AskDefine | Define vodka

Dictionary Definition

vodka n : unaged colorless liquor originating in Russia

User Contributed Dictionary



  • /ˈvɒdkə/


Slavic voda, woda, meaning water, plus the diminutive suffix -ka. Historical documentary research of V. Pokhlyobkin suggests the derivation via the usage "dilution (of distillate) with water", as used in expressions "vodka of grain wine" and similar; grain wine (хлебное вино) is an archaic Russian name for vodka.


  1. A clear distilled alcoholic liquor made from grain mash.
  2. A serving of the above beverage.


clear distilled alcoholic liquor






voda (water) + -ka (diminutive suffix), or little water


vodky pl
vodk stem

Derived terms

Extensive Definition

Vodka is one of the world's most popular distilled beverages. It is a clear liquid containing water and ethanol purified by distillation — often multiple distillation — from a fermented substance such as potatoes, grain or sugar beet molasses, and an insignificant amount of other substances such as flavorings or unintended impurities.
Vodka usually has an alcohol content of 35% to 50% by volume. The classic Russian, Lithuanian and Polish vodka is 40% (80 proof). This can be attributed to the Russian standards for vodka production introduced in 1894 by Alexander III. According to the Vodka Museum in Moscow, Dmitri Mendeleev, a Russian chemist, found the perfect percentage to be 38. However, since spirits in his time were taxed on their strength, the percentage was rounded up to 40 to simplify the tax computation. At strengths less than this, vodka drunk neat (without ice and not mixed with other liquids) can taste "watery": above this strength, the taste of vodka can have more "burn". Some governments set a minimum alcohol content for a spirit to be called "vodka". For example, the European Union sets a minimum of 37.5% alcohol by volume.
Although vodka is traditionally drunk neat in the Eastern European and Nordic countries of the "Vodka Belt", its popularity elsewhere owes much to its usefulness in cocktails and other mixed drinks, such as the Bloody Mary, the Screwdriver, the vodka tonic, and the vodka martini.


The origins of vodka (and of its name) cannot be traced definitively, but it is believed to have originated in the grain-growing region that now embraces Poland, Belarus, Lithuania, Ukraine, and western Russia. It also has a long tradition in Scandinavia.
The word is a diminutive of "water" (voda, woda, вода) in some Slavic languages (such as Upper Sorbian), although it is not clear whether this is related to vodka.
The word can be found in the court documents from Sandomierz Voivodship in Poland dating to 1405 and 1537. At these times the word referred to medicines and cosmetics. A number of Russian pharmaceutical lists contain the terms "vodka of bread wine" (водка хлебного вина) and "vodka in half of bread wine" (водка полу хлебного вина). As alcohol had long been used as a basis for medicines, this implies that the term vodka could be a noun derived from the verb vodit’, razvodit’ (водить, разводить), "to dilute with water".
Bread wine was a spirit distilled from alcohol made from grain (as opposed to grape wine) and hence "vodka of bread wine" would be a water dilution of a distilled grain spirit.
While the word could be found in manuscripts and in lubok (лубок, pictures with text explaining the plot, a Russian predecessor of the comic), it began to appear in Russian dictionaries in the mid-19th century.
Another possible connection for "vodka" with "water" is the name of the medieval alcoholic beverage aqua vitae (Latin, literally, "water of life"), which is reflected in Polish "okowita", Ukrainian оковита, or Belarusian акавіта.
Peoples in the area of vodka's probable origin have names for vodka with roots meaning "to burn": Samogitian: degtėnė; Polish: gorzałka; Ukrainian: горілка, horilka; Belarusian: гарэлка, harelka; Lithuanian: degtinė (a Slavicism arielka, is also in use, colloquially and in proverbs); Latvian: degvīns; Finnish: paloviina. In Russian during 17th and 18th century горящее вино (goryashchee vino, "burning wine") was widely used. Compare to Danish; brændevin; Dutch: brandewijn; Swedish: brännvin; Norwegian: Brennevin (although the latter terms refer to any strong alcoholic beverage).
Another Slavic/Baltic archaic term for hard liquors was "green wine" (Russian: zeleno vino, Lithuanian: žalias vynas).


