“The relationship between a Russian and a bottle of vodka is almost mystical” (Richard Owen)
The word vodka first appears in English in 1780 in William Tooke’s translation of Russia: A complete historical account. This remarkable chronicle by the German botanist Johann Gottlieb Georgi offers detailed descriptions of Russia’s various states and ethnic groups, and it naturally includes a reference to the national drink. Georgi tells us that a kabak is “a public house for the common people to drink vodka”.
While vodka and Russia are linked as closely as a drink and a nation could ever be, it is sometimes claimed to be a Polish creation. The drink first appeared around 800 AD, with its name coming from the Russian or Polish word for water. Immediately popular not only as a social drink but also as a medicine and an aphrodisiac, by the early 20th century vodka accounted for almost 90% of all alcohol consumed in Russia. Nowadays that figure is 70%, and its manufacturers include some of the world’s most recognisable brand names. Smirnoff, Absolut and Belenkaya sold a combined volume of 43.6 million cases in 2012.
While true vodka lovers will usually drink it “straight”, no cocktail list is complete without such vodka-based drinks as Sex on the Beach (artfully mixed by Tom Cruise in Cocktail) and White Russian (the favourite drink of the Dude in The Big Lebowski). And it is impossible to imagine James Bond surviving a film without ordering at least one Vodka Martini.