Thursday, April 21, 2011

Vodka and Bourbon: Reflections of Political Culture

For all of the differences between Russia and the United States, the world can rest assured that both countries take great pride in their national liquors. It’s common knowledge that vodka is Russia’s most popular drink, comprising roughly 70% of all alcohol sales. Arriving quietly to Russia 14th century by Genoese (North Italian) merchants, it was initially rejected to the more popular mead and beer. Over time, it gained popularity and eventually become a utility of power by which the vlast (political elite) ruled over the masses, until the Soviet Union fell. Bourbon, on the other hand enjoyed a much more democratic rise to popularity. Brewed in the backwoods of Kentucky in the late 18th century, it quickly spread to the East Coast and played distinct roles in key events of American History. By the 21st century, the United Senates Senate had recognized bourbon as “America’s Native Spirit”. The top down spread of vodka’s popularity in Russia as opposed to the bottom-up spread of bourbon in America reflect the social and cultural dimensions of the respective countries.

An ancestor of vodka, known in Latin as aqua vitae, was first introduced in the Grand Duchy of Moscow in 1386 to the court of Grand Duke Dmitry Ivanovich Donskoy. Genoese merchants from North Italy were on their way to Lithuania when they stopped in Moscow. Impressed by the Prince’s hospitality, they offered gifts of the distilled grape juice. The court was not impressed, however, and beer and mead remained the most popular of drink. Merchants brought Aqua vitea appeared again 1429, this time rumored to be a panacea. Prince Vasily the Second excitedly embraced the drink. Soon monks began producing their own version, known as “bread wine”. One rumor states the first Russian vodka was produced at a monastery inside the Kremlin itself.

Popularity in vodka surged in the 15th century to the point where Tsar Ivan the Third established a state monopoly on the production and sales of the drink. His predecessors set up taverns, known as kabaki (kabak in the singular) where men (often soliders) could drink, play dice, and fight. The tsars made great profit from the kabaki and more strictly enforced the monopoly on the alcohol industry. In an effort to make even more money, Peter the Great sold allowances to produce vodka to aristocrats. This policy expanded to the point that Catherine the Great in the mid 18th century had allowed all nobles to produce it, declaring it the drink of the aristocracy. Peasants, still forbidden to taste the beverage, started to brew it themselves. They used anything they could find to flavor the drink – fruit, berries, roots, and seeds, resulting in a massive plethora of vodka flavors that exist to this day.

Vodka remained popular through the 19th century. Sometimes the tsar monopolized the industry, and sometimes the aristocracy and distillery rights too. Nonetheless, all Russian were able to find it readily available and in great quantity. That is, until 1905. When Russia lost the Russo-Japanese War, an embarrassed and disgraced Nicholas II took vodka off the shelves, presumably as a means to toughen up his drunken, defeated country. Prohibition in Russia was reaffirmed in 1914 at the start of World War II and in 1917 when the Bolsheviks took power. It was not until 1925 that Vladimir Lenin allowed the sale of vodka once more. When the ban was lifted, alcoholism rates soared to new levels – from which Russia has never quite descended. Mikhail Gorbachev tried to restrict alcohol sales in 1985, following the release of paper that drew attention to the Soviet Union’s alcoholism. The restrictions were soon lifted, after the state experienced a windfall in revenue from the lost tax dollars.

The fall of the Soviet Union brought a new, but short, day for Russia’s vodka industry. For the first time in history, anybody could produce and sell the liquor. Thousands of brands appeared on the streets instantaneously. Many were of low, or even dangerous, quality. Combined with the loss of Kremlin revenue, Boris Yeltsin issued a presidential decree bringing vodka production back under the regulation and taxation of the state. Today, Russia still faces conflicts between the state and the free flow of alcohol. While the Putin and Medvedev administrations have raised taxes on vodka, they have been reluctant to raise them to the point where it would slow sales down. The Russian government is too dependent on alcohol revenue to effectively combat its national problem. In the meantime, Russians and Slavophiles the world over continue to enjoy Stolichnaya, Russian Standard, and all the other vodkas that contribute to Russian culture and national identity.

The earliest record of bourbon brewing in the United States dates from 1783, when Robert Samuels created a secret recipe for bourbon, which his family faithfully distilled for sixty years non-commercially, before turning it into a business that survives to this day as Maker’s Mark. Later that year, Evan Williams opened a distillery in Louisville, Kentucky becoming the first commercial seller of the whiskey. Williams faced growing competition in the next decade as whiskey distillers in Pennsylvania migrated to Kentucky to escape the hated Excise Tax that was held up following the infamous Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. It was much harder to enforce the tax in lawless and unregulated Kentucky, which had only entered the union two years earlier. Perhaps the most famous of distillers to come of this era was James Beam, whose brand of course exists to this day.

The 19th century saw the continuing flourishing of bourbon as a Kentucky and Southern specialty. The first advertisement for the drink was seen in a newspaper in Paris, Kentucky in 1821. Two years later, Dr. James C. Crow developed the sour mash, a method of recycling the yeast for the next fermentation. This process would eventually be adopted by most distilleries. In 1840, the drink acquired its common name after being shortened from Old Bourbon Country Whiskey, named after the area near Louisville on the Ohio River where most of the distilleries were built. The Civil War created a temporary shortage of bourbon as distilleries were closed so workers could join the Confederacy or because the owners had invested in Confederate war bonds. Production picked up in the 1870’s though, as innovations in shipping allowed the drink’s popularity to spread throughout the country.

The 20th century saw another speed bump for bourbon, however. Like in Russia, the U.S. experienced a ban on alcohol took place in the early part of the century. Between 1920 and 1933, hundreds of distilleries were shut down. The only ones to survive Prohibition were those that obtained permission to distill bourbon as medicine. The industry recovered however and in 1964, was actually protected by the U.S. government. Declared the country’s “national spirit’ by an Act of Congress, strict regulations were imposed that explicitly defined bourbon and who could their drink that name. Still despite the protection, Russia scored a cultural Cold War victory when in 1973, vodka replaced whiskey as the country’s most popular drink. This is largely attributed to an increase in female drinkers who preferred the lighter drink. Still, bourbon continues to this day to be recognized as the wholly American choice of liquor. In 2007, the month of August was declared “National Bourbon Heritage Month”, honoring distillers throughout the years.

In comparing the histories of vodka and bourbon, one cannot help but notice differences that relate to larger cultural differences between the countries. Vodka in Russia has historically been a drink held by the elites over the masses. It was originally given to a Russian prince, and either brewed by the czars or by the nobles with the czars’ permission. Only recently was vodka freely sold and even then it has been highly regulated. Bourbon, on the other hand, flourished away from the powers of the political elite. Invented in the Kentucky backwards, it has only recently gained government attention. Bourbon largely benefitted from attempts at escaping government control, especially during its formative years around the time of the Whiskey Rebellion. The natures of these two histories coincide with the nature of the Russian and American states. Russia has always been an authoritarian state in which the elite controls the masses. As such, vodka becomes a means of control and a means of expression within that culture. The United States has historically sought to escape such control, and bourbon reflects this very nature. Such a comparison suggests that the development of national drinks reflects the larger political culture where the drink developed. Perhaps there is some research to be done here.


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