The father of vodka has been re-born and a graduate of the John F. Kennedy Catholic High School in Seattle, Washington State, is behind the re-birth.
Polugar was the original vodka. It has been revived and is now available through “Rodionov and Sons,” a private family distillery in Poland near the Russian border.
Vodka did not become vodka- “little water” until 1867,” says vodka historian, Boris Rodionov who runs the distillery with sons Alexey and Ilya. “This is when the French invented rectification towers. And the technology to make modern vodka. Previously, Russians made and drunk bread wine.
“ Peter the Great, Tsars and Tsarina would have all drunk polugar. Not vodka. Polugar is authentic bread wine made from grain and distilled in copper stills. My father rebuilt the sills myself, using drawings he found during his research.”
The first written reference of distilled spirit or “hot wine” came in 1515 in a letter written by a monk, Losif of Voltsk. Vodka was used unsuccessfully as an antiseptic on the Russian king Vassily 111, the father of Ivan The Terrible. A state monopoly was introduced in 1895, copper stills and distilleries destroyed, and the production of Polugar prohibited. From then on, rectified ethyl alcohol was used to make vodka.
Current Russian legislation still forbids traditional grain distillation in Russia. Only ultra-pure 96% ethyl alcohol for vodka can be made from grain. This is why “Rodionov and Sons” produce their polugar in the European Union in Poland, where an old distillery in Lodz has been restored. The Rodionov’s were living in Kaliningrad, and their Polish friends suggested the site.
Says Alexey: “Our Polugar replicates the taste of the drink from the 18th century when, instead of a long aging process in oak barrels, the rich noblemen and landowners of Russia used more progressive cleaning techniques with natural egg white which carefully preserved the taste of the raw materials.” Alexey studied Economics in Seattle, Paris, and Brussels.
Well-known bartenders and mixologists like Simon Caporale. Salvatore Calabrese, Mariam Beke, and Leonardo Leucci at the “Jerry Thomas Project” in Rome have all discovered “Polugar”;
“Polugar means half-burned in Russian. Before alcohol meters were invented, an alcoholic drink’s strength would be tested by burning out the two-portion liquid until just one portion is left. When the drink was half burned off, it was called “Polugar.”
Retired scientist, academic, and former director of a technical engineering company, Rodionov Snr found his recipe in an eighteenth-century book, at the same time discovering 300 different types of bread wine with 150 different flavors, including night guards’ bread wine (a kind of early Four Loko) and a bread wine for lovers.
“I desperately wanted to try the beverages our ancestors drank and that all future generations were deprived of. It took several years to recover the formulas and techniques used by the old masters. But the results exceeded all expectations. Vodka became the only prevalent beverage in Russia because of the decision of the authorities.”
Rodionov sees vodka as a modern, impurity-free spirit: “According to the Russian and European legislation, the word ‘vodka’ is considered a drink made of ethyl alcohol (distilled-rectified not less than 96%) diluted with water and has minimum impurities. If there are more impurities than legal regulations permit, then it’s not vodka.”
The Rodionov’s compare its production to that of whisky, only substituting preservation using egg white for aging in oak. Using rye and water, it is triple distilled in copper pot stills reconstructed from 18th-century drawings and treated with birch coal and egg white, a method originally used by the rich noblemen and landowners who distilled bread wine between the 17th and 19th centuries.
“We hope to continue our ancestors’ tradition,” says Alexey. “The meaning of bread wine or Polugar doesn’t exist in standard documentation in Russia. Which means we can’t get a production license. There is no prohibition on consumption, though, and Polugar comes to Russia from Poland as an imported drink.”
“Polugar, without any doubt, is the national drink of Russia,” insists Alexey. “My father has always offended that my country associated itself with such a primitive drink as vodka! Polugar is good enough to represent my country and join the ranks of good quality whisky and brandy.”
For their Connoisseurs range. The Rodionov’s, we only distill one type of cereal. In their “Mixology & Gastronomy” range, we add natural ingredients mentioned in the name and label them directly into pot-still during third distillation. Both ranges are all bottled in the finest glass bottles, a reconstructed copy of the personal bottle of Queen Elizabeth, the eldest daughter of Tsar Peter The Great and Empress between 1741-5. The bottle, dated 1745, is to be found in the Russian National Museum.
In old Russia, meals had at least seven or eight courses, and every course was paired with a different bread wine. Pork would be served with a small glass of garlic bread wine, herring with caraway bread wine, dumplings with an herbaceous, dill-based bread wine.
Having been forgotten for five generations. Polugar bread wine is now available in high quality, 38.5% single malt, classic rye, barley, wheat, buckwheat, garlic and pepper, caraway, honey, and allspice, cherry, and horseradish forms.
Continues Alexey: “We were worried about the quality and health risk involved with a lot of Russian vodkas. Much was contaminated. So, we just made our own. Grain distillates are an important part of Russian history and have been undeservedly forgotten. They laughed at us at first, and now we make 100,000 bottles a year. And Russians oldest drink is of one of America’s latest!”.