Historians recount that the Muscovites didn’t think much of it. Aqua vitae, they agreed, might make a good medicine — topical or internal — if one were truly ill, but for drinking, they preferred their own, more labor-intensive homebrewed mead and beer.
It would take another century before monks in the Chudov Monastery in the Kremlin began to master the art of distilling grain alcohol. They found a savvy patron in Tsar Ivan III, who recognized in vodka a partial solution to his need to fill the national coffers. He instituted the first state monopoly on vodka in 1472, inaugurating a 500-year tug-of-war between the state and its thirsty citizens over vodka’s price, quality, quantity, access and distribution.
High vodka prices and restrictions on access to it often led to civil unrest in the uneasy 16th-century Time of Troubles. Russian nobles were granted the right to distill their own vodka on their estates by Catherine the Great, a nice perk they enjoyed for over 100 years, until the Abolition of Serfdom in 1861 paved the way for more commercially-minded vodka merchants such as Pyotr Smirnoff, who focused on making a purer version of vodka in safer working conditions, mindful of the concern that home-brew was known as a leading cause of illness and death among the lower classes. This is the era of Mendeleyev and his legendary 40 percent.
When revolution came in 1917, it did little to curb the national thirst for vodka. Production, distribution and sales were nationalized by the government. Vodka remained the cornerstone of every hatching, matching or dispatching, and all the celebration in between. And so it is today!
Jennifer Eremeeva is a longtime expat who writes about food, cuisine, history and travel. Follow her on Twitter @JWEremeeva.