How to Drink Vodka like a Russian
Author Darra Goldstein explores the history and traditions of Russian vodka.
Asked what comes to mind when they hear the words “Russian food,” people usually say borscht, vodka, and caviar. Borscht is actually Ukrainian, but vodka and caviar are indeed iconically Russian—and ideal complements to each other. The spirit’s crisp, clean profile delivers a refreshing counterpoint to the rich, buttery fish eggs. No indulgence is more Russian than a generous scoop of caviar followed by a toast—to peace, to friendship, to beautiful women—and a swallow. “Moderation in all things” is a Greek motto, not a Russian one.
Vodkas vary wildly depending on their base ingredient and how each variety is crafted. The spirit can be distilled from any fermentable ingredient (even from milk, in Vermont). Although Poland has perfected the art of distilling soft-tasting vodka from potatoes, I think the finest comes from grains such as rye, barley, or wheat. Vodka’s transformative powers meant that it was originally used for medicinal purposes. Pulkheria Ivanovna, in Nikolai Gogol’s story “Old-World Landowners,” concocts variously infused spirits to cure every ill, including a vodka infused with the herb centaury to heal ringing in your ears or shingles on your face, and another with peach pits in case you’ve bumped your head against the corner of a cupboard or a table when getting out of bed and a lump’s sprung up on your forehead.
Russia’s love of alcohol is not only literary but central to Russian history. The twelfth-century Tale of Bygone Years, Russia’s earliest chronicle, relates that when Grand Prince Vladimir debated which religion would best unite his new nation, he dismissed Islam in favor of Christianity, proclaiming “Drinking is the joy of Rus’. ” From the earliest times, the Russians enjoyed mead and kvass, lightly alcoholic beverages achieved through fermentation rather than distillation. They also produced fermented birch juice and beer. Distilled spirits, in the form of vodka, were introduced to Russia by the fifteenth century, either from the south, through Crimea, or from Western Europe along the Hanseatic trade routes—no one knows for sure. What we do know is that after domestic production began in the late sixteenth century, the drink—called goriachee vino (burning wine) or khlebnoe vino (grain wine)—gradually displaced the older beverages in popularity. The word vodka (a diminutive, affectionate form of “water”) didn’t come into common usage until the late nineteenth century.
It’s hard to say who’s to blame for the Russian proclivity for spirits—the vodka itself, or the government. Ever since Ivan the Terrible established the first taverns in 1553, Russian rulers have vacillated between lax and strict approaches to alcohol, at times encouraging its consumption to build up the state treasury and ease public unrest, at other times curtailing access. Vodka was already causing significant social problems by the seventeenth century, but the government, which enjoyed a virtual monopoly on its commerce, was loath to curtail production and lose revenue. In the early eighteenth century, Peter the Great used vodka to political advantage, plying his court and foreign diplomats with drink as a form of intelligence gathering. He introduced drinking games, convened a Drunken Synod in mockery of the Russian Orthodox Church, and famously forced his subjects to drink vodka from the Great Eagle goblet that held one-and-a-half liters and that had to be drained on the spot.
Numerous attempts at prohibition proved unsuccessful. Temperance societies were considered such a financial threat to government income that they were banned and their proselytizers exiled to Siberia. But pervasive drunkenness was an equivalent threat, and in 1914, as Russia entered World War I, Tsar Nicholas I succeeded in making Russia the first country to institute prohibition. More recently, Soviet leaders Yuri Andropov and Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to regulate access to alcohol, generating widespread discontent, especially Gorbachev’s 1988 restrictions, which led to a run on sugar, used to produce moonshine. The government compounded its problem by imposing a sugar ration, which was even more widely unpopular, since sugar was necessary for making the baked goods and preserves the Russians pride themselves on.
Being old-school, I prefer my vodka not too smooth or soft, but with a bit of an afterbite. I also avoid commercially flavored vodkas, preferring to infuse my own. Good vodka should have a pleasant aroma, with no hint of ethanol or oily finish. And it should be served ice-cold. I always keep bottles in the freezer, ready for immediate consumption. Unlike a cocktail, Russian vodka isn’t meant for sipping—it’s drunk straight, downed from a shot glass in a single swig. The sensation of the icy liquid coursing through your body is quite wonderful—warming in winter, refreshing in summer.
Unless it’s abused, vodka is still considered healing. Russian friends taught me their fail-proof regimen for a cold. Just before bedtime, pour yourself a generous shot of pertsovka (pepper vodka), then slather a piece of black bread with honey and top it with thinly sliced raw garlic. After eating the bread and downing the vodka, wrap a warm scarf around your neck and crawl into bed. By morning you should be cured, though no one will want to come near you since you’ll reek of garlic.
- 1 (750-ml) bottle high-quality vodka
- 36 fresh, sweet cherries, such as Bing
This delicate infusion capturing the flavor of summer is ideal for either a hot summer’s day or a cold winter’s night. The vodka takes on a subtle shade of pink from the infused cherry pits. Use the unused flesh to make a sweet cherry dessert, like clafoutis or cobbler.
Transfer the vodka to a wide-mouth 1-quart jar, reserving the original bottle. Pit the cherries, crush the pits with a mallet or meat pounder, and drop the pits into the vodka. Close the lid and allow the vodka to infuse at room temperature for 48 hours. Strain out the pits and transfer the vodka by means of a funnel into the reserved bottle. Chill well before serving. The vodka will keep indefinitely in the freezer.