You may have noticed that each Country seems to have it’s own national drink. The Germans, Belgians, Czechs and the English are usually known for making beer (Well ok the English are known for drinking the bar dry – but they’re known for making beer). The French, Portugese, Spanish and Italians are known for making wine. Then countries like Norway, Finland, Belarus, Russia and Poland make Vodka. But why?
Some would believe that it has to do with the food…
That Mediteranian countries eat differently to other countries and the wine compliments the food they eat more naturally, they even like to eat slowly the same way you drink wine. Food in the likes of Poland and Russia where the food is usually much more stodgy and hearty the national drink is also very different. Imagine a steaming bowl of Zurek served in a bowl made from bread, big plate of pierogi, then lastly a lovely juicy pork knuckle with potatoes and veg. Stronger spirits are required to actually get a person drunk after eating a 3 course Polish meal. It makes some sense.
Another theory is that it’s the weather…
In the south the weather is warmer, cool drinks like white wine in the day time developed to allow people to drink while refreshing them at the same time and in the evenings Red wine. With warm weather you have more time to enjoy a drink, wine is the kind of drink you can enjoy over a few hours. Similarly in countries nearing or touching the Arctic circle, Finland, Norway and Russia and Baltic Poland the weather determines what drink you’re more likely to enjoy. When the temperature is colder than -10℃ most winters and often for extended periods over winter would you pick a glass of wine or a shot of spirit? At the time people mostly worked manual jobs outside, double glazing windows and fiberglass insulation didn’t exist. In short, when it was cold it was cold everywhere. So this idea seems to make a lot of sense too.
The real reason is geographical
In truth both theories about Food and Weather are kind of true. Going back to the which countries drink which alcohol it’s more clear now that it’s the countries in the North that developed neutral grain spirits like Vodka where as the countries in the south developed wine. Europe is in fact divided into three belts that run laterally across the continent. The Vodka Belt in the north (Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Poland, Russia). The Beer Belt across the centre (Ireland, UK, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Czechia, Austria). Then the Wine Belt across the south (Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, the Balkans). These belts locations determines the kind of temperature that they experience over the course of the year (weather) and this determines the kind of ingredients they have available to them to make alcohol with all year long (food). In the southern most countries grapes can grow all year long, across most of the mediteranian they can be grown well into Autumn. This led to the evolution of wine, and for spirits the grape based Rakija (a wine or plum based brandy). Further north the prevailing temperatures are less accomodating to growing grapes on a large scale. And even if grapes were grown they can’t be stored through the longer winters that are experienced. In Poland by November there are 7 hours of daylight in the day and the temperature is around 2℃, in Italy it’s just under 10 hours of daylight and the temperature is about 15℃. So. The poles began to make alcohol from what they had at hand. Things they could store across a long cold winter until the temperatures rose again. Grains and root vegetables. In a cool dry place potatoes can be stored for months, and grains can be stored for years. The main ingredients for Polish Vodka are Rye, Potatoes and Beets.
Today the geographical limitations are still there. Browse a grocery store in Poland in January and you’ll notice the tomatoes are from Spain, in July they’ll be proudly displaying the origin as Polska. The same goes for the fruit. In winter fresh cherries stop being sold instead frozen cherries are the only option. So the next time you’re browsing your local supermarket for your fruit and veg and then pick up a pack of tomatoes from Spain and a bottle of vodka from Poland give a little thought to farmer living 200 years ago who was eating something that was made from the same thing he was drinking was made from. And toast him ‘Na Zdrowie!’.