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Professor chronicles the history of vodka in book

The ‘odorless, colorless and tasteless liquid’ is popular in both United States and Russia

When it comes to vodka, there is more to know than if you prefer it on the rocks or with cranberry juice. The Herald recently interviewed Professor Emerita of History Patricia Herlihy to discuss the contents of and thought process behind her latest book, “Vodka: A Global History.”


Q: What is the history behind vodka?  Where did it originate, and how did it find its way to the United States?

A: Both the Polish and the Russians contend that they invented vodka, but there is no definitive answer to that question. Its origin is largely unknown to this day. Vodka was exclusive to Russian culture for at least six centuries before it eventually made its way to the United States and to the rest of the world. ...

The alcoholic beverage became popular in the United States after the release of the 1962 James Bond film “Dr. No,” in which Bond famously asks for a “shaken not stirred” vodka martini. By 1975, Americans were consuming more vodka than bourbon, our own native drink. From the States, vodka made its way to Europe and then to the developing countries.


Q: What position does vodka have in our culture now?

A: Vodka is odorless, colorless and tasteless — it is nothing in particular, nondescript you might say. Because of this nature, it has the advantage of flexibility, so there is now a proliferation of flavors and bottles of vodka throughout the United States. Sellers of the alcoholic beverage target certain niches in the market. For example, there is vodka specifically marketed for women — the “Little Black Dress” vodka. (There is) gluten-free vodka, kosher vodka and many types of flavored vodka. In this way, the drink can appeal to all demographics.


Q: How does vodka’s position in our culture differ from its position in Russia’s culture?

A: Russia is also exposed to a wide variety of vodka flavors and bottles, although not to the same extent as in the United States. In Russia, vodka is drunk in the traditional fashion — not mixed in cocktails, but instead straight from shot glasses. The Russians also do not consider anything distilled from ingredients outside of grains, potatoes or sugar molasses as real vodka.  Americans, on the other hand, make vodka out of a variety of ingredients including, but not limited to, oranges, grapes and even maple syrup.  America is definitely more experimental in terms of what they put in and mix with vodka.


Q: How did you become interested in vodka, and why did you decide to write about it?

A: I am originally a historian of Russia. I taught a course called the Social History of Alcoholism in Russia and shortly later wrote a book called “The Alcoholic Empire: Vodka and Politics in Late Imperial Russia,” which analyzed the rise of temperance societies. The ideas of alcoholism, the use of alcohol to maximize revenue and temperance were all central to my work, so I naturally ran into the subject of vodka. Eventually my publisher asked to write a book about vodka as part of a series — “The Edible Series” — that included books about other foods such as apples, cheese and even hot dogs.


Q: What is your personal view on vodka? Do you have a favorite vodka drink?

A: I prefer the Russian way of drinking vodka — straight from the shot glass in a neat fashion. However, I do not smile nor frown upon the drink. I want to stress that I am a historian — I’m not advocating for anything. ... I see vodka as a prism through which I can look at the economy, society and politics of a country.


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