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Dmitri Mendeleev and the science of vodka

22 August 2019

Separating fact from fiction regarding the popular spirit and its link to the legendary chemist.

Vodka at a liquor store.
Vodka for sale at a liquor store. Credit: Vladimir Shiltsev

Great thinkers in science often become associated with myths about their work and discoveries. Take Isaac Newton. The average person might not be able to recall his formula for gravitation or explain his three laws of motion, but they will remember the story of him being struck by a falling apple. Galileo Galilei is credited with saying “eppur si muove” (“and yet it moves”) on his deathbed, symbolizing his unbroken free spirit and his conviction that Earth revolves around the Sun. Ben Franklin is known for flying a kite struck by lightning. All of those myths have been debunked by scholars, yet they live on.

Dmitri Mendeleev.
Dmitri Mendeleev, vodka connoisseur? Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, W. F. Meggers Collection

Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev, who created the periodic table 150 years ago, has also become the subject of myth. One often-told story holds that Mendeleev’s famous table was the product of a dream—that one February evening after a wearying day of work, he went to sleep and dreamed that the chemical elements could be lined up to form groups with similar properties if arranged by atomic weight. There’s no evidence that is true.

Another popular myth credits Mendeleev with the invention of vodka. The claim dates back to the early part of the 20th century, when many in Russia wanted to add legitimacy to any possible piece of national culture. Other people, while accepting the fact that vodka existed several hundred years before Mendeleev, have perpetuated the legend that the famous chemist set the standard for vodka as a mix of 40% ethanol and 60% water.

That myth has percolated through TV shows, literature, and even scholarly books, such as William Pokhlebkin’s 1991 History of Vodka. It has also spread overseas along with the product. Visit a liquor store in the US and you can find a colorfully labeled bottle that proclaims, “In 1894, Dmitri Mendeleev, the greatest scientist in all Russia, received the decree to set the Imperial quality standard for Russian vodka and the ‘Russian Standard’ was born.” Russian Standard is, of course, a brand of vodka, but the bottle’s description makes the claim that there is something scientific about that standard as well.

Vodka viscosity v temperature.
Chilled vodka is more viscous than the spirit at room temperature.

This myth, like vodka, has two parts truth and three parts water. Mendeleev’s 1865 doctoral dissertation was indeed titled “A discourse on the compounds of alcohol and water.” Mendeleev sought to learn about the interaction of molecules by making precise measurements of the density and thermal expansion of a mix of ethanol and water at various ratios. His observations led him to conclude that solutions are the product of solutes and solvents combining into relatively stable chemical compounds. Nowhere in his dissertation did he argue that vodka that is 40% alcohol by volume is somehow optimal.

It is true that Mendeleev, as both a strong proponent of state-supported industrial development and a scientific expert on alcohol rectification, was part of a Russian government commission dedicated to introducing an efficient excise tax on alcohol and other consumer goods. By the early 1900s, the taxes he helped implement were bringing in about a quarter of the country’s revenue. But again, Mendeleev’s work with the commission was not about the best way to mix vodka.

Experimenting with vodka.
Vladimir Shiltsev and his daughter Liza Shiltseva use a spiritometer to measure the composition of several vodkas over time. Credit: Vladimir Shiltsev

Though it wasn’t Mendeleev, whoever was responsible for homing in on the 40/60 mixture of alcohol and water deserves praise, because that proportion gives vodka several remarkable properties. At room temperature, the mixture is three times as viscous as either of its constituent components. And vodka out of the freezer is 2.5 times as viscous as it is at room temperature—that’s why connoisseurs strongly advise drinking vodka very cold to fully enjoy its smoothness. In addition, a bottle of vodka left in a freezer won’t burst: Alcohol acts as an antifreeze, allowing the mixture to stay liquid well below 0 °C. Other liquors have reduced freezing points too, but only vodka has the ideal combination of high alcohol content and no additives. It’s the purest of all spirits.

Vodka is also potent enough that at room temperature its fumes can be set on fire—a phenomenon that has been used as a simple check of alcohol content since the 15th century to prevent barkeeps from watering vodka down. A similar standard for vodka instituted by Russia in the early 19th century required that no more than half the initial volume of liquid must remain after burning.

Percent alcohol in vodka over time.
A simple experiment demonstrates that the alcohol and water in vodka do not evaporate at the same rate.

Another popular myth holds that you can pour vodka into an open glass at room temperature and enjoy it days later because the alcohol and water evaporate at the same rate. Vodka actually does not have such a property. After conducting simple home measurements with an optical spiritometer, my daughter and I found that after about two days of standing at room temperature under normal conditions, the strength of vodka in a glass is reduced from 40% to 30%.

Finally, one has to remember that yes, vodka has a long history and great cultural background, but it also has quite predictable pleasant and unpleasant effects. Mendeleev himself, for example, did not drink vodka out of fear of becoming an alcoholic like one of his elder brothers. The great chemist preferred red wine.

Vladimir Shiltsev is a Distinguished Scientist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. He was the inaugural director of Fermilab’s Accelerator Physics Center, serving from 2007 to 2018.

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