What’s in a Vodka? Juniper Berry Vodkas and the History of Distilling in Early Modern Russia

A sick man in Russia who thinks he is being helped to walk by a cigarette and a vodka bottle, whereas they are really false friends who are hindering him.
Anti-vodka poster WikiCommons

Clare Griffin

Vodka and Russia seem to always go together. To find images to accompany my posts for The Recipes Project, and for Powerpoint presentations, I search image databases. On such sites, the key word ‘Russia’ inevitably brings up images of vodka bottles, advertisements for vodka, and posters warning about the dangers of drinking vodka. So, it seems appropriate to talk about vodka, and what that term really means, in the context of the early modern period.

The vodkas we are now familiar with, that we find in supermarkets, our homes and, *cough* offices, are grain or potato based. Immediately we can see a problem. Potatoes are New World products, introduced to Europe in the early modern period. They were introduced to Russia by Peter the Great. Some Russians were suspicious of this new plant, with the Old Believer sect claiming that they were the original ‘forbidden fruit’ that caused the Fall.

Excercise is health! From http://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/ihm/
Excercise is health!
From http://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/ihm/

Some of the best documents for vodka production in early modern Russia come from the seventeenth-century court medical department, the Apothecary Chancery. The ‘vodka’ that department made was distilled waters of juniper berries, to be used in medicine. For the Apothecary Chancery, the terms vodka and spirit were interchangeable, and were used to mean any distilled alcohol.

Juniper Berries
Juniper Berries From http://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/ihm/

Archbishop Afanasii of Kholmogory, who corresponded with the Apothecary Chancery, reccomended the following recipe for Juniper spirit in 1696:

Take juniper berries, pound them, and pour water or beer over them, heat the mixture, but not too hot, and put it in a wooden vessel, so that the mixture does not become too fluid, add hops, and leave it to sour for two weeks. When it has soured, distill it and you will get arak, then add a few more berries, distill it again and you will have spirit.

Today, we would call a distilled spirit made with juniper berries Gin. Even in Russian, we use the same term, or more or less: Dzhin, familiar from the omni-present (and awful) pre-mixed cans of Dzhin-tonik. The term Gin/Dzhin comes from the sixteenth-century Dutch name for a juniper-based or -flavoured spirit, genever. Apparently, that term entered the Russian language sometime after the seventeenth century. An early modern Russian would have no idea what a Dzhin-tonik is.

 Map of Russia
Map of Russia Wellcome Images

But why call a juniper berry alcohol vodka? For the answer to this, we have to look at what we know of the history of distilling in the East Slavic lands (distilling elsewhere in early modern Europe has already been discussed several times on The Recipes Project). Although much less attention has been devoted to making vodkas than to drinking them, we do know something about that history. Aqua vitae was brought to Lithuania, and later to Kiev, by Western European merchants in the medieval period. The word ‘aqua’, may well be the origin of the term ‘vodka’, which means little water. Today we use the term vodka to mean only a certain type of – distinctly Eastern European – distilled alcohol. In early modern Russia it had a much broader meaning.

So, if a seventeenth-century Russian ended up in a twenty-first century Russian supermarket – like Ivan the Terrible ended up in 1970s Moscow in the classic Soviet comedy Ivan Vasilievich Changes His Profession – they might be rather confused. The alcohol labelled as vodka would likely be made from a plant they had never known, let alone consumed. The alcohol they might recognise by taste as similar to their own juniper berry vodkas would be labelled by a word they did not recognise.

Ivan Vasilievich Changes His Profession WikiCommons
Ivan Vasilievich Changes His Profession
WikiCommons
Quinine Plant Wellcome Images
Quinine Plant
Wellcome Images

The now standard mixer for Gin – tonic – would also be unfamiliar to our seventeenth-century Russian. Tonic water is made from quinine, an extract of the Cinchona tree. Cinchona was brought to Europe from the Americas. It was in stock in the Apothecary Chancery by the middle of the seventeenth century, but not as a drinks mixer. Quinine was long used as an anti-malarial drug. British colonial administrators in the nineteenth century preferred to mix their medicine as a refreshing drink, creating Gin and Tonic.

Today, more effective, but less iconic treatments for malaria are used. Tonic water has passed out of medicine and into recreation. So, with the shifting of trade networks, medical categories and names, our confused seventeenth-century Russian in our modern Russian supermarket can see vodka, and juniper berry spirit, but might not recognise either.

 

 

 


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