Vodka in the Northern Capital
The city’s relationship with the famed spirit dates back to the reign of Peter the Great.
Published: August 6, 2014 (Issue # 1823)
When foreigners think of Russia, one of the first things that comes to mind is vodka. The alcohol has become an inseparable symbol of the culture and has been so for hundreds of years.
The first distillery arrived in Russia during the reign of Vasily II, the Grand Prince of Moscow in the 15th century. As the story goes, a man brought back a prototype of a distillery from Europe but Vasily distrusted not only it but the man who brought it, believing that the influence of the West had corrupted him. Eventually, the man was able to escape imprisonment and flee to Italy.
Since the somewhat awkward introduction of then modern technology to alcohol making, vodka has played an important role in the history not only of the country but also of St. Petersburg. Ever since the reign of Peter the Great, the builder of the city and a well-known lover of spirits, vodka has remained intertwined with the city’s colorful history.
In Peter the Great’s day, vodka was not nearly as alcoholic as it is now, more of a strong wine than a spirit. During the raucous parties thrown by Peter, affairs known to combine all-night drinking with the emperor’s love for the stranger things in life, vodka was a key component.
It was during Peter’s reign that a tradition became commonplace: the shtrafnaya. This is a penalty drink for arriving late and it usually involves drinking a shot of vodka. Yet Peter’s version was closer to a liter and guests were forced to drink all of it before joining the party.
It was not until Catherine the Great ruled Russia that the first license for a distillery was granted. This led to a boom in the production of the spirit and by the beginning of the 20th century, there were 40 distilleries in St. Petersburg alone, an astounding number considering there are only three today in the city.
It was in St. Petersburg as well that the common ratio of spirit to water was discovered by none other than Dmitry Mendeleev, the creator of the periodic table of elements. He discovered that the perfect ratio was 38.5 percent, although this was rounded up to 40 percent in 1894 and has remained the standard ever since.
Yet people’s affinity for the spirit did not prevent Nicholas II, the last tsar, from prohibiting the alcohol from sale and consumption during World War I. After the 1917 revolutions, vodka makers were imprisoned and it wouldn’t be until Stalin’s tenure as leader of the Soviet Union that the drink was re-allowed.
During World War II, soldiers were given a ration of 100 grams of vodka a day to calm the nerves. Yet despite its important role in the war effort and the people’s love of the spirit, Gorbachev in 1985 prohibited the drink. Although not as strict as the prohibition at the beginning of the century, sales were severely limited and even when sales resumed in 1987, people could only buy vodka from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.
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