For many centuries beverages contained little alcohol. It is estimated that the maximum amount was about 14% as only this amount is reachable by means of natural fermentation. The still allowing for distillation – “the burning of wine” – was invented in the 8th century.


In Poland, vodka (), has been produced since the early Middle Ages.
These early spirits were used as medicines. Stefan Falimierz asserted in his 1534 works on herbs that vodka could serve "to increase fertility and awaken lust". Wódka lub gorzała (1614), by Jerzy Potański, contains valuable information on the production of vodka. Jakub Kazimierz Haur, in his book Skład albo skarbiec znakomitych sekretów ekonomiej ziemiańskiej (A Treasury of Excellent Secrets about Landed Gentry's Economy, Kraków, 1693), gave detailed recipes for making vodka from rye.
Some Polish vodka blends go back centuries. Most notable are Żubrówka, from about the 16th century; Goldwasser, from the early 17th; and aged Starka vodka, from the 16th. In the mid-17th century, the szlachta (nobility) were granted a monopoly on producing and selling vodka in their territories. This privilege was a source of substantial profits. One of the most famous distilleries of the aristocracy was established by Princess Lubomirska and later operated by her grandson, Count Alfred Wojciech Potocki. The Vodka Industry Museum, now housed at the headquarters of Count Potocki's distillery, has an original document attesting that the distillery already existed in 1784. Today it operates as "Polmos Łańcut."
Large-scale vodka production began in Poland at the end of the 16th century, initially at Kraków, whence spirits were exported to Silesia before 1550. Silesian cities also bought vodka from Poznań, a city that in 1580 had 498 working spirits distilleries. Soon, however, Gdańsk outpaced both these cities. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Polish vodka was known in the Netherlands, Denmark, England, Russia, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Moldavia, Ukraine and the Black Sea basin.
Early production methods were primitive. The beverage was usually low-proof, and the distillation process had to be repeated several times (a three-stage distillation process was common). The first distillate was called "brantówka," the second — "szumówka," the third — "okowita" (from "aqua vitae"), which generally contained 70–80% alcohol by volume. Then the beverage was watered down, yielding a simple vodka (30–35%), or a stronger one if the watering was done using an alembic. The exact production methods were described in 1768 by Jan Paweł Biretowski and in 1774 by Jan Chryzostom Simon. The beginning of the 19th century inaugurated the production of potato vodka, which immediately revolutionized the market.
The end of the 18th century marked the start of the vodka industry in Poland (Poland was part of Russian empire at that time). Vodkas produced by szlachta and clergy became a mass product. The first industrial distillery was opened in 1782 in Lwów by Jan Baczewski. He was soon followed by Jakub Haberfeld, who in 1804 established a factory at Oświęcim, and by Hartwig Kantorowicz (1823) at Poznań. The implementation of new technologies in the second half of the 19th century, which allowed the production of clear vodkas, contributed to their success. The first rectification distillery was established in 1871. In 1925 the production of clear vodkas was made a Polish government monopoly.
After World War II, all vodka distilleries were taken over by Poland's communist government. During the 1980s, the sale of vodka was rationed. After the victory of the Solidarity movement, all distilleries were privatized, leading to an explosion of brands.


