Originally from Danzig, Poland, where it was made from potatoes, corn and beets, vodka was introduced into Russia by monks. It was known as the "terrible poison" at the time because of its 96-98 percent alcohol content. Russians modified the distillation process by replacing the vegetables with grain, particularly wheat. During the reign of Ivan the Terrible, known for his clever and strategic mind, the Russian government ordained a state monopoly on vodka ("little water," in Russian) - and thus began the saga of Russian vodka.
Beginning in the early 16th century, this "burning wine" began to be exported. In the mid 18th century, Russia's Catherine II, alarmed by the quality of vodka which varied greatly from one producer to another, decided to make it the exclusive right of the aristocracy. The empress's order, dated March 31, 1765 also freed vodka from all production taxes. For the Russian nobles, family honor now depended upon being able to distill vodka of exceptional purity.
It was Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleyev who created the 40% alcohol content now common to vodka - the perfect balance of water to alcohol. Creator of the periodic table, Mendeleyev created the Russian standards for vodka produced under state control that are still used to this day. In 1894, the Russian government granted a patent bearing the neame of the Russian vodka made in Moscow, Moskovskaya Osobaya, a label that still exists and which means "Moscow Special."
In Russia, vodka is drunk in shots or charkas, originally 150 g. Ten charkas made up one stopa. In the 18th century, the stopa was replaced by the shtof (1.23 liters). Vodka was sold by weight, not volume, so that it could not be falsified. A barrel of vodka had to weigh 30 pounds, so increased weight meant added water.
On June 7, 1992 the first Russian president, Boris Yeltsin published a decree abolishing the state monopoly on vodka. Since then, vodka production has proliferated throughout Russia and in other countries.
In Russia, vodka is drunk when at least two people are present, and is rarely drunk alone. After announcing the toast, the men toss back their shot of vodka, following it with zakouski, sweet-sour Russian pickles. And between drinks, they talk, as everywhere else.
While the first toast can be proposed to anything, in Hussar tradition the second toast is always to the women.
In Russian national cooking, vodka makes an excellent accompaniment to fatty meat dishes and salty fish dishes. It's recommended with ham, salt meat, blini with caviar and sour cream, and pelmeni. It is also served with salmon caviar, batik, smoked and salted fish. Russian vodka pairs perfectly with vegetable-based hors d'oeuvre, particularly fermented cabbage and cucumbers.
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