The Puzzling Origins Of Vodka

America may be the land of "whiskey and rye" in the eyes of Don McLean, but the nation's favorite spirit is one you probably associate with Eastern Europe. According to CNBC, vodka has been the top-selling liquor in the U.S. since the 1970s. In fact, data from Statista reveals that the two best-selling spirit brands in the U.S. are vodka makers Tito's and Smirnoff. 

Vodka is also one of the simplest spirits because it doesn't have to follow a strict formula. According to LiveScience, vodka can be made from anything containing sugar or starch, and while many people associate it with potatoes, vodka is commonly made from a wide array of grains, including sorghum, wheat, rye, corn, and rice. The lack of specifics regarding vodka's production has been a key factor in growing its popularity, but it also adds to the vagueness of this liquor's origin. While many details of vodka's past are shrouded in mystery, we do know that it's played a role in some of world history's most significant events.

Nobody knows exactly when or where vodka was invented

The geographical origins of vodka are hotly contested with two countries laying claim to its invention. According to Britannica, vodka originated in either Russia or Poland. It is widely believed that vodka comes from the eighth or ninth century, though the exact timeline is also unclear. One thing we do know is that the word 'vodka' is derived from the Russian 'voda,' which means 'water', per Britannica. 

Prominent vodka producer Grey Goose suggests that vodka owes its existence to the freezing cold winters of Eastern Europe. People would make wine or beer with relatively low alcohol content, then leave it outside overnight. The water within the spirit would freeze and float to the top, revealing concentrated alcohol beneath the surface. This process could be repeated over and over until the liquid reached a concentration of 25-35% ABV.

The major issue with this method is that it left many impurities in the liquor, and it was necessary to add fruits, herbs, or honey to mask the bad taste. 

Wars and prohibition made vodka an international sensation

As we noted earlier, vodka has international appeal, being America's favorite spirit, but according to Britannica, it was largely unknown outside of Russia, Poland, and the Balkans all the way up to the 20th century. It would take two violent conflicts — World War I and the Russian Revolution — to turn vodka into a global commodity. For centuries, the Russian tsar held a total monopoly on vodka production, and Time magazine reports that a third of the state revenue once came from government sales of vodka. This changed when a temperance movement swept the nation in the early 1900s, convincing Tsar Nicholas II to enact prohibition in 1914. 

To make up for lost income, the government started printing more money, leading to an inflation crisis. This, combined with Russia's heavy losses in World War I, was instrumental in sparking the Russian Revolution of 1917, per Grey Goose. Many wealthy people left the country, and Grey Goose credits them with spreading vodka to other European nations. When Prohibition came to the U.S., many bartenders sought new jobs in Europe, where they discovered vodka and its versatile use in cocktails. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, many bartenders returned to America, armed with vodka and a newfound interest in mixology.