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Russian Bread Wine Is the Original Vodka

In Russian, vodka has historically been a catchall term for hard booze. So most Russians who read about their forefathers drinking “vodka” assumed they were talking about the vodka we know today. Not even close.
Foto mit freundlicher Genehmigung von Rodionov & Sons.

It's not often that there's a new booze to report. Especially a new booze that is so old.

Polugar—also known as bread wine, also known as historic vodka—is already appearing in liquor stores and on cocktail menus here since arriving in New York on September 21. You've probably never heard of it. Almost nobody has.

But, according to Rodionov and Sons, a family distillery near the Russian-Polish border, Polugar was the drink of choice of Russians for millennia. A deceptively simple, rich, and toasty spirit distilled from grains, it is the drink of the Russian soul, even if most Russians today don't know it. Compared to polugar, they say, drinking vodka in Russia is just a phase.

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The story of vodka and how it came to dominate Russian drinking is deeply, almost archetypally Russian: It is a sad story, a story of totalitarian greed and wholesale dispossession, of propaganda over generations, and ultimately the erasure of history.

In Russian, vodka—or "little water"—has historically been a catchall term for hard booze. So most Russians who read about their forefathers drinking "vodka" assumed they were talking about the vodka we know today.

Not even close. For the most part what those old time Russians were drinking was much better.

If vodka wasn't the spirit of the Czars, of the great Russian writers and statesmen, what was?

In fact, the technology to make modern vodka—which is required by law to contain ethanol distilled to 96-percent alcohol—did not even exist until the French invented rectification towers in 1867.

How did vodka get a stranglehold on the Russian imagination? Like so much else, it happened because an extremely rich man wanted more money.

In 1884, Czar Alexander III bought himself 300 new rectification towers from Germany and had them installed on his land. Then he declared all non-vodka spirits illegal. Since only the Czar had the technology to make true vodka, his decree ensured a total monopoly of the Russian spirits market. Overnight, all Russians, if they knew what was good for them, started drinking the czar's vodka. The common backyard stills which had been turning out bread wine for generations went cold.

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To understand the enormity of the loss to Russian heritage that the vodka monopoly caused, you must first understand the glory that was Russian drinking culture prior to the 1890s.

"Russia had the longest alcohol menus in the world," explains Alexey Rodionov, one of the sons in Rodionov and Sons, as he thumbs through a book of historic Russian spirits menus. "None of the other countries made as many distilled spirits."

The Rodionovs found more than 300 different types of bread wine, including night guards' bread wine (a kind of early Four Loko) and a bread wine for lovers.

"Before 120 years ago, it was never the case for Russians to have one bottle on the table to finish with your meal," says Alexey, "In Russia, meals have 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.

During the course of their research, the Rodionovs found more than 300 different types of bread wine, including night guards' bread wine (a kind of early Four Loko) and a bread wine for lovers. It became a trend for men to stock their home bars with a different flavors of bread wine for every letter in the alphabet.

Now, after being forgotten for five generations, bread wine is back, released by Rodionov and Sons under the brand name Polugar—Russian for "half-burnt," a nod to the traditional way of testing a spirit's purity.

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Keeping with Soviet tradition, the rediscovery of Polugar came about thanks to paranoia. In 2001, retired scientist Boris Rodionov was watching the Russian equivalent of cable news when he saw a story about how some vodkas sold in Russia were dangerously contaminated.

He decided the store-bought stuff wasn't worth the risk and it was better to make his own. To his shock he discovered that the equipment to distill vodka could run millions of dollars, and, when he found out that the technology didn't even exist until nearly 1900, what had been a curiosity became a cause.

Like most Russians, Boris had believed a river of vodka ran through his country's history, but now that river had run dry. If vodka wasn't the spirit of the Czars, of the great Russian writers and statesmen, what was? Pouring over old books, traditional recipes, and historic menus, he found his answer—and on a lark he tried making some himself. The resulting bread wine surpassed all of his expectations.

Bread wine is a lovely spirit—at nearly 40 percent alcohol by volume, it is a wine in name only. It's clean and smooth, and the unique character of the grains shines through crystal clear. The Polugar made from from rye has the earthy aroma of bread crusts, while the wheat Polugar boasts a soft sweetness, almost like graham crackers.

The Rodionovs make flavored Polugar the old-fashioned way, distilling it with the added ingredients, so the flavors become totally integrated. Garlic Polugar is pungent but not hot in the throat. Caraway seed Polugar is deeply savory.

In the beginning, people literally did not believe in Polugar or the story the Rodionovs were peddling. "They laughed at us," Alexey remembers, and in the first year they only 2,000 bottles. But Russians have warmed to Polugar like the old friends they are, and today Rodionov and Sons are selling 100,000 bottles a year.

Now, Russia's oldest spirit is America's newest. The timing could not be better. With the States in the throes of an esoteric spirits craze, and our fondness for flavors of Northern Europe—like caraway, dill, and rye—getting more entrenched by the day, Polugar is a natural fit. Rodionov and Sons has already shipped 10,000 bottles to the US.

Though undoubtedly thrilled by the brand's success, seeing someone order a Polugar over a vodka means much more to the Rodionovs than another sale—it is a small victory for truth.