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Murder, intrigue, and the mysterious origins of vodka

Take a good look at the vodka section of your local liquor store. On the upper shelves you’ll find shimmering glass bottles of all shapes and sizes originating from every corner of the world. Vodka today is the world’s most popular liquor and a true global commodity. Looking below the so-called top shelf import and boutique vodkas you'll see cheap, domestic products, their plastic bottles usually emblazoned with Russian symbols, often bearing the name of the Russian entrepreneur who fled the Bolshevik Revolution to set up shop in the West.

Without a doubt, vodka is the definitive Russian cultural product. But what is vodka? Where does it come from, and why do the Russians seem to have a particular affinity for it?

In 2006 I went to Russia to find answers—and if you go to Russia today with such questions, you’ll invariably end up in the same place I did: the Vodka History Museum at Izmailovsky Park in northeast Moscow. In the tumultuous 1990s, Izmailovsky Park was a bustling souvenir bazaar and open-air flea market. Today, the rickety stalls of the souvenir peddlers have been updated with colorful, sturdy veneers, while happily towering over the market is a bright, Disneyfied kremlin housing the Vodka Museum. I highly recommend a visit: after perusing the museum’s artifacts you can knock back complimentary vodka samples in their recreated nineteenth-century tavern with windows festooned with gilded decorations and wooden tables bracketed by long, sturdy benches of dark mahogany.

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