A drink similar to modern vodka first appeared probably sometime in the period 950-1100 AD. It was not originally called vodka — instead, the term bread wine (хлебное вино; khlebnoye vino) was used. Until mid-18th century, it remained relatively low on alcohol content, not exceeding 40% by volume. It was mostly sold in taverns and was quite expensive: in 17th century, a keg (12 litres) of bread wine was estimated to cost as much as one and a half or two cows. At the same time, the word vodka was already in use, but it described herbal tinctures (similar to absinthe), containing up to 75% by volume alcohol, and made for medicinal purposes.
The first written usage of the word vodka in an official Russian document in its modern meaning is dated by the decree of Empress Elizabeth of June 8, 1751, which regulated the ownership of vodka distilleries. The taxes on vodka became a key element of government finances in Tsarist Russia, providing at times up to 40% of state revenue. By the 1860s, due to the government policy of promoting consumption of state-manufactured vodka, it became the drink of choice for many Russians. In 1863, the government monopoly on vodka production was repealed, causing prices to plummet and making vodka available even to low-income citizens. By 1911, vodka comprised 89% of all alcohol consumed in Russia. This level has fluctuated somewhat during the 20th century, but remained quite high at all times. The most recent estimates put it at 70% (2001).


Horilka (Ukrainian: горілка) is the Ukrainian term for "vodka". Horilka may also be used in a generic sense in the Ukrainian language to mean moonshine, whisky or other strong spirits. Among East Slavic peoples, the term horilka is used to stress the Ukrainian origin of a vodka, for example, in Nikolai Gogol's historic novel Taras Bulba: "and bring us a lot of horilka, but not of that fancy kind with raisins, or with any other such things—bring us horilka of the purest kind, give us that demon drink that makes us merry, playful and wild!". the latter not typical of vodkas of other origins. Some claim that horilka is considered stronger and spicier than typical Russian vodka.


Vodka is now one of the world's most popular spirits. It was rarely consumed outside Europe before the 1950s. By 1975, vodka sales in the United States overtook those of bourbon, previously the most popular hard liquor and the native spirit of that country. In the second half of the 20th century, vodka owed its popularity in part to its reputation as an alcoholic beverage that "leaves you breathless", as one ad put it — no smell of liquor remains detectable on the breath, and its neutral flavor allows it to be mixed into a wide variety of drinks, often replacing other liquors (particularly Gin) in traditional drinks, such as the Martini.
According to The Penguin Book of Spirits and Liqueurs, "Its low level of fusel oils and congenerics — impurities that flavour spirits but that can contribute to the after-effects of heavy consumption — led to its being considered among the 'safer' spirits, though not in terms of its powers of intoxication, which, depending on strength, may be considerable."
Russian culinary author William Pokhlebkin compiled a history of the production of vodka in Russia during the late 1970s as part of the Soviet case in a trade dispute; this was later published as A History of Vodka. Pokhlebkin claimed that while there was a wealth of publications about the history of consumption and distribution of vodka, virtually nothing had been written about vodka production. Among his assertions were that the word "vodka" was used in popular speech in Russia considerably earlier than the middle of the 18th century, but the word did not appear in print until the 1860s.


Vodka may be distilled from any starch/sugar-rich plant matter; most vodka today is produced from grains such as sorghum, corn, rye or wheat. Among grain vodkas, rye and wheat vodkas are generally considered superior. Some vodka is made from potatoes, molasses, soybeans, grapes, sugar beets and sometimes even byproducts of oil refining or wood pulp processing. In some Central European countries like Poland some vodka is produced by just fermenting a solution of crystal sugar and yeast. In the European Union there are talks about the standardization of vodka, however, the Vodka Belt countries insist that only spirits produced from grains, potato and sugar beet molasses be allowed to be branded as "vodka", following the traditional methods of production.

