Tag Archives: Clare Griffin

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
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.




How to Heal a Foreigner in Early Modern Russia

By Clare Griffin

One of the big questions for me when reading recipes is, did anyone actually use these? This is always a tricky point, especially when we consider the range of ‘recipes’ and recipe collections out there. One group of texts which circulated in early modern Russia, usually referred to as the ‘Satirical Leechbooks’, gives an interesting perspective.

Moscow's Foreign Quarter
Moscow’s Foreign Quarter
(Wiki Images)

The most well-known starts like this:

A leechbook for foreigners.

A leechbook by Russian people, how to heal foreigners and people of their land; [using] very appropriate medicines from various and expensive ingredients.

The ingredients mentioned in this leechbook are odd:

  • Part of a white bridge
  • Chopped women’s folk dancing
  • Light-colored screeching of a cart
  • A fat eagle’s flight
  • The voice of a bass violin

    Bridge theft aside, these ingredients seem difficult to source. Would the peddler of the famous Russian folk song Korobeiniki – better known to non-Slavicists as ‘the Tetris song’ – have had such wares in his tray? It seems unlikely.

    Korobeiniki (Peddlers)
    Korobeiniki (Peddlers)
    (Wiki Images)

    Some of the accompanying therapeutic activities also seem unrealistic:

  • Sweat for three days naked in ice
  • Rise early, just after vespers

    Reading these recipes, it does seem that the author might not have been entirely serious about healing his foreign patient; indeed, ‘healing’ itself here seems to be a joke, although the foreigner might not have seen it like that. The text itself notes: ‘those it does not kill it will surely heal’ – not perhaps the most assuring of claims. The ‘very appropriate medicines’ mentioned in the introduction really seem to be ‘just desserts’ for the foreigners as prescribed by a less-than welcoming Russian.

    The text also seems to be mocking medicine in general. In seventeenth-century Russia, official court medicine was practiced by Western European medical practitioners, often using Western European medical books available in Latin and other foreign languages. This use of foreigners and foreign medicine seems to be the focus of the ‘joke’ being made here.

    So, these recipes are more for entertainment than therapy, a type of recipe found across Europe, but do they actually tell us anything about Russian medicine? Perhaps happily for any sickly foreigners in seventeenth-century Russia, the Leechbook for Foreigners was not the only medical-style text available in Russia; by the 1700s, there were several medical recipe books circulating in Russia, and in Russian, which a rather kinder healer of foreigners would have selected.

    In fact, the unknown author of the Leechbook for Foreigners seems to have been rather familiar with such texts. Leaving aside his idiosyncratic collection of ingredients, his recipes do make sense in the context of a medical recipe: he uses the same kinds of measures, and recommends combining ingredients in the same way, as ‘serious’ medical books of the time. On one level, this seems to be a part of his mocking of healing: by aping a format, he derides it as ridiculous. But on another level, it reveals that he has in fact read such recipes, in order to be sufficiently familiar with them to parody them. Our anonymous author may not have approved of foreigners and their foreign healing, but he seemed well versed in what he criticised.

    This post is the fourth in this month’s series of posts on Russian recipes. Previous posts have introduced early modern Russia, told us how to feed our servants, and how to get over hangovers.

    Introduction: “Russian Recipes” at the July Recipes Project

    By Clare Griffin

    Dear Readers of the Recipes Project Blog,

    Earlier this year I was asked to put together a series of posts on Russian Recipes. But how to introduce the posts to help non-Russianists grasp them? Through all the organising and writing of this ‘special edition’ of the Recipes Project, this has remained the hardest thing to pin down. What, fundamentally, were the central aspects of early modern Russia, and how to do them justice in one introduction?

    My solution is the following brief travel guide for the curious visitor to Russia c. 1690. Hopefully this will provide a useful introduction as you peruse our featured posts on “Russian Recipes” this month.

    L0004274 Map of Russia lent by Dr. Schuster.
    Russia in the Early Modern Period
    (Wellcome Images)


    Although having its roots in the early Medieval princedom of Kiev, by the early modern period Russia meant a tsardom centred on the more northerly Moscow, hence its other early modern name, Muscovy, although there was a large and growing empire far to the east of that city. Travellers arriving after 1703 would be more likely to head to the new capital of St Petersburg, modestly named after the reforming Tsar Peter the Great.

    The Russian Empire, 1745
    (Wiki Images)


    Staying within the bounds of local law is key to any successful journey, and early modern visitors to Muscovy had to bear some important points in mind. Movement across the borders and within the country was strictly controlled, and documentation was necessary to avoid arrest. If you were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, you had to take care not to have roots or herbs on your person, as those could be cause for accusations of witchcraft.  Although there were many foreigners in Muscovy, interaction between them was not always encouraged; if you were a foreign visitor, Russian servants would not stay in your house overnight, as you were considered to be a heretic, and excessive contact with you was thought to be dangerous.

    The Population:
    The Russian population was distinguished in several ways. In terms of dress, Muscovites wore traditional clothes; as a visitor, you would have stood out!

    Russian Noblemen
    (Wiki Images)

    Russians rarely knew foreign languages, although this was changing throughout the early modern period, as increasing numbers of “boyars” – as Russian nobles are called – kept collections of foreign books alongside other exotic foreign objects such as clocks.

    Russia was not as culturally homogenous as you might think. Several courtly families came from outside the Moscow lands, including from Kazan’ and from the Georgian royal family. Outside of the court, the atmosphere was even more mixed, as the empire encompassed various races, nations, languages and religions, who were mostly left to their own devices, provided they paid their taxes on time.

    There was also a thriving foreign community in Moscow, with merchant strongholds in Kholmogory and Archangel, the most important port. These communities dated back to the 1550s, when English merchants accidently found the northern coast of Russia while searching for China. Although the English were dominant for some decades, the Dutch and the Germans also had a significant presence in Moscow, where they had their own churches and community activities. Some people even put on amateur performances of Western European plays in their own homes.

    There were many wonderful sights in early modern Russia.

    Ushakov's Archangel Michael and the Devil
    Ushakov’s Archangel Michael and the Devil, 1676
    (Wiki Images)

    Early modern Russia was a very religious society, and churches played a large role in Russian life.  Services could go on for several hours. Churches and monasteries were also used in religio-political ceremonies, such as when the Tsar paraded through the streets of Moscow. Icons were similarly important. If you were an early modern visitor to Russia, you might be lucky enough to see the work of the great seventeenth-century Russian icon painter, Semyon Ushakov.

    If you ventured outside of Moscow, you could have visited many wonderful sights in the early modern Russian Empire. To the East and South, you could have travelled to the towns of Kazan’ and Astrakhan, both former khanates but a part of the empire since the sixteenth century. You might even have gone on to distant Siberia!  Although partly used to exile prisoners, Siberia was also valued for its wildlife.  Siberian furs fetched high prices in Western Europe.

    We hope you enjoy your visit to early modern Russia!

    Posts in the series: 

    What to Feed the Servants in Sixteenth-Century Russiaby Carolyn Pouncey

    A Medieval Russian Hangover Cure, by Darra Goldstein

    How to Heal a Foreigner in Early Modern Russia, by Clare Griffin

    A Modern Culinary Manuscript from Russia’s Ural Mountains, by Aleksandra Ippolitova

    Love Magic in 18th century Russia: a Search for Passion in Russian History, by Elena Smilianskaia