History and Significance
The story is told that in A.D. 988 the Grand Prince of Kiev in what is now Ukraine decided that it was time for his people to convert from their pagan ways to one of the monotheistic religions that held sway in the civilized countries to the south. First came the Jewish rabbis. He listened to their arguments, was impressed, but ultimately sent them away after remarking that the followers of Judaism did not control any land. Next came the Moslem mullahs. Again he was impressed, both with their intellectual arguments and the success of Islam as a political and military force, but when he was told that Islam proscribed alcohol he was dismayed and sent them away. Finally came the Christian priests who informed him that not only could good Christians drink alcohol, but that wine was actually required for church rituals such as communion. That was good enough for the Grand Prince, and on his command his subjects converted en masse to Christianity.
The point of this historical anecdote is that the Slavic peoples of the north and their Scandinavian neighbors took alcoholic drinks very seriously. The extreme cold temperatures of winter inhibited the shipment of wines and beers, as these relatively low- proof beverages could freeze during transit. Until the introduction of distilling into Eastern Europe in the 1400s, strong drink was made by fermenting strong wines, meads, and beers, freezing them, and then drawing off the alcoholic slush from the frozen water.
The earliest distilled spirit in Eastern Europe was distilled from mead (honey wine) or beer and was called perevara. Vodka (from the Russian word voda, meaning water) was originally used to describe grain distillates that were used for medicinal purposes. As distilling techniques improved Vodka (Wodka in Polish) gradually came to be the accepted term for beverage spirit, regardless of its origin.