Russians and Poles differ about where vodka originated, and there is no definitive evidence. Knowledge of distillation, which spread from France across Europe around the 12th century, is likely to have reached Poland before going on to Russia via Lithuania and Ukraine.
The earliest commercial distillers were Polish and Russian aristocrats. Vodka is the diminutive of voda, meaning water, so vodka means "little water". When the term was coined, using the diminutive form meant that it was a refined or improved version of the original. And as drinking water at that time frequently helped spread disease, it certainly was an improvement. Vodka was originally medicinal; it became a social drink in the 16th century. It is the Polish, Russian, Swedish and Finnish national drink.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
The ingredients make a significant difference to the vodka. Distillers' styles, methods of filtration and sources of water also have an influence, even between vodkas using the same raw materials. Knowing what to expect and what to look for is important, too. Industry sources say that, with wheat vodkas, look out for distinct aniseed notes on the palate; rye should result in a nuttiness and subtle sweetness; barley has spicier nutty notes; corn yields buttery, corn-on-the-cob flavours; and potato vodkas have boiled- or mashed-potato nuances. Now you know.
Different countries have different traditions. In Scandinavia and Russia, for example, vodka is drunk chilled or frozen, and downed in one gulp (although Swedes generally drink it with a mixer). One reason why Russians use shots is that the fumes, rather than the liquid, were believed in ancient times to be behind drunkenness. This is apparently true in theory, although you would need a neat delivery to get the vodka down without the fumes rising into your nose. In Poland, vodka is often served at room temperature and sipped; this allows its characteristics to come to the fore, as chilling narrows their range. Vodka is always accompanied by hors d'oeuvres in Poland, Russia and Scandinavia: caviar, smoked sturgeon, salted herring fillets, rye bread, pickled mushrooms, pickled gherkins, curd cheese or salmon pie. All are strongly flavoured enough to stand up to the vodka; spicy, salty flavours also encourage another round of spirits. In Ireland, vodka is traditionally drowned in a mixer and accompanied by a packet of crisps. So the advice is to chill it and enjoy it neat with a salty cracker.