What do Russian vodka and the design of the Periodic Table of Elements have in common? At the end of the 19th century, Dmitri Mendeleev, a Russian chemist and inventor better known for creating the first version of the table and predicting properties of undiscovered elements, made significant innovations in modern vodka distillation. He discovered that vodka was at its best when exactly 40% ABV, and his formula for perfect distillation is still used to this day.
Scientists haven’t been the only people fascinated with vodka. Since the 18th century, vodka has represented a third of Russia’s national income, and the government has stayed involved. Taxes on the distillate have financed police forces, czars, and wars. Those who have tried to limit consumption – including Nicholas II, Leon Trotski, and Mikhail Gorbachev – have all failed in their attempts. During the Soviet Union, the government took control of all distilleries, and owners were forced to flee or face their lives. Vodka, which can legally be made from more than just grain and potatoes, but also molasses and grapes, has also been a staple for Russian citizens, many of whom have perfected making the distillate on their kitchen stove.
Hailed as the most tasteless and odorless of distillates, vodka is the second most consumed spirit in the world and a staple of most American bars. Still, the spirit has been falling out of favor in some circles for its lack of flavor and association with binge drinking and sugary concoctions. While vodka has unfortunately fallen victim to artificial additives and gimmicky drinking campaigns, enthusiasts will attest that the pure distillate has much to appreciate; it is just a matter of the approach when sipping. Unlike most beverages where attention is paid to the taste and how it evolves on the palate (largely due to the paradigm set by wine tastings), vodka should be appreciated for its character, a term used to describe the distinct sensation aroused in the mouth.
Traditionally Served: Current temperature in Siberia, in a copper cup, or mixed in a Moscow Mule.
“We don’t want donuts; bring us a whole sheep, and plenty of vodka, not vodka with all sorts of fancies, but pure, foaming vodka that hisses and bubbles like mad.”
— Nikolai Gogol, Russian Novelist