There is a lot of debate surrounding where the magical elixir (now known around the world as vodka) originated. Though many will agree that no matter where this pure essence was born it is still one of the world’s most popular spirits.
In Poland, the name for this remarkable drink is 'wódka', and 'vodka' in Russian which translates to 'little water', with the origin for both names stemming from each country's respective words for 'water' (woda in Polish, voda in Russian). The Russian name is the one which has stuck in the English language, most likely due to it being easier to pronounce.
There is very little documented evidence regarding the origins of vodka, some sources claim vodka was created in Poland during the 8th Century, others state that it was Russia during the 9th Century. It is interesting to note that the spirit produced during these times were considerably lower in alcohol content than what is currently on the market today. This is due to the fact that early distillation methods were quite rudimentary compared to the modern methods employed today. It is also important to note that early vodka, while lower in alcohol also had a similar tasting profile to that of brandy and it is often claimed as being the early origins of vodka.
The art of distillation was created by Arab scholars during the 8th Century and it is here that the origin of the word ‘alcohol’ comes from ‘al-kuhl’. In its early beginnings alcohol was used solely for medicinal purposes and it was these travelling scholars who brought these distillation techniques to Europe through Iberia. The technique then spread to Italy then the rest of Europe in the 15th Century through Benedictines, Cistercians and merchants.
As for Poland’s involvement, the original word for vodka is ‘gorzałka’, a term still in use today, which can be translated as ‘burning water’, this emphasises the spicy and bitter taste often associated with vodka. The term is first mentioned in a document called ‘Akta Grodzkie’ (recorder of deeds) from the Palatine of Sandomierz from 1405, which precedes any documented mention of ‘vodka’ as we know it today. Gorzałka was often used in Poland due to its original medicinal use for treating wounds, illnesses etc. and was more than likely used to treat patients during this time as the black death spread throughout Europe.
It was not long after this time that the first mention of this ‘fire water’ in Russia was found in 1533, detailing import from Poland by merchants for medical use. It was in 1534 ‘gorzałka’ is again mentioned in official documents. It soon appeared around this time where people began to drink gorzałka for pleasure.
During the 18th Century it is difficult to find any mention of Russian ‘vodka’ specifically, as a decree was implemented by Empress Catherine I in 1751 and regulated the ownership of all vodka distilleries claiming it was healthier for the people to drink vodka from approved distillers rather than “unhealthy native drinks”. You can now see why Poles are proud of their claims as being the first to manufacture vodka as their national drink - and by a good few hundred years!
The Russian’s were further regulated in 1882, where Czar Alexander III decreed that only the Czar himself had the technology to produce true vodka seized control of all production. It was initially thought it was a way to raise money, but it was actually a way to control the increased level of alcohol abuse across Imperial Russia. The funds raised were given to the newly established Guardianships of Public Sobriety in each province to combat Russia’s enormous alcohol problem.
Poland during this time was constantly under attack from all sides of its borders and for almost 120 years the country didn’t exist at all. But this still did not keep the tradition of distilling vodka down, with many parts of partitioned Poland being able to build something very special. With some of its more famous brands including Chopin, Belvedere, J.A Baczewski, and Wyborowa.
Vodka is a fascinating drink with an equally fascinating history, so it is with no surprise both Poland and Russia claim it as their own. The truth is, there will never be a concise answer to whether vodka is a purely Polish or Russian creation with so very little in terms of documented evidence available of its origins. With this in mind we can safely say the tradition of making 'wódka' (gorzałka) originated in Poland before it ever made an appearance in Russia, however, the true origin is most likely regional with its popularity spreading across central and eastern Europe.
We are sure you will agree that the world’s best vodka originates from the fertile fields of Poland. And as actor Hugh Laurie stated on Twitter: “Yes, alright, Russian vodka is OK if you need to clean the oven. For drinking, it must henceforth be Polish.” Here, here!
Thanks to Destination City Guides in Your Pocket, Wikipedia and Britanica amongst other sources for the bulk of the information above.