"Vodka" is a diminutive of the Slavic word woda/voda standing for water.
The word is found for the first time in the court documents from the Palatinate of Sandomierz in Poland dating to 1405 and 1537. At these times the word referred to medicines and cosmetics. A number of Russian pharmaceutical lists contain the terms "vodka of bread wine" (водка хлебного вина vodka khlebnogo vina) and "vodka in half of bread wine" (водка полу хлебного вина vodka polu khlebnogo vina). As alcohol had long been used as a basis for medicines, this implies that the term vodka could be a noun derived from the verb vodit’, razvodit’ (водить, разводить), "to dilute with water".
Bread wine was a spirit distilled from alcohol made from grain (as opposed to grape wine) and hence "vodka of bread wine" would be a water dilution of a distilled grain spirit.
While the word could be found in manuscripts and in lubok (лубок, pictures with text explaining the plot, a Russian predecessor of the comic), it began to appear in Russian dictionaries in the mid-19th century.
Another possible connection for "vodka" with "water" is the name of the medieval alcoholic beverage aqua vitae (Latin, literally, "water of life"), which is reflected in Polish "okowita", Ukrainian оковита, or Belarusian акавіта. (Note that whisky has a similar etymology, from the Irish/Scottish Gaelic uisce beatha/uisge-beatha.)
People in the area of vodka's probable origin have names for vodka with roots meaning "to burn": Samogitian: degtėnė'; Polish: gorzałka; Ukrainian: горілка, horilka; Belarusian: 'гарэлка, harelka; Lithuanian: degtinė (a Slavicism arielka, is also in use, colloquially and in proverbs); Latvian: degvīns; Finnish: paloviina. In Russian during 17th and 18th century горящее вино (goryashchee vino, "burning wine") was widely used. Compare to Danish; brændevin; Dutch: brandewijn; Swedish: brännvin; Norwegian: Brennevin (although the latter terms refer to any strong alcoholic beverage). Tet
Another Slavic/Baltic archaic term for hard liquors was "green wine" (Russian: zeleno vino, Lithuanian: žalias vynas).
The origins of vodka cannot be traced definitively, but it is believed to have originated in the grain-growing region that now embraces Poland, Belarus, Lithuania, Ukraine, and western Russia. It also has a long tradition in Scandinavia.
For many centuries beverages contained little alcohol. It is estimated that the maximum amount was about 14% as only this amount is reachable by means of natural fermentation. The still allowing for distillation – “the burning of wine” – was invented in the 8th century.
In Poland, vodka (Polish: wódka), has been produced since the early Middle Ages. In these early days, the spirits were used mostly as medicines. Stefan Falimierz asserted in his 1534 works on herbs that vodka could serve "to increase fertility and awaken lust". Around 1400 it became also a popular drink in Poland. Wódka lub gorzała (1614), by Jerzy Potański, contains valuable information on the production of vodka. Jakub Kazimierz Haur, in his book Skład albo skarbiec znakomitych sekretów ekonomiej ziemiańskiej (A Treasury of Excellent Secrets about Landed Gentry's Economy, Kraków, 1693), gave detailed recipes for making vodka from rye.
Some Polish vodka blends go back centuries. Most notable are Żubrówka, from about the 16th century; Goldwasser, from the early 17th; and aged Starka vodka, from the 16th. In the mid-17th century, the szlachta (nobility) were granted a monopoly on producing and selling vodka in their territories. This privilege was a source of substantial profits. One of the most famous distilleries of the aristocracy was established by Princess Lubomirska and later operated by her grandson, Count Alfred Wojciech Potocki. The Vodka Industry Museum, now housed at the headquarters of Count Potocki's distillery, has an original document attesting that the distillery already existed in 1784. Today it operates as "Polmos Łańcut."
