Vodka got its start in the depths of the 12th century, somewhere in Poland or Russia. Although it was originally concocted for use in perfumes, herbalists soon discovered that they could use this clear, colorless alcohol as a base for drinkable medicinal infusions. In tribute to its life-enhancing qualities, the stuff acquired the name zhizenennia voda, or "water of life." When it finally dawned on medieval tipplers "the heck with the herbs, let's drink the stuff straight," the name got shortened to vodka (the Russian diminutive for "little water"), making it that much faster to order a shot at the local tavern.
The jury is still out on whether the Russians or the Poles made the first vodka. But linguists have shown that the Russian word voda was originally borrowed from the Polish. And the famous Smirnoffs, who introduced vodka to Paris around the time of the Russian Revolution, hailed from Lvov, Poland. This isn't exactly hard evidence, but I'm willing to indulge Poland's claim to be the true birthplace of vodka, especially since they make so many excellent examples. Like these three, for instance.
ULTIMATE VODKA ($58)
Ultimat Vodka claims to be the only vodka in the world blended from rye, wheat, and potatoes, giving it more complexity than vodkas made from only a single ingredient. Each of the raw materials is fermented and distilled separately, in effect creating three distinctly different vodkas that are then blended, or "married," as the master blender would say.
The result is an elegant and balanced vodka with a smooth, suave finish. The impressive packaging is up to snuff, too. This one comes in a refined Polish crystal decanter with a cobalt tint and a cork stopper. (Don't worry; the vodka inside is crystal clear.)