Early History of Vodka

Vodka is the best selling spirit in the US, which is odd because it’s considered to be a “neutral” spirit. It has no distinct color, smell, flavor or anything like that. There’s nothing unique about it. But how did vodka become popular, and what is the deal with all these flavored vodkas that groups like Premier are putting out?

First, and most interesting, the standards of vodka differ between the United States and European Union. For instance, in the US, Vodka is a spirit distilled at about 95% ABV and bottled at a minimum of 40%. In the EU, the only standard is that it be bottled at 37.5% minimum ABV. The EU standards explicitly allow for flavoring.

Now, Vodka wasn’t brought to the US until the 1930s by the Hueblein Co. Hueblein had purchased Pyoter Smirnov’s company (a different spelling of his last name, Smirnoff) and had begun advertising the Moscow Mule cocktail to help it gain traction in the States. However, the drink didn’t become truly universal until 1962’s Dr. No which saw Sean Connery’s James Bond ordered a martini “Shaken, not stirred."

Smirnoff, unsurprisingly has been the industry leader. However, there was a bit of legal trouble for the company when the great-grandsons of Pyoter Smirnov started their own vodka business and wanted the family name. Smirnoff’s new parent company UDV, fought the Smirnov offspring in 1991 and went to the Russian patent agency in 1996. The main lawsuit was dismissed in 2004, and Smirnoff has held onto the name ever since, despite several smaller challengers.

Flavored vodka, whose popularity is kind of difficult to explain, actually has some deep origins as well. Mixes of spices, honey, herbs etc, were used to cover the overwhelming taste of the earliest vodkas, but they eventually became popular in their own right. The standards between the US and EU differ a bit more with flavored vodkas than the regular kind. For instnace, in the US, the minimum ABV is a bit lower at 30%, only natural flavoring can be used, and it must be labeled with the main flavor as part of the name, let’s say, “Cotton-candy flavored vodka” (Yes, that is a thing. Don’t ask. Some people like it.)  Meanwhile, the EU standards hold close to their unflavored counterparts. Flavored vodka can be sweetened, matured or even colored. It can still only be bottled at 37.5% ABV minimum. So, there you have it. ENJOY!

Jill Kummer