Large-scale vodka production began in Poland at the end of the 16th century, initially at Kraków, whence spirits were exported to Silesia before 1550. Silesian cities also bought vodka from Poznań, a city that in 1580 had 498 working spirits distilleries. Soon, however, Gdańsk outpaced both these cities. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Polish vodka was known in the Netherlands, Denmark, England, Russia, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Moldavia, Ukraine and the Black Sea basin.
Early production methods were primitive. The beverage was usually low-proof, and the distillation process had to be repeated several times (a three-stage distillation process was common). The first distillate was called "brantówka," the second — "szumówka," the third — "okowita" (from "aqua vitae"), which generally contained 70–80% alcohol by volume. Then the beverage was watered down, yielding a simple vodka (30–35%), or a stronger one if the watering was done using an alembic. The exact production methods were described in 1768 by Jan Paweł Biretowski and in 1774 by Jan Chryzostom Simon. The beginning of the 19th century inaugurated the production of potato vodka, which immediately revolutionized the market.
The end of the 18th century marked the start of the vodka industry in Poland (eastern part of Poland was part of Russian empire at that time). Vodkas produced by the nobility and clergy became a mass product. The first industrial distillery was opened in 1782 in Lwów by Jan Baczewski. He was soon followed by Jakub Haberfeld, who in 1804 established a factory at Oświęcim, and by Hartwig Kantorowicz (1823) at Poznań. The implementation of new technologies in the second half of the 19th century, which allowed the production of clear vodkas, contributed to their success. The first rectification distillery was established in 1871. In 1925 the production of clear vodkas was made a Polish government monopoly.
After World War II, all vodka distilleries were taken over by Poland's communist government. During the 1980s, the sale of vodka was rationed. After the victory of the Solidarity movement, all distilleries were privatized, leading to an explosion of brands.
The "vodka belt" countries of central and eastern Europe and Nordic countries are the historic home of vodka, and also have the highest vodka consumption in the world
It was not originally called vodka — instead, the term bread wine (хлебное вино; khlebnoye vino) was used. Until mid-18th century, it remained relatively low on alcohol content, not exceeding 40% by volume. It was mostly sold in taverns and was quite expensive. At the same time, the word vodka was already in use, but it described herbal tinctures (similar to absinthe), containing up to 75% by volume alcohol, and made for medicinal purposes.
The first written usage of the word vodka in an official Russian document in its modern meaning is dated by the decree of Empress Elizabeth of June 8, 1751, which regulated the ownership of vodka distilleries. The taxes on vodka became a key element of government finances in Tsarist Russia, providing at times up to 40% of state revenue. By the 1860s, due to the government policy of promoting consumption of state-manufactured vodka, it became the drink of choice for many Russians. In 1863, the government monopoly on vodka production was repealed, causing prices to plummet and making vodka available even to low-income citizens. By 1911, vodka comprised 89% of all alcohol consumed in Russia. This level has fluctuated somewhat during the 20th century, but remained quite high at all times. The most recent estimates put it at 70% (2001). Today, some popular vodka producers/brands are (amongst others) Stolichnaya, Eristoff, Smirnoff and Borissov.
Main article: Horilka
Horilka (Ukrainian: горілка) is the Ukrainian term for "vodka". Horilka may also be used in a generic sense in the Ukrainian language to mean moonshine, whisky or other strong spirits. Among East Slavic peoples, the term horilka is used to stress the Ukrainian origin of a vodka, for example, in Nikolai Gogol's historic novel Taras Bulba: "and bring us a lot of horilka, but not of that fancy kind with raisins, or with any other such things—bring us horilka of the purest kind, give us that demon drink that makes us merry, playful and wild!".
A pertsivka or horilka z pertsem (pepper vodka) is a vodka with whole fruits of capsicum put into the bottle, turning horilka into a sort of bitters. Horilkas are also often made with honey, mint, or even milk, the latter not typical of vodkas of other origins. Some claim that horilka is considered stronger and spicier than typical Russian vodka.ss