Wine Talk: White Whiskey

Vodka is the largest-selling spirit in Israel, but the art of distilling alcohol from grain was first developed by Arabs in the Middle Ages.

Vodka 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Vodka 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The art of distillation is an ancient one, but the distillation of spirits is relatively new. It was first developed by Arabs in the Middle Ages, and from there it was transferred to southern Europe.
In fact, the word “alcohol” stems from Arabic.
Vodka became the dominant spirit of Eastern Europe, usually distilled from grain, potatoes, molasses, beets or even grapes. Rye and wheat were most commonly used. As a generalization, the Russians favored wheat, and the Poles favored rye. The word vodka came from the Polish and Russian word for “water.”
There was a Jewish connection. Despite always being abstemious, a disproportionately high number of Jews worked in the distilling industry in Eastern Europe, and in particular in Poland, Lithuania, Russia and Ukraine. It was one of the very few trades permitted to Jews at the time.
In Israel, there were numerous distilleries in the 19th century, but these were mainly situated in private homes. This was because the Turks prohibited alcohol to a certain extent and gave out licenses very sparingly. Only after the World War I in the days of the British Mandate did the local spirits industry develop. Many of the wineries produced spirits as a sideline. By the beginning of the 1990s, the main Israeli vodkas were domestic brands: Gold, Keglevich and Vodka Stopka.
However, the effect of globalization and the opening of the Israeli market to imports decimated the locally produced vodka market. Suddenly there were cheap imports available in the supermarkets, and all the international global brands became available, too.
Today, vodka is by far the largest-selling spirit in Israel. The Russian immigration of the early 1990s added a new drinking culture in Israel, hastening the popularity of vodka. Today it is a massive industry here. Israel has one of the largest consumptions of vodka per capita in the Western world.
In the West, symbolized by the US, vodka was drunk with a mixer. The idea was to get an alcohol kick without any unpleasant taste. Vodka there was officially described as having to be “without character, aroma, taste or color.”
The quality of vodka was unimportant, but the cleanest and most tasteless was preferred. The first vodka to corner this market was Smirnoff. It was originally sold under the slogan “Smirnoff White Whiskey – No taste, No smell.” It worked. Smirnoff has become the largest-selling spirit in the world.
The next major push vodka received was from the iconic advertising campaign by Absolut, which started in the 1980s just as white spirits were coming into fashion.
The unique Swedish medicine bottle became associated with quality. It is today the world’s second-largest selling vodka and the fourth-largest selling spirit overall.
However, in Poland and Russia, vodka was given more reverence. Firstly, it was served from the freezer, so it was ice cold. This releases spirit esters and a slight oiliness. Secondly, it would normally be served with food. In Russia, vodka is served in small shot glasses, with zakushka, a kind of Russian mezze. It is the perfect accompaniment to smoked fish, pickles and black bread on one level, and to caviar and blinis on another.
All the famous brand names of international vodkas are here in Israel. These include Wyborowka and Zubrowka from Poland, Stolichanaya from Russia, Nemiroff from Ukraine, Finlandia from Finland, Absolut from Sweden, and Van Gogh and Ketel One from Holland. The largest-selling vodka in Israel is Finlandia, followed by Absolut. The largest-selling Israeli-produced vodka is Gold.
The concept of prestige vodkas became the rage in the 2000s. People were prepared to pay a premium for vodkas with added value of appearance, style and usually a good story. Vodkas like Grey Goose and Ciroc from France, and Belvedere and Chopin from Poland filled this category. The ultimate is perhaps Kauffman from Russia, which is a low-production vintage vodka in an unusual glass bottle. My favorite is Chopin. It is a Polish vodka produced from potatoes. To me it has the right combination of flavor and smoothness.
The current trend is for flavored vodkas. Since the taste of vodka is neutral, it lends itself to added flavors. This is nothing new. In the countries of origin, vodka was often flavored to cover the taste of what was often poorly distilled alcohol. Once there was Finlandia cranberry and Absolut citron. Today every brand has a number of flavored options. There is no lack of choice for the vodka drinker.
Adam Montefiore works for the Carmel Winery and writes regularly about wine in Israeli and international publications.