There’s nothing more exciting than a birthday of an old friend. Especially when that birthday is its 500th. And especially when that old friend is vodka. Libation-history buffs say it’s been 500 years since vodka was first distilled by Kremlin monks, who used it as an antiseptic before they started drinking it.
To celebrate the 500 anniversary of this staple of college life, FM took a trip to one of the only vodka distilleries in the Northeast, M.S. Walker, Inc. of Somerville, Mass. Founded in 1933, the family-run company now boasts one of the most comprehensive spirits portfolios in Massachusetts, including a family label. Familiar plastic-bottled brands include Gilbert’s, S.S. Pierce and Cossack’s.
At M.S. Walker, Joseph J. Vitale serves the crucial role of rectifier and he oversees the “rectifying” process. According to Vitale, in order to produce vodka, pure alcohol and treated water are mixed. Then it is finished with charcoal filters and activated carbon. The three most important steps are mixing, treating and proofing. The latter is a very delicate operation because, as any vodka drinker knows, the proof determines the alcohol content—for instance, 80 proof is 40 percent alcohol. After the filtering, the substance is shipped over to the bottling tank. The entire process takes about 4 hours. A total of about 100 gallons are produced a month, and distributed all over the Northeast. The largest M.S. Walker name is Cossack’s, which is then bottled under other names as well.
Vodka is the largest selling alcoholic drink in America, mostly because it is neutral and can therefore be mixed with anything. As Vitale says, it is an ideal way to “get your buzz.” Vodka should be odorless, colorless and tasteless. Pretty much all vodka of any price is the same, so when you see a bottle of Grey Goose with the price way jacked up above, say, Gordon’s, it’s only because of marketing. “Vodka is vodka!” says Vitale. And it has been for 500 years.