Distilling and filtering

A common property of vodkas produced in the USA and Europe is the extensive use of filtration prior to any additional processing, such as the addition of flavourants. Filtering is sometimes done in the still during distillation, as well as afterward, where the distilled vodka is filtered through charcoal and other media. This is because under U.S. and European law vodka must not have any distinctive aroma, character, colour or flavour. However, this is not the case in the traditional vodka producing nations, so many distillers from these countries prefer to use very accurate distillation but minimal filtering, thus preserving the unique flavours and characteristics of their products.
The "stillmaster" is the person in charge of distilling the vodka and directing its filtration. When done correctly, much of the "fore-shots" and "heads" and the "tails" separated in distillation process are discarded. These portions of the distillate contain flavour compounds such as ethyl acetate and ethyl lactate (heads) as well as the fusel oils (tails) that alter the clean taste of vodka. Through numerous rounds of distillation, or the use of a fractioning still, the taste of the vodka is improved and its clarity is enhanced. In some distilled liquors such as rum and baijiu, some of the heads and tails are not removed in order to give the liquor its unique flavour and mouth-feel.
Repeated distillation of vodka will make its ethanol level much higher than legally allowed. Depending on the distillation method and the technique of the stillmaster, the final filtered and distilled vodka may have as much as 95-96% ethanol. As such, most vodka is diluted with water prior to bottling. This level of distillation is what truly separates a rye-based vodka (for example) from a rye whisky; while the whisky is generally only distilled down to its final alcohol content, vodka is distilled until it is almost totally pure alcohol and then cut with water to give it its final alcohol content and unique flavour, depending on the source of the water.


Apart from the alcoholic content, vodkas may be classified into two main groups: clear vodkas and flavoured vodkas. From the latter ones, one can separate bitter tinctures, such as Russian Yubileynaya (anniversary vodka) and Pertsovka (pepper vodka).
While most vodkas are unflavoured, many flavoured vodkas have been produced in traditional vodka-drinking areas, often as home-made recipes to improve vodka's taste or for medicinal purposes. Flavourings include red pepper, ginger, fruit flavours, vanilla, chocolate (without sweetener), and cinnamon. Ukrainians produce a commercial vodka that includes St John's Wort. Poles and Belarusians add the leaves of the local bison grass to produce Żubrówka (Polish) and Zubrovka (Belarusian) vodka, with slightly sweet flavour and light amber colour. In Ukraine and Russia, vodka flavoured with honey and pepper (Pertsovka, in Russian, Z pertsem, in Ukrainian) is also very popular. In Poland, a famous vodka containing honey is called krupnik.
This tradition of flavouring is also prevalent in the Nordic countries, where vodka seasoned with herbs, fruits and spices is the appropriate strong drink for midsummer seasonal festivities. In Sweden, there are forty-odd common varieties of herb-flavoured vodka (kryddat brännvin). In Poland there is a separate category, nalewka, for vodka-based spirits with fruit, root, flower, or herb extracts, which are often home-made or produced by small commercial distilleries. Its alcohol content is between 15 to 75%.
The Poles make a very pure (95%, 190 proof) rectified spirit (Polish language: spirytus rektyfikowany). Technically a form of vodka, it is sold in liquor stores, not pharmacies. Similarly, the German market often carries German, Hungarian, Polish, and Ukrainian-made varieties of vodka of 90 to 95% alcohol content. A Bulgarian vodka, Balkan 176°, is 88% alcohol.

Other processing

Due to the low freezing point of alcohol, vodka can be stored in ice or a freezer without any crystallization of water. In countries where alcohol levels are generally low (the USA for example, due to alcohol taxes varying with alcohol content), individuals sometimes increase the alcohol percentage by a form of freeze distillation.
This is done by placing the vodka in an open vessel (bowl, etc) in the freezer, and then after it has reached a temperature below the freezing point of water, adding ice cubes, to which the free water within the vodka will crystallize, leaving a higher alcohol concentration behind.

Vodka and the EU

The recent success of grape-based vodka in the United States has prompted traditional vodka producers in the Vodka Belt countries of Finland, Lithuania, Poland and Sweden to campaign for EU legislation that will categorize only spirits made from grain or potatoes as "Vodka" rather than spirits made from any ethyl alcohol (provided, for example, by apples and grapes).


