April 17, 2008

It has happened at last. The oh-so-clever marketers of Absolut have managed to create a political incident with one of their ads for their undistinguished liquor, giving me a pretext to blog about the history of vodka. Many of you might already have heard about the ad, which ran in Mexican media, pandering to those among that populace who yearn for a reconquista”€”by showing a map of North America from before the Mexican-American War, with most of what is now the U.S. southwest in Mexican hands. The ad copy read “€œIn an Absolut world.”€

The company got properly reamed out by Lou Dobbs, Michelle Malkin, and other patriots, and offered a cringing apology. The fact that Absolut was forced to back down is itself a cheerful sign that popular resistance to the Treason Lobby is stronger than many suspect. (Let’s see how many Republicans vote the courage of their convictions, by refusing to pull the lever for John “Invade the World, Invite the World“€ McCain.)

It’s hard for a thirsty Slav like me to believe, but vodka hasn”€™t been around for ever”€”nor rum, gin, or even whiskey. While researching the book from which this article is adapted, The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Wine, Whiskey, and Song, I learned a shocking fact: Until the twelfth century no one in Europe knew how to make anything stronger than wine. Natural fermentation tops out at 14 percent alcohol (28 proof), after which the intoxicating by-product kills off the yeast, in much the way that rock bands often break up after their first gold record. Think of distillation as a way of going for the platinum.

The distillation process takes advantage of the different temperatures and rates at which water and alcohol evaporate, “€œreducing”€ the grape juice, corn mash, or fermented potato juice in much the way you”€™d “€œreduce”€ a sauce by leaving it on the stove. This procedure was unknown in the ancient world and medieval Europe. It was Arab and Persian alchemists who invented the technique of distilling liquids (not just wine), in their quest to transform base metals into gold. And in a way, they succeeded, because various forms of high-octane alcohol would some day be seen as liquid gold, in some countries replacing currency. It’s easy to forget that the word “€œalcohol”€ is of Arabic derivation, though it was first applied to spirits worth drinking by Renaissance magician Paracelsus”€”who thought the stuff pretty magical. Before that, liquors were called in various languages “€œwater of life,”€ or “€œeau de vie“€ and “€œuisge“€ (whiskey).

Ironically, the Islamic scientists who invented the procedure really couldn”€™t benefit from it, strong drink being forbidden by the Koran. It was only once”€”you guessed it”€”Christian monks got their hands on the equipment that alcoholic drinks began to appear across Europe. At first, they prescribed the tonics they created as “€œstrictly medicinal.”€ Pretty soon they were writing prescriptions by the barrel-full.

This history lesson reminds us just how “€œhandy”€ Europeans have proved at making ruthlessly practical use of things discovered by other people, such as tobacco, gunpowder, printing, and America. As Tom Standage observed in his excellent A History of the World in Six Glasses, distilled drinks caught on most quickly in lands north of the “€œwine line,”€ where it’s too cold to grow grapes.   These wintry folk learned the skills to make delicious, complex drinks out of whatever grew in those brief weeks when it wasn”€™t hailing. It’s for that reason I urge the reader to steer clear both of Italian “€œScotch”€ and Icelandic “€œwine.”€ Just trust me on this one, okay? 

Different countries take credit for inventing vodka. One story has Russian monks learning the technique of distillation from visiting Italian missionaries in the sixteenth century, and using it on native ingredients such as potatoes and grain. As a Russophile, I hate to disagree, but it appears that these monks must have stopped over in Poland along the way: Historians point to documents from the Polish town of Sandomierz in 1404, which make reference to a strong, highly distilled potato drink. The monks who first made the stuff intended it as a medicine, but it was quickly adopted as a means of stiffening oneself to go out and plough in the snow. And to this day, it serves as an excellent fuel for any snow plow, human or mechanical. (Warning to Russian readers: This does NOT mean that the fuel drained from the gas tank of your neighbor’s snow plow can serve as an excellent vodka. This is not what logicians call a “€œsymmetric proposition.”€)

Over the centuries, a variety of ingredients have been rendered into vodka:

Potatoes, apples, plums (Poland)
Grain (Russia)
Paper mill residue (Sweden)
Sugar beets (Scotland)
Maple syrup (Vermont)
Grapes (France)
Coal, chickens (the Soviet Union)

Perhaps the only unfortunate side-effect of the fall of Soviet tyranny”€”apart from the wholesale plundering of the country by oligarchs who now sit on their ill-gotten wealth in foreign capitals like London, scheming against their motherland in the name of “€œdemocracy,”€ by which they mean “€œkleptocracy”€”€”is the decline of chicken-based vodka. After a prolonged search, I have reluctantly determined that this distinctive drink has gone the way of Aeroflot and the Komsomol. The closest a nostalgic Slav can come is to whip up chicken ala vodka, but that isn”€™t really the same thing, now is it?

