Some Background on Vodka
The word "Vodka" is a diminutive of the Slavic word "voda" for "Wwater". Vodka is a colorless liquid distilled from any starch/sugar-rich plant matter. Most common material for vodka production today is sorghum, corn, rye or wheat. However, sometimes vodka is made from potatoes, sugar beats, grapes, molasses, soybeans, or even from byproducts of oil refining or wood pulp processing. Wheat and rye vodkas are commonly considered the ones of superior quality. In some Eastern European countries like Poland or Ukraine vodka is produced by fermenting a solution of crystal sugar and some salts for the yeast and then distilling it after a few weeks.
Pure vodka consists of two components - water and alcohol (ethanol). Commonly vodka consists 35% to 50% by volume (70 to 100 proof). The classic Russian vodka is 40% (80 proof). In 1894 famous Russian chemist Dmitriy Mendeleyev found the perfect percentage for alcohol in vodka to be 38, but since spirits in Russia were taxed on their strength at that time, the percentage was rounded up to 40 by Alexander III in his standards for vodka production to simplify the tax calculation. According to US Federal Law the minimum strength of vodka in US is also 40%, while in Europe it is 37.5%.
Vodka has been produced in Eastern Europe since early middle ages. As early as the 8th century, peasants produced a crude alcoholic beverage by freezing wine and then extracting the ice; this actually increased strength of a beverage since water freezes faster than alcohol. Some time later first distilleries were established. Early alcohol was used primarily for medicine and cosmetics (cologne or aftershave). Large-scale vodka production began at the end of the 16th century in Poland. In the 18th century in Russia Empress Elizabeth II started to regulate production of vodka. Taxes from distilleries provided at times up to 40% of state revenue. Vodka remains the most popular alcoholic drink in Russia since than. Most recent data (2001) puts its consumption on the 70%-level.
Nowadays vodka is extremely popular throughout the world. Although in its homelands vodka is usually drunk neat (not mixed with other beverages), its popularity in most other countries is caused mainly by its usefulness in cocktails and other mixed drinks due to its chameleonic nature (when mixed with a drink, vodka would underline its strong points and hide its disadvantages).