Vodka consumed in sufficient amounts can be lethal as can any alcoholic beverage and can cause dehydration, digestive irritation, and other symptoms associated with a hangover. These are inherent properties of ethanol, even if to a lesser degree than the methanol, fusel oils, and other alcohols which are absent in pure vodka.
In some countries black-market vodka or "bathtub" vodka is widespread because it can be produced easily and avoid taxation. However, severe poisoning, blindness, or death can occur as a result of dangerous industrial ethanol substitutes being added by black-market producers. In March 2007, BBC News UK made a documentary to find the cause of severe jaundice among imbibers of the "bathtub" vodka. The cause was found to be an industrial disinfectant (Extrasept) added to the vodka by the illegal distillers because of its high alcohol content and low price of acquisition. Death toll estimates list at least 120 dead and more than 1,000 poisoned. The death toll is expected to rise due to the chronic nature of the cirrhosis that was causing the jaundice.
According to authoritative sources, many people have said that vodka has in many cases been known to also frequently be the drink of choice for alcoholics in the majority of some of the parts of Central and Eastern Europe, mainly due to its relatively high alcohol content, relatively low price, and the relative unavailability of neutral grain spirits throughout regions included within these areas.

See also

Further reading

  • Begg, Desmond. The Vodka Companion: A Connoisseur's Guide. Running: 1998. ISBN 0-7624-0252-0.
  • Pokhlebkin, William and Clarke, Renfrey (translator). A History of Vodka. Verso: 1992. ISBN 0-86091-359-7.
  • Delos, Gilbert. Vodkas of the World. Wellfleet: 1998. ISBN 0-7858-1018-8.
  • Lingwood, William, and Ian Wisniewski. Vodka: Discovering, Exploring, Enjoying. Ryland, Peters, & Small: 2003. ISBN 1-84172-506-4.
  • Price, Pamela Vandyke. The Penguin Book of Spirits and Liqueurs. Penguin Books, 1980. Chapter 8 is devoted to vodka.
  • Broom, Dave. Complete Book of Spirits and Cocktails, Carlton Books Ltd: 1998. ISBN 1-85868-485-4
  • Faith, Nicholas and Ian Wisniewski Classic Vodka, Prion Books Ltd.: 1977. ISBN 1-85375-234-7
  • Rogala, Jan. Gorzałka czyli historia i zasady wypalania mocnych trunków, Baobab: 2004. ISBN 83-89642-70-0


vodka in Arabic: فودكا (مشروب كحولي)
vodka in Azerbaijani: Araq
vodka in Belarusian: Гарэлка
vodka in Belarusian (Tarashkevitsa): Гарэлка
vodka in Bulgarian: Водка
vodka in Catalan: Vodka
vodka in Czech: Vodka
vodka in Welsh: Fodca
vodka in Danish: Vodka
vodka in German: Wodka
vodka in Estonian: Viin (jook)
vodka in Modern Greek (1453-): Βότκα
vodka in Spanish: Vodka
vodka in Esperanto: Vodko
vodka in Persian: ودکا
vodka in Faroese: Vodka
vodka in French: Vodka
vodka in Korean: 보드카
vodka in Croatian: Vodka
vodka in Indonesian: Vodka
vodka in Icelandic: Vodka
vodka in Italian: Vodka
vodka in Hebrew: וודקה
vodka in Georgian: არაყი
vodka in Latin: Vodca
vodka in Latvian: Degvīns
vodka in Luxembourgish: Wodka
vodka in Lithuanian: Degtinė
vodka in Hungarian: Vodka
vodka in Malay (macrolanguage): Vodka
vodka in Dutch: Wodka
vodka in Japanese: ウォッカ
vodka in Norwegian: Vodka
vodka in Polish: Wódka
vodka in Portuguese: Vodca
vodka in Kölsch: Wodka
vodka in Russian: Водка
vodka in Simple English: Vodka
vodka in Slovak: Vodka
vodka in Slovenian: Vodka
vodka in Serbian: Вотка
vodka in Finnish: Votka
vodka in Swedish: Vodka
vodka in Thai: วอดก้า
vodka in Turkish: Votka
vodka in Ukrainian: Горілка
vodka in Chinese: 伏特加
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