It’s no secret that I studied Russian at The University of Durham and spent 6 months of my degree course studying at the university in St. Petersburg (in those days, Leningrad). So I can tell you that vodka is a diminutive of the Russian word for water, and boy did some of my Russian friends drink it as if it was! I certainly developed a taste for it and since I only got home to England on Christmas Eve, we needed it to warm us up a bit!
There is some debate as to where vodka originated. The Russians claim it was them, in the 9th century, although it was certainly being made a couple of hundred years later, at the Khylnovsk distillery (as reported in the Vyatka Chronicle of 1174). The Polish claim that they were making it in the 8th Century but, truth be told, their version was distilled from wine so it is technically a crude version of brandy.
Early on its life, vodka, like other distilled liquors, was used either for medicinal purposes (zhiznennia vodka or water of life [by the way the ‘zs’ in zhiznenniya are pronounced like the ‘j’ in jaguar]) or as an ingredient in the production of gunpowder! In the early days, 3 different kinds of vodka (or hot wine as it was called then) were produced; plain (standard), good (improved) and boyar (high quality). And also it was often distilled more than once to produce stronger versions. In order to mask any impurities and coincidentally, enhance flavour, distillers began to add fruit, herbs and spices to their spirits.
The mid-15th Century saw the first appearance of pot distillation in Russia and vodka really began being produced in large quantities. By the mid-16th century it was the national drink in both Poland and Sweden and by 1716, owning distilleries became the exclusive right of the nobility.
It wasn’t till the 18th century that a professor in St Petersburg developed a method of purifying vodka using charcoal filtration so until then, no attempt was made to standardise the basic product. Types of vodka produced included absinthe, acorn, birch, cherry, dill, ginger, hazelnut, horseradish, juniper, lemon, mint, oak, pepper, raspberry, sage , sorrel and water melon, to name but a few!
Awareness of vodka gradually spread across Europe, helped by the presence in numerous European countries of Russian troops during the Napoleonic Wars. Because of the increasing popularity of the drink and the wide disparity in quality, in 1894 a law was passed in Russia to make the production and distillation of vodka a state monopoly. This was partly for fiscal reasons but also to try to control drunkenness, which had reached epic proportions. So it was only at the end of the 19th century, when all state distilleries had adopted a uniform production technique, with a commensurate assurance of quality, that the name “vodka” was formally and officially recognised and adopted.
After the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks confiscated every known private distillery. As a result, many Russian vodka makers emigrated, taking their skills and recipes with them. One such man, having met a Russian emigre from the USA, decided that together they would found their first distillery in Paris, named for the Francophile version of his name – Smirnoff.
We were lucky enough to be sent a bottle of Smirnoff
to experiment with and naturally we headed to the kitchen and cooked up a bowl of spicy Bloody Mary prawns.
- 500g raw tiger prawns
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 shallot minced
- 1 clove of garlic minced
- A pinch of celery seeds, reserve some for plating
- A large glass of tomato juice
- 4 plum tomatoes quartered
- A tbsp Worcester Sauce
- A tsp of pickle juice
- Three drops of hot sauce ( adjust to your own taste)
- A pinch of celery salt
- A pinch of freshly milled black pepper
- A squeeze of lime juice
- A double measure of Smirnoff vodka
- A tbsp of finely chopped dill
- A pinch of cayenne pepper
- 1 lime cut into four wedges
- Add the olive oil to a pan and heat. Add the minced shallot and garlic and sauté until softened.
- Add the celery seeds to the pan and continue to sauté.
- Add the tomato juice, chopped fresh plum tomatoes, spices and aromatics to the pan and simmer on a low heat for about 20mins. Do not let the tomatoes break up, make sure they are softened whilst retaining their shape.
- Add the raw prawn and stir in. Once the prawns turn pink, add the vodka and stir in. Season.
- To plate add the prawns to a bowl, sprinkle on the parsley and add the lime wedges. Dust with the additional celery seeds and cayenne.
- Serve with salad and or rice