Smirnoff vodka bottles
Vodka is 40 percent alcohol by volume. That’s not high enough to inactivate viruses. It should be poured into a glass, not onto your hands.

As the story goes, the world’s best-selling vodka, Smirnoff, owes its original fame to a clever marketing gimmick by Pyotr Smirnov, a Russian serf who by the time of his death in 1898 had become one of the wealthiest men in Russia. And it was all thanks to vodka.

Smirnov did not invent vodka, a beverage that is composed of water and alcohol and essentially nothing else. The origins of this spirit date back to the invention of the still by Arab alchemists around the eighth century. Distillation allowed for the isolation of pure alcohol from a solution produced by the fermentation of some starchy or sugary grain, fruit or vegetable. Although people commonly associate vodka with potatoes, corn or wheat are much more commonly used.

Fermentation is a process whereby a microbe, such as a yeast or bacterium, releases enzymes that convert starch or sugar into alcohol. Once pure alcohol was obtained, it could be combined with water in any proportion. Originally, such alcoholic blends were used as medicine, but by the 14th century, vodka, the term originating from the Slavic “zhiznennia voda,” meaning “water of life,” was being consumed as a beverage in Russia and Poland. “Voda” was eventually changed to the affectionate nickname “vodka,” meaning “little water.” Since the drink contained “little water” and lots of alcohol, it readily led to a state of alcoholic stupor, with all the attendant health and social problems.

By the end of the 18th century, there were a number of distilleries in Russia that produced increasingly pure vodka, especially after St. Petersburg chemist Theodore Lowitz demonstrated that filtration through charcoal removed residual impurities. Market competition was fierce, and Pyotr Smirnov, who had founded a small vodka operation, had an idea to get a foot up on his rivals. Actually, a bear’s foot.

At a fair, Smirnov exhibited a couple of bears he had trained to drink vodka from a glass they held with their front paws while waiters dressed as bears served Smirnovs to the gathering. The real bears actually did knock back the vodka, rendering them sleepy and amiable throughout the fair. Supposedly, the czar visited the fair and was taken by the display. He gave the vodka his benevolent approval and sales took off.

By 1904, Vladimir, Pyotr’s son, had taken over the company and was producing more than four million cases of vodka per year. The Smirnov family became fabulously rich and the czar, on seeing the money that could be made by the sales of vodka, decided to nationalize the industry, forcing Vladimir to sell his factory and brand. In 1917, the Smirnovs, now considered aristocrats, had to flee Russia and ended up settling in France, where Vladimir founded a distillery once more. Actually, this is when the name was changed to Smirnoff, the contemporary French spelling of the name. In 1933, Vladimir sold the rights to produce his vodka to Rudolph Kunett, a Russian who had emigrated to the United States, and with that, the American vodka industry was born.

The popularity of the beverage is due to its high alcohol content and general lack of taste, which makes it ideal as the base for many a cocktail. The Bloody Mary, Moscow Mule and of course the vodka martini, shaken, not stirred, as James Bond prefers, are examples. You can even make “Vodka Gummy Bears” by soaking the gummies in vodka for three days in a glass bowl in the fridge. Apparently, sugar-free versions maintain the texture better. I bet these bears can add quite a punch to a party, just like Smirnov’s bears once did.

Vodka is 80 proof, meaning it is 40 per cent alcohol by volume. That is not high enough to inactivate viruses, so vodka should be poured into a glass, not onto your hands. Contrary to a widely disseminated myth, this 40 per cent standard was not set by the great Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, who is best known for his formulation of the periodic table of the elements in 1869. The myth can be traced to an advertisement by Russian Standard, a popular vodka that claims: “In 1894, Dmitri Mendeleev, the greatest scientist in all Russia, received the decree to set the Imperial quality standard for Russian vodka and the Russian Standard was born.” This is not true.

Mendeleev’s 1865 doctoral thesis was titled A Discourse on the Compounds of Alcohol and Water and dealt with the density and thermal expansion of a mix of alcohol and water at various ratios. It had nothing to do with vodka. Mendeleev did sit on a Russian commission that examined ways of taxing alcohol efficiently, but again this was not specific to vodka. He had nothing to do with the 40 percent alcohol content of vodka, but nevertheless the story has even given birth to an American vodka called Mendeleev. The father of the periodic table would not have approved. The great scientist did not drink vodka for fear of becoming an alcoholic like one of his brothers. He preferred wine.

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