The traditional drink of Russia was actually something very different from the vodka most familiar today. Before rectification technology was invented for the chemical industry in Western Europe, ethanol could not be used as it is nowadays. The vodka was made from grain and distilled in copper pot stills, rather like single malt whisky, and was called Breadwine or Polugar.
When rectification (distillation columns) reached Russia in 1870, alcohol started being produced using the more efficient modern technology and the old recipes of grain distillates used by the nobility were slowly phased out. It was then in 1895, when the Tsar introduced a state monopoly, that the production of Polugar was completely forbidden and all the traditional distilleries with their copper pot stills were destroyed. This lost symbol of traditional Russian gastronomy has now started to make a comeback thanks to a recipe found in a book from the 18th century by Boris Rodionov, a well-known Russian vodka historian, academic and published author. The Rodionov family are now spearheading a movement to restore the former glory of traditional grain distillates, Polugar, so enjoyed during the golden age of Russian history.
The word Polugar actually means half-burned in Russian. This is because before alcohol meters were invented, the strength and therefore the perceived quality of an alcoholic drink would be tested by boiling two portions of the liquid until just one portion is left. In other words, when the drink was half burned off, it was called “Polugar.” When alcohol meters were finally invented and they measured the strength of Polugar, it was 38,5%. Polugar is the real legendary Russian breadwine, restored using all of traditional technologies and recipes from the 18th and 19th centuries. It is “father” of Russian vodka.