Whatever its origins, vodka is in a sense the purest form of alcohol, which no doubt gives rise to brand names such as Skyy, Cristall, and of course, the Swedish brand Absolut. Indeed, this last brand evokes some complex theological questions”€”and has provoked widespread popular confusion”€”which cry out for clarification.

Philosophers who attempt to reason about the mystery of God’s nature teach us that while we are relative, dependent creatures composed of mixed elements (body and spirit, reason and emotion), God the creator is “€œabsolute.”€ According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Absolute “€œsignifies (1) that which is complete and perfect; (2) that which exists by its own nature and is consequently independent of everything else.”€ In such discussions of God, we hope to capture something meaningful about the ultimate, ineffable mystery by referring to positive human attributes, taken to the greatest degree imaginable. Such reasoning is called “€œpositive”€ theology, since it entails positing things about God, based on analogy from the lower things of creation. This kind of thinking leads us to say that God is “€œall-powerful,”€ “€œall-good,”€ “€œall-wise,”€ “€œperfectly just”€ and absolutely “€œsimple”€”€”with no admixture of lower elements, and no moving parts.

Philosophers and mystics also use what is called “€œnegative”€ theology, pointing out how God is unlike us and our limited reality. Hence, God is “€œuncaused,”€ “€œimmortal,”€ “€œunlimited,”€ “€œindependent,”€ “€œun-created,”€ and non-material, etc. Don”€™t take this too far, of course. When drawing up your own lists of negations at home, leave off such terms as “€œunemployed,”€ “€œundocumented,”€ “€œdisinterested”€ and “€œunsweetened.”€ They really don”€™t apply.

St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033″€“1109) defined God as “€œthat being than which nothing greater can be conceived.”€ He even regarded this definition as a proof that God must really exist, since if He didn”€™t, then we could conceive of something greater”€”namely a God who did exist…. (See what he did there? Pretty clever, eh?) It’s a brain-teaser worthy of freshman philosophy class, and St. Thomas Aquinas (1225″€“1274) didn”€™t buy it. But Aquinas did carry on the tradition of conceiving of God as the consummate perfection of every quality of being. Given the way our minds work”€”we start with particular things we”€™ve seen, tasted, or touched”€”this could lead us to conceive of God as a vast collection of really pleasant and positive things, piled up and waiting for us in heaven like a divine buffet. But this is only because we are looking through the wrong end of the kaleidoscope; in fact, all the glorious complexity of the universe can be traced back to a pure, spiritual Source, one infinitely perfect and simple being.

Which brings us back, of course, to Swedish vodka. As a liquor, vodka has always puzzled me a little, since by general agreement, the better a vodka is the less taste it has. If, as Walter Pater wrote, all art aspires to the condition of music (it doesn’t), then all vodkas distill toward the flavor of moonshine. If you read the ad copy touting various vodkas, or the tasting notes compiled by connoisseurs, you”€™ll be struck by the weirdly theological impulse that seems to animate them. Instead of talking about flavor, the writers brag of its absence”€”of the “€œpurity,”€ “€œsimplicity,”€ and “€œstarkness”€ you”€™ll find in the clear glass of almost tasteless, fiercely alcoholic liquor.

Absolut’s ad campaigns have made the most of this, punning ruthlessly on the brand’s evocative name, and inserting the vodka, Zelig-like, into virtually every life situation (Just about the only pun the company didn”€™t use was “€œAbsolut Power,”€ with a picture of Stalin on the bottle. That campaign “€œdidn”€™t test well”€ and was reluctantly abandoned). The company acts as if the grain liquor itself were the Uncreated, perfectly simple and self-subsistent Cause which underlay and guaranteed the existence of all lower, contingent beings. But I’m pretty sure that isn”€™t true….

Okay, I did some research, and I’ve compiled a list of important differences between Absolut vodka and God. The following checklist should help contemporary believers keep the distinction clear in their minds:

God ……………………………………………Absolut Vodka 
Uncreated spirit…………………………….Pure, distilled spirit  
Absolutely simple………………………….Stark, almost flavorless
Omnipotent…………………………………..Powerful (80 proof)
Omnipresent…………………………………Ads are omnipresent
Perfectly free……………………………….$9.00 a shot in Manhattan
Mysteriously became incarnate………..Mysteriously used in Cosmopolitans


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