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VODKA, The Baltic Tipple

They say wine is the water of the Gods and vodka is the wine of the Eastern European people, who have for centuries used it to fortify themselves against bleak and cold winters. No longer only the tipple for Russian peasants and poor Baltic folk, vodka has become one of the world's most popular drinks.

Vodka, renowned for its unique taste and beguiling appearance is made from the distillation of a fermented substance, usually potatoes, grain or molasses. This clear colorless liquid may look like water, but contains a high level of alcohol. Vodka usually has an alcohol content of 35% to 50% by volume. The classic Russian, Lithuanian and Polish vodka is 40% (80 proof). This can be attributed to the Russian standards for vodka production introduced in 1894 by Alexander III from research undertaken by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev.

Although the origin of vodka is still in obscurity, it is widely believed that the birth place of vodka is now the area of Poland, Belarus, Lithuania, Ukraine, and western Russia, but Russia and Poland are the two leading candidates for the mother country of vodka.

It is widely believed that the name "vodka" is a Russian word being a diminutive of the word "water". Some theories state that vodka was first created in the early 12th century for medicinal purposes. The word "vodka" can be found in several ancient documents dating from 1405 in Sandomierz, Poland and in a number of Russian pharmaceutical lists created a few years later.

Virtually unknown outside Russia, Poland the Baltics and Scandinavia throughout its long history, vodka first became popular in the West thanks to a Russian refugee named Vladimir Smirnoff, whose family ran a Moscow distillery, the official supplier of vodka to the Czar. Smirnoff sold his famous formula to Rudolph Kunnett, an American who resold it to Heublein Co. in 1939.

In the 1960s vodka got a further boost from a man named Bond. The close partnership between Smirnoff and Bond began in 1962's "Dr No," when the villain Dr Julian No hands Sean Connery a "Martini, shaken not stirred" made with Vodka. This colossal moment in film changed the way martini drinkers made their cocktails, changing from the traditional gin to a vodka-based drink and popularizing the vodka martini the world over. Long running British comedy Absolutely Fabulous made the vodka mixer fashionable with much of the show deriving from Edina and Patsy's drunken and/or stoned states, with their favorite drink being Bolly Stolly (a cocktail of Bollinger champagne and Stolichnaya vodka) Sex and the City, started a vodka craze that has seen Carrie Bradshaw wannabes drinking vodka-based drinks in chic cocktail bars from Vilnius to Manhattan.

Recently purists from the EU's so-called vodka belt, spanning Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland sought a tighter definition for Vodka that would only allow spirits made from grain, potatoes and molasses. These traditionalists who account for 70% of the world's production and 65 per cent of vodka consumption argued that the spirit should be protected with a narrow definition, just like whisky and rum. However other countries, eager to tap into the billion dollar global vodka trade, wanted a looser definition allowing the spirit to be made from other ingredients, for example, apples and grapes.

EU farm ministers met in Brussels, reaching a political agreement on the definition of vodka allowing a wide variety of raw materials as long as bottles are labeled properly requiring producers to clearly indicate if the spirit is made from non-traditional raw materials.

Liviko is Estonia's largest alcoholic beverage producer. Janek Kalvi CEO of Liviko, told journalists that the company aims to surpass Latvijas Balzams and become the largest alcohol producer and distributor in the Baltics. Liviko recently acquired Latvian alcoholic wholesaler and importer, LION & Ko. and Lithuania's subsidiary, LION Gerimai.

Russia's SPI group one of the world's largest alcoholic beverage groups, and owners of the Stolichnaya brand name, acquired Latvijas Balzams in 2001. LB has 48% of the market share in Latvia and substantial growth in Estonia and Lithuania.

The world famous Stolichnaya is bottled here in Latvia by LB for export to the rest of the world, including all eight flavors from Stolly Red through to the ultra-premium Stolichnaya Elit. SPI does not distribute and sell in Russia, as the Stolichnaya brand name belongs to the Russian Government.

A long-standing rumor is that Stolichnaya is also produced in Latvia. SPI group and LB claim Stolichnaya vodka is produced in Russia and then shipped in bulk to Latvia, where it is filtered, bottled and labeled as Stolichnaya vodka. The Russian Government refuted this stating that no exports of Stolichnaya vodka, or vodkas based on its recipe were ever exported and that in 2004-2005 there were no exports from the distillery in Kaliningrad, Russia to Latvia.

There are many brands on the market and many countries producing vodka. Some well known brands are Russian Smirnoff, Ikon, Stolichnaya, Finnish Koskenkorva and Finlandia, Sweden's Absolut, Estonia's Saaremaa, Turi and Ston, Latvia's LB and Lithuania's Stumbras. One of the world's most popular top shelf vodkas is Ireland's Boru, which makes one wonder if this is a contributing factor to Balts migrating to the land of the leprechaun.

On supermarket shelves in the Baltics you will find entire aisles dedicated to the clear intoxicating liquid. One local vodka connoisseur told City Paper "I have tried pretty much all of the vodkas out there including the nail polish removers sold here. There are some vodkas that can easily peel paint including Tris Graudi, any vodka in a 700ml bottle with a cheap looking label, some with Russian writing and anything in this country that claims to be Polish.

"We drink LB on weekends when watching sports but it is strictly for the cheap, quick buzz! The problem with the world of vodka is that some companies have gone too far with the marketing and over pricing of vodka. For example let's take Russky Standart, great vodka with an easy finish, but very expensive. There are vodkas that cost less than half the price and are so much smoother. Bottom line is vodka is just liquor. Don't get me wrong, I still enjoy the sweet elixir, but to try and glorify it is like putting my fat ass in spandex and calling me sexy."

By Larisa Medene