In Russia, of course, it is vodka. Though I knew that before I visited, I learned that not all vodka is created equal! This is part three of a nostalgia tour of Russia. Parts one and two were the Moscow Metro, and Lake Baikal.
According to some studies a typical Russian man drinks 180 bottles of vodka a year, or one every two days. In Russia, vodka is very cheap, about $1 for half a liter, and greatly cherished. One Moscow liquor store owner said, “In our country, vodka is a purchase of the highest importance. Russians will never skimp on vodka—they’ll just eat less.” They also love to smoke cigarettes!
Cheap vodka is plentiful, all across Russia, even throughout Siberia. Let me tell you about my first two encounters with Russian vodka.
Story one originates, as both stories, on the Trans Siberian Railway just outside of Vladivostok (on the Sea of Japan). On my first night on the train, I heard a strange sound. It was the sound of singing, perhaps a Russian lullaby? I ventured down the hall, and found a rather large, muscular, but rotund man. He was laying in bed, barely fitting on it, sipping shots of vodka, and singing. We nodded, and I left before either of us could speak. It turns out he was a KGB agent, on his way to Khabarovsk for his next assignment. The next morning, when I asked about his singing, his only words were, “You like?” Of course, I said YES!
The second story is somewhat worse. On the second or third day of the journey, we met a nice couple from Hamburg, Germany. They were veterans of the TSR, having taken it many, many times. My roomie, a young man from Zurich, and I were invited by this couple for a few shots of vodka, before they departed t some obscure Siberian town. So, we all brought some snacks to their roomette, and began the ritual. Needless to say, I stopped after just one shot of vodka. I chugged it, and nearly puked!!! It tasted like a cross between kerosene and lighter fluid. Yuck! Of course, they all laughed, as I staggered back to my roomette to recuperate.
Origin of vodka: The origin of vodka is unclear. Both Russians and Poles claim they invented it. According to a Soviet historians hired to look into the matter in the 1970s, vodka was first produced by monks at the Chudov Monastery in the Kremlin in the late 15th century. Their first concoctions were made with alcohol imported from Genoa through the Crimean port of Feodosiya. Later it was made with grain alcohol made from locally grown rye or wheat and spring water. Many dismiss this version of events as too politically self serving.
Vodka may have invented as early as the 900s. Originally made in home stills, it is believed to have first been concocted as a disinfectant and a treatment for wounds. For many years it was used in medicines and cosmetics as well as for drinking. For centuries vodka was known as bread wine or “burnt wine.” Flavored vodkas dates back to around the 13th century when roots, honey, herbs and botanical essences were added to make raw just-out-of-the still vodka more palatable.
History of vodka in Russia:
“The whole history of Russian culture is tied to vodka.” In the early days vodka was often made with wood alcohol, which gives a smell like kerosene, and was sold in buckets.
By the early 16th century, vodka drinking was enormously popular. Most of the vodka was produced by local tavern owners who became very rich at the expense of their customers. By the mid 17th century the consumption of vodka had gotten so out of hand that a third of the male population was deeply in debt to the taverns and many farmers were too drunk to cultivate their land. The state took over and monopolized the sale of the drink.
In the mid 17th century, the Orthodox Church declared that vodka was an invention of the devil and destroyed all the documents that related to vodka’s early history. The church’s and the government attempt to crackdown on vodkas drinking only drove the drink underground and encouraged people to make their own vodka at home, a custom that continues to this day.
Disturbed by the impact that vodka was having on his people, Czar Alexander III decided to improve the quality of vodka by hiring the famed Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev. Among the improvements he made were fixing the alcohol content at 40 percent and basing the amounts of water and alcohol used to make vodka on volume rather than weight.
That is probably more than you ever wanted to know about Russian vodka. I will never forget this bit of Russian tradition, and the awful taste. For the record, I did have some decent vodka in Moscow and St. Petersburg later in the trip. Pivo and prosecco were always better choices!