Happy Birthday Russian vodka! (But not really)

Happy Birthday Russian vodka! (But not really…)

On this day, in 1865, renowned chemist Dmitry Mendeleev defended his doctoral dissertation, “On Combining Water and Alcohol,” in which he began the exploration of the ratios, concentration and weights of various concentrations, which would lead to the publication, in 1894, of Mendeleev’s state standards for vodka production. Mendeleev’s 40% has remained the standard by which Russian vodka is produced to this day.
Well most of this is true, and some of it is a stretch manufactured by the makers of certain Russian Vodka.

Dmitry Mendeleev was born in a village near Tobolsk, Siberia in 1834. He is thought to be the youngest child of Ivan Pavlovich and Maria Dmitrievna Mendeleev.  Between 1859 and 1861 he worked on the capillarity of liquids and the workings of the spectroscope in Heidelberg. He became a professor in 1864 and earned his Doctorate in Science for his dissertation “on The Combinations of Water and Alcohol” in 1865.
One of Mendeleev’s major contributions as a scientist was his work on the Periodic Table. In 1863 there were 56 known elements with a new element being discovered at a rate of approximately one per year. Other scientists had previously identified periodicity of elements. John Newlands described a Law of Octaves, noting their periodicity according to relative atomic weight in 1864, publishing it in 1865. His proposal identified the potential for new elements such as germanium. The concept was criticized and his innovation was not recognized by the Society of Chemists until 1887. Another person to propose a periodic table was Lothar Meyer, who published a paper in 1864 describing 28 elements classified by their valence, but with no prediction of new elements. Meyer, who is often credited with the discovery of the periodic system, opposed and criticized the Periodic Law.

After becoming a teacher, Mendeleev wrote the definitive textbook of his time: Principles of Chemistry (two volumes, 1868–1870). As he attempted to classify the elements according to their chemical properties, he too noticed patterns that led him to postulate his periodic table. Mendeleev was unaware of the earlier work on periodic tables going on in the 1860s. On 6 March 1869, Mendeleev made a formal presentation to the Russian Chemical Society, entitled The Dependence between the Properties of the Atomic Weights of the Elements, which described elements according to both atomic weight and valence
In 1905, Mendeleev was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and in 1906 was nominated or the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of the periodic system. The Chemistry Section of the Swedish Academy supported this recommendation. The Academy was then supposed to approve the Committee choice as it has done in almost every case, however,  at the full meeting of the Academy, a dissenting member of the Nobel Committee, Peter Klason, proposed the candidacy of Henri Moissan whom he favored. Svante Arrhenius, although not a member of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, had a great deal of influence in the Academy and also pressed for the rejection of Mendeleev, arguing that the periodic system was too old to acknowledge its discovery in 1906. According to the contemporaries, Arrhenius was motivated by the grudge he held against Mendeleev for his critique of Arrhenius’s dissociation theory. After heated arguments, the majority of the Academy voted for Moissan. The attempts to nominate Mendeleev in 1907 were again frustrated by the absolute opposition of Arrhenius

As for Vodka and its standards, this is mostly a myth.  One of the inscriptions on a stand in the “Museum of vodka” in St. Petersburg says that Mendeleev regarded the ideal strength of vodka to be 38 percent, but this number was rounded to 40 to simplify the calculation of the tax on alcohol. Furthermore, this myth is widely used for promotional purposes. For example, the label of “Russian Standard” says that the vodka is “compliant with the highest quality of Russian vodka approved by the royal government commission headed by Mendeleev in 1894.”
In fact, Mendeleev’s dissertation “on The Combinations of Water and Alcohol” has no mention of working with an alcoholic solution of 40 proof. The researcher studied higher concentrations of alcohol – 70 proof and above. Moreover, there is no published work of Mendeleev related to the methods of diluting alcohol in vodka production. Secondly, the standard for vodka was established in Russia in 1843, when Mendeleev was only nine years old. It was introduced by the government without the involvement of any scientists and excise commissions.

As for the “vodka” commission, in reality it was formed, not in 1894, but 1895. Mendeleev spoke at its meetings at the end of the year only about the excise tax, and never said a word about a standard of manufacture. The use of the date 1894 by Russian Standard appears to be due to an article by historian William Pokhlebkin, who wrote that “30 years after writing a dissertation … he agreed to join the commission.” Manufacturers of “Russian Standard” simply added metaphorical 30 to 1864 and came up with 1894.

So while his involvement in vodka is mostly a myth, this does not take away the laurels of Mendeleev as one of the most brilliant chemists in the history of mankind.

In celebration of Dmitry, regardless of his impact on vodka, I give you Deputy Dave’s Drink of the Day: Russian Cocktail

¾ oz vodka
¾ oz gin
¾ oz white crème de cacao

Shake all ingredients with ice, strain into a cocktail glass and serve.


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