Potatoes & Vodka
Vodka is made from any fermentable sugar. First and foremost to make alcohol you need a few things, sugar, yeast, and time. You really don’t even need much experience. It’s easy to make alcohol prisoners produce it in jail cells. It’s hard to make something everyone will want to drink. So why would you want to exclusively make a beverage out of a tasteless, odorless, tuber? Well according to federal regulations vodka is to be without distinctive character: Flavorless. Anybody that has had any vodka knows this doesn’t exist. These regulations are certainly younger than vodka or any alcohol for that matter. About 2800 years younger. The Chinese were distilling rice beer around 800 B.C. The regulation is no father to booze. Neither is the potato to vodka.
Distillation really didn’t take off until the 8th and 9th centuries. At this point in time the Alembic still was being used to produce what were considered perfumes, essential oils, and “medicines”. It is a useful tool for the production of flavorful spirits but requires several runs to produce what we currently consider vodka. What we currently consider vodka is not what its started as. The Russians were certainly aware of distilled spirits due to Genoese Ambassadors gifting some to Grand Duke Dmitry Donskoy in 1386. Poland recorded the word wódka for the first time in 1405 in reference to compounds such as medicine and cosmetics. Going back to Russia in 1533 there is the first mention of “Zhiznennia Voda” or water of life. Both Eastern Europe and Russia can lay claim to both the root of the word and its evolution. What they couldn’t claim at this time was the potato.
The potato comes from the Columbian Exchange named after Christopher Columbus. Following his 1492 expedition a great deal of trade erupted between the new world and the old. Columbus didn’t bring back the potato. It was another Spanish investment that accomplished this. Enter Pizarro and the Conquistadors on their 1532 voyage to Peru to capture the Incan empire. They wanted the gold but blinded by this greed the overlooked a more valuable resource, the potato. This tuber is rich with just about every vital nutrient for survival with the exception of calcium and vitamins A & D. It can be grown in most any habitat and provide more calories with the least effort. Due to easy storage and shelf life the sailors were the first to adopt it. It wasn’t until 1570 that it made its way to Spain as a curiosity for the well to do gardens of the elite.
While the masses find it only fit for livestock feed at first. Believing something that grew underground, was inherently misshapen, resembled plants in the nightshade family, and had no mention in the Bible obviously was the Devil’s apple. The potato spreads slowly across Europe throughout the next 200 years due in part to its appeal as a curiosity for the wealthy, fodder, and a last defense against starvation. The Little Ice Age was tightening its grip on Europe. Winters grew longer abbreviating the growing season and robbing the soil of its previously rich bounty. Cereal crops were struggling to grow, grain prices were rising, and the population declining. Religion, faith, or famine became the question. That Devil’s apple began to look good.
In the later half of the 17th century John III Sobieski King of Poland (1674–96) introduces a crop new to his people known initially as Amerykany (from "America".) A century after the Europe’s introduction to the potato it reaches vodka country. It is still some time before it reaches vodka. The King may have some say in the country’s affairs but the largest ruling class, the Landed Gentry, had Propination Privilege. These were a series of privileges granted to the ruling class and included the exclusive right to alcohol sales. After a long day of farming your only choice in taverns was the one provided by your landlord and your only choice in drink was whatever he saw fit to produce. What he produced was from what was grown on the largest scale, grain.
Several events needed to happen before potatoes could be commercially used for alcohol production. First and foremost it needed to be cultivated on a large scale as opposed to a garden crop. Meaning the landed Gentry needed to require its cultivation. Also distillation apparatus needed improvements to handle the mash. Neither would arise for a century.
It isn’t until the end of the 18th century we see potatoes rise to the prominence of field crops. And at this time a German, Johann Pistorius (1777-1858) receives a patent on a new distillation apparatus. His improvements solved many problems of the alembic still. Essentially Pistorius gave us the double still. With preheating, interior agitation, and multiple distillations running concurrently larger yields of a higher proof spirit in less time became reality. A spirit boom hit shortly thereafter in the 1820’s. Propination privilege was there to ensure you participated with annual purchase quotas. They even ensured the teetotaler wasn’t left out by providing them the option of still charging you while it was dumped in your yard.
Vodka’s story really starts like this “an Arab, German, Polack, and Spaniard walk into a bar.” I haven’t forgotten about the Russian, he’s already in the bar. Vodka’s origins are rooted in anything but potatoes. However it’s nation of origin has yet to be settled.