In the year of 1386, the Genoese Embassy transiting through Russia on their way to Lithuania stopped at the Moscow Grand Duchy to demonstrate a variety of exotic wonders, the miraculous aqua vitae being one of them. In all probability, it was the first acquaintance of Moscow boyars with distilled wine spirits.

Aqua vitae didn't have any special impact on the Russians. By and large, it was presented as a special medical potion rather than a beverage. At that time, wine spirits were credited with dozens of curative assets, including rejuvenating effect, and they were reputed to extend lifespan. Aqua vitae was also recommended as a universal cure for a variety of maladies. Especially miraculous properties were attributed to the so-called celestial water which was made through distillation of grape wine in sunrays.

Many alchemists dedicated extensive treatises to aqua vitae, revering it as the Quintessence (or the Fifth Element under the Hermetic Writings, wherein the four primary elements were earth, water, air, and fire).

By the end of the 14th century (i.e., prior to the advent of wine spirits in Russia), alcohol was fairly well known throughout Europe albeit as medicine. It was distilled by alchemist on a limited scale in their monastery laboratories and sold at pharmacies, its value being worth its weight in gold. Remarkably, a medieval merchant of Venice in his will was known to have bequeathed to his descendants a pot full of aqua vitae alongside his other treasures, gold, and Russian furs.

However naive it may seem from our today’s perspective, the discovery of wine spirits distillery techniques stands forth as a most extraordinary achievement amongst the medieval radical medical exploits. In those days, physicians exercised a different approach to human infirmities: they treated their patients’ symptoms rather than the disease, whereas the medicine’s efficiency was determined by its immediate positive effect on the patient (many of us have long known by experience vodka’s revitalising effect!). In addition, alcohol was indisputably acknowledged as the first efficient antiseptic, as well a reliable anaesthetic, so long as it came to replace a mallet, which had been an indispensable tool of the old time surgeons.

In his Essay on the History of Production of Intoxicating Beverages, K.S. Kropotkin wrote: “ There is no doubt that various curative properties ascribed to the wine spirits largely contributed to their rapid proliferation. At first, people used to take alcohol as a medicine and gradually grew accustomed to it. When they no longer relied on wine spirits curative properties, alcohol became a popular drink. By the end of 16th century vodka was regularly consumed in most European countries.”

However, this rapid proliferation in Europe continued for almost three hundred years. In the meantime, in Russia, the Moscow Grand Duchy imposed the state monopoly on the production and sales of alcoholic beverages in the 70s of the 15th century, i.e., in less than a hundred years after the Russians had their first acquaintance with aqua vitae in 1386.

What was the secret of vodka’s aggressive intrusion in the Russian patriarchal lifestyle, and when did the Russian Vodka establish itself as a national drink? What was it like, and what made it distinctly different from the European aqua vitae? What was its initial old-time name (considering that vodka was referred to as Grain Wine already at the end of 19th century, which, certainly was not it’s original name)?

Unfortunately, Russian chronicles do not provide any direct answers to these questions. The origin of Russian Vodka in the ancient days is enshrouded in mystery, and it cannot be reconstructed We can only analyse the available veritable facts.

Knowledgeably, beginning from the late 16th century most of the highest positions in the hierarchy of the State of Moscow were held by foreigners mainly, Italians (from Genoa and Pisa) and Greeks who were invited by Moscow’s authorities. Various scholars including doctors of medicine, too, come to live and work in Moscow mainly from Bohemia, Germany and the UK. They enjoyed full confidence at the Court of Moscow’s Grand Duke. There is every reason to believe that among the medications, which foreign aesculapians used to treat Moscow boyars, were certain alcohol-based preparations. Moreover, such treatment could become especially popular among them owing to the old Russian tradition of seeking recipes for their maladies at the bottom of a wineglass.

Presumably, whereas Moscow’s landed gentry had every opportunity to experiment with the revitalising effects of aqua vitae, it remained ultimately out of bounds for most of the ordinary people due to its extreme dearth.

The Russians had to make just one further step to produce Russia’s national drink: they only needed to devise the distilling technology for aqua vitae on the basis of the locally available products. (We have already mentioned that throughout Europe alcohol was distilled exclusively from gape wines, hence aqua’s vitae other name: aqua vitis or grape water [Lat.]).

Through the mediation of its monasteries, Russian Orthodox Church was actively involved in economic and commercial operations. This explains its vested interest in the production and sales of grain wine or intoxicating beverage which was easy to produce and could be sold at relatively low prices. It also appears that distillation of vodka in Russia started not only owing to purely economic rationale, but, largely, for various ideological reasons. Beginning from the 1420s, the Russian Orthodox Church initiated struggle against beer breweries and pagan cult drunken sprees which occurred on various dates and even weeks throughout the year lasting for two-three weeks!

Apparently, the Church reasoned that easy availability of vodka could divest consumption of alcohol of its pagan cult nature and break its undesirable association with numerous pagan holidays, turning drinking into habitual practices.

Notwithstanding that, the distillery techniques could not be concealed behind the monastery walls for too long, for vodka soon gained universal recognition among the Russian people. Distillery processes were replicated on a wide scale, and vodka production became a high-profit venture 15th century was characterized by growth and consolidation of the State of Moscow. In the years 1472-1478 Grand Duke Ioann III imposed the state monopoly on the production and sales of alcoholic beverages, viewing vodka production as an inexhaustible source of replenishment for the state treasury. Concomitantly, vodka became an efficient geopolitical instrument. Some of the historians contend that accession of lands east of the Volga was accomplished not only by the cross, fire and sword, but also by vodka! Many a prince controlling those territories became much easier to negotiate with after they had received a couple of barrels of that remarkable drink as a gift and had profusely partaken of it in a company of Moscow’s envoys at a lavishly laid table!

Thus vodka became Russia’s state monopoly merchandise, which presupposed the introduction by the state of several quality grades to insure the product’s uniformity and rated quality.

In 1506, i.e., 30 years after the introduction of the state monopoly, Swedish chronicles mentioned import of brandtwein from Moscovia.