For the Love of Vodka

A Brown University historian has an interesting fascination


Patricia Herlihy likes her vodka “neat.’’ That means she likes it without embellishment. No orange juice or heavy cream, thank you very much. On occasion, she will drink a vodka tonic or a vodka martini, but it has to be a really big party. Her favorite vodka is Russkiy Standart, known on this side of the world as Russian Standard. “It’s smooth,’’ she says, with a grin.

Pat is 83 years old with white hair cut in a bob and grey eyes that light up when she laughs, which is often. Maybe you saw her latest YouTube video, a seven-minute gem that chronicles her travels to different “watering holes’’ on the East Side and beyond to imbibe. And Da, she lived to tell the story.

But this Brown University historian is more than an Internet sensation. She has also written a charming book about this most versatile of spirits, Vodka: A Global History. The book takes us for a ride through vodka’s history, from its origins in a Slavic country in the 14th century to its global popularity today. Along the way, we get clever illustrations and tidbits like these: Bison Grass Vodka, a favorite among Poles and Russians, is reputed to enhance virility, and vodka demand spiked in the United States after James Bond, uh, Sean Connery, uttered those famous words, "shaken not stirred," in the 1962 film Dr. No.

I’m not much of a drinker, but I love this book. It’s a fun read. I like the author just as much. How lucky we are on the East Side to have her in our midst, holding forth on both Russian history and a seemingly unremarkable clear liquid without color, odor or taste that marketers have cleverly promoted. Surely you’ve seen the vodka in a bottle shaped like Marilyn Monroe with her skirt billowing up.

Pat is charming crowds at local bookstores and restaurants, as she did one night at Waterman Grille at an event hosted by the liquor store Bottles and its general manager Eric Taylor. Her talk included a PowerPoint presentation and a “tasting’’ of five different vodkas, among them, Hammer + Sickle and Sons of Liberty Loyal 9 - made here in Little Rhody. The veggies, bread and smoked salmon were not optional. Pat explains:

“Russians, unless they’re really, really far gone, never drink without food. You toast. You eat.’’

All roads lead to the East Side, and so it is with Pat. She was born in San Francisco and moved to China in 1930 with her newly-divorced mother, Irene, who had planned on a brief visit, but instead stayed five years. Pat’s first language was Mandarin, her second, Pidgin English. She graduated from Kaiser-Wilhelm kindergarten in Shanghai. (We should all be so lucky.)

The two returned home in 1936, settling in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, long before it became a hippie haven. Pat graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a bachelor’s degree in history and married another historian, David Herlihy. They met at a high school debate in 1945 about socialized medicine. Pat was for; David against.

They raised five boys and a girl – whew! – while pursuing academic careers. David got his doctorate in medieval history from Yale University, and Pat earned her doctorate in Russian history from the University of Pennsylvania. “I preferred studying to housecleaning,’’ she says.

David taught at colleges throughout the country, including Harvard, eventually becoming a world-renowned Italian medievalist. Pat made her mark too; her expertise is 19th century Russian history, especially in Ukraine. They moved to Providence in 1986 to teach at Brown University, where David was a professor until his death in 1991 of pancreatic cancer. “We were great pals,’’ says Pat.

The Herlihys lived on Keene Street –number 92, to be exact. (You know, the house with the turret.) Pat’s son-in-law, an émigré from Albania, worked in the fish department at Eastside Market in the mid-1990s. Her son, Maurice Herlihy, is a professor of computer science at Brown. A grandson graduated from Brown last year, and a granddaughter will graduate from there next year.

Pat taught at Brown until 2001 and moved a few years ago to Cambridge to be closer to her children. She commutes to Brown’s Watson Institute for International Studies, where she’s an adjunct professor. From her sun-drenched office on Thayer Street, she does research, meets with students, mentors professors from Tajikistan and engages all with her wit and warmth, raising her charka only after hours.

Her fascination with vodka began while researching Nicholas II’s ban on the spirit in August 1914. In short, the czar thought Russians were turning into alcoholics and he wanted his troops to be prepared for the first World War. That work resulted in a book, The Alcoholic Empire: Vodka and Politics in Late Imperial Russia, published in 2002. It took her four years to write Vodka, partly because the Russians were skittish about providing information, fearing that she might portray them in a bad light. She did not.

In between visiting her six grandchildren and following her beloved Celtics and Red Sox, Pat is cranking out two more books: a memoir and a book about Eugene Schuyler, an American diplomat who served in Russia. (I like him because his father owned a drugstore in Ithaca.) Pat is also a three-time cancer survivor: breast cancer in 2009, chronic lymphocytic cancer in 1994 and kidney cancer in 1978. If you want to hang out with an optimist or chat about the Bolsheviks, check out Room 315 at the Watson Institute. The door is always open.

“I’ve always found that life is fun,’’ says Pat. “I told my kids to put on my grave, ‘She had a good time.’’’

Oh, one last thing. She prefers red wine over vodka, but don’t tell her publisher.