always needing support from the nobility, however, he did allow them to continue distilling vodka.

High alcohol vodkas developed in cold Northern countries because in cold temperatures only high levels of alcohol ensured that the drinks remained liquid. Better still and much, to everyone’s surprise, the higher the level of alcohol, the more palatable the spirit. Distillation, however, was an imperfect science and so, in these early years, impurities remained in the finished spirit.

Successive rulers maintained their monopoly on vodka distillation but continued to grant distilling rights to the nobility and government officials. As their knowledge grew, the nobility tended towards the production of quality vodka while the peasantry made vodka of sorts for themselves, usually adding flavours to mask the raw spirit.

From the beginning of the 17th century, it had become customary for vodka to be served at Russian Imperial banquets and all formal meals began with bread and vodka. Vodka was also drunk at religious festivals. Peter the Great was renowned for his hospitality and love of drinking and, in his time, the Governor of Moscow was known to have trained a large bear to serve pepper Vodka to his guests or to remove the guests’ clothes, if they refused their drink.

In 1863 the government monopoly on production was repealed and Pyotr Smirnov, among others founded his distillery in Moscow. Until then vodkas had remained far from pure and the product of single distillation in pot stills but the Smirnov family pioneered charcoal filtration and, in the 1870s, were the first to use the continuous distillation process.

Success followed quickly with Smirnov, now the vodka of the Czars, reputably soon selling more than 4 million cases p.a. in Russia, thanks, in part, to the authoritarian Russian governments being more afraid of people thinking than drinking and so turning a blind eye to the widespread drunkenness. To assist the war effort, vodka distillation was banned in Russia in 1914. 3 years later the masses, no longer so drunk, rebelled and overthrew their government, no doubt encouraging Stalin to rediscover the ‘benefits’ the Czars had seen in cheap vodka during his reign of terror.

In Sweden

A distilling prodigy, Lars Olson Smith introduced continuous distillation and began to produce spirits with exceptionally low levels of impurities, particularly his Absolut Rent Brannvin, launched in 1879. Success earned him the title ‘King of Spirits’ but, still, vodka was not to gain broad success across Western Europe until the second half of the 20th century.

First, the Smirnov family fled the Russian Revolution and set up in Europe, changing their name to Smirnoff. They were not successful and sold their recipe to a family friend who had escaped to America. The recipe for Smirnoff arrived in America in 1934 and, though again, not initially successful, the ‘vodka’ experience of troops meeting Russian soldiers during World War 2 and clever marketing in the West, transformed vodka from a curious speciality from the East, into a fashion icon. From the 1950s onwards, Smirnoff drove the ‘breathless’ revolution and vodka became a global and stateless, truly international spirit, to be enjoyed more for the alcoholic kick it added to a mixer than for its own character.

clever marketing in the West, transformed vodka from a curious speciality from the East, into a fashion icon Click To Tweet

It wasn’t until the approach of the 21st century that Westerners began to show interest in what was in the bottles but today, alongside neutral western vodkas, numerous traditional vodkas from the East are to be found as well as vodkas, distilled in the West, proud of their character, whether sourced from spring waters, local raw materials or process.

A choice can now be made between vodkas that represent a lifestyle choice and those, from the East & the West, that offer distinct product realities, whether in the vodka itself and/or in the vodka’s heritage and provenance.

be a better bartender

The 20 Commandments of Being a Bartender

So were chatting the other day over here at Be A Better Bartender about what it takes to be a bartender. We decided that we had to make a list. For four hours we argued. We argued hard. As lists go. We are pretty happy with what we have come up with. Tell us what you think below. Do you agree? Would you change any of them?

#bartending really is about working smart rather than hard Click To Tweet

This is unbiased from the views of both what a manager wants to see and what the customer wants to see from the bartender. We decided to flesh this out after our last post's success.

Make Eye Contact

Be a roving Bartender and keep a wary eye. Greet all guests with a smile and eye contact as they arrive at the bar. On a quiet night there is no excuse for not providing a speedy service, but on a busy night if you can’t take care of a guest immediately, acknowledge them and indicate you will take care of them shortly. Even if you’re very busy, SMILE, make eye contact, nod your head. Human beings are insecure creatures. We all like to be smiled at.

Offer a Cocktail Menu

Greet all guests and offer them a cocktail menu as soon as they arrive.

3 Put Down Beverage Napkins (Beer Mats)

Put a bevnap in front of the customer you are serving, and those you know you will serve immediately afterwards. The bevnap in front of the customer tells other Bartenders that that particular guest is being looked after. It also makes customers feel acknowledged. It saves a Bartender asking ten people in a row, “have you been served?” because a bevnap was not placed in the first instant. If the bevnap’s gone when you come to put down drinks, replace it with another one.



Offer a Sincere Greeting

As a Bartender dealing with a guest you have never met before, you must never appear surly or agitated, no matter what has happened in your personal life. A sincere hello must always be offered, remember: the money the customer spends pays your wage.

Make Sure You Know Everything

You are only as good as what you know. Every bar offers products and talents which are unavailable in most other places. Know all the products that you stock. Understand what the differences between products and techniques are. Learn all new products as they arrive. Be complete on your cocktail knowledge. Train yourself continually. Be motivated.

Up sell Knowledgeably

Offer customers alternatives. If you’re knowledgeable, it won’t sound like you’re up-selling. (‘Have you tried Blanton’s, it’s a rich single barrel bourbon’, etc). Knowledge when up-selling makes the customer trust your judgement, and more willing to be up-sold to.



Be Efficient

Whether it be for drinks, service or acknowledgement, efficiency is key. Never slow down a drinks preparation by carrying on a conversation with a colleague.  Get your priorities straight: take the order, make the drinks then sell the drinks. Remember you have two hands (and forearms). Make drinks in front of the guest whenever possible.

Be Organised

Continuously going back to a guest to re-check an order is highly inefficient. No-one expects you to remember dozens of orders. But you should be able to handle two different orders for mixed drinks. As you are waiting for a customer to hand over their card or pay, look up and ask the next guest what their order is. Organisation is the keyword.

Be Technically Proficient

Be professional and technically perfect. Work on your methods. Get your pouring exactly right. Understand how to shake drinks, how to stir, how to serve. You are a professional firstly and a showman secondly.


whisky tasting



Certain drinks deteriorate the longer you leave them standing, it is therefore imperative that you organise multiple orders in a systematic way. The long ice filled drinks first, the shorter drinks next, and the martinis last.  A long drink can sit at the bar for longer before it is unservable than a martini, which begins to warm immediately.

Secure Payment Immediately

Secure the payment as soon as possible. It is perfectly polite to ask, ‘Will you be running a tab?’, and if the answer is no, hand over the bill.

Check back on the guest and talk

Are their glasses getting empty? Do they want another drink? How did they like your recommendation? They will be pleasantly surprised. Create a friendly atmosphere, talk to the guests. Talk to them about drinks. Keep an eye on their drinks. Friendliness and conversation are welcome from a Bartender, but avoid long, involved conversations with guests that may interfere with service to other guests.


bartending FAQ


Be thoughtful and proactive

Look after customers who have little spillages. If someone is looking around obviously, find out if they are looking for the loos and point them out. Pour wine or Champagne ordered by the bottle; don’t let customers pull wet bottles out of their ice bucket, covering the bar and themselves with water.

Offer food

Know what’s on the food menu. Up-sell food, that’s what the food menu is there for. Use it. A bar is most often than not just a place to drink in. People will be able to drink more once they have eaten something.

Be Clean

Constantly check up on the state of the bar area. Check for spillages, dirty ashtrays outside, coasters, straws, napkins, empty beer bottles etc. No customer wants to put their elbows into a patch of spilt beer. Take away empty bottles and wipe at the same time. No more than one cigarette butt in an ashtray. Build it into your bartending behaviour; clean the bar top at every available opportunity.

Work as a team

Your bar team is more than just a collection of individuals. It is essential all bartenders, bar backs and floor tenders work as a team to provide an all-round service to the customer. It is pointless a bartender creating the most amazing looking and tasting cocktails if the customer then has to go and sit at a wet table with empty glasses on it.




Offer a sincere farewell 

“Cheers, thanks!”  Even if you’ve been busy and they don’t hear, someone else will. It’s the last thing they should remember about the bar they were in, and they will remember it was a friendly place.

Be as well presented as your drinks

Be clean. Look clean. Clean your fingernails. Guests don’t want orange peel flamed by someone with gunge under their nails. Pay attention to yourself.

Don’t serve the drunk, unruly or underage

If a guest is unruly or highly intoxicated, either upon entering the room or during the course of the evening, indicate this to your manager before offering an additional beverage service. Do not serve alcohol to persons under the legal age.  If you believe that a guest may not be old enough to drink, ask for identification.

Be helpful, be cool, take pride in who you are

You are here to turn difficult guests into friends, to make great drinks, to help people have a good time and even on occasion to teach people how to have a good time. Take pride in who you are and what you know.

All #bartenders need to read this! Click To Tweet


So what do you guys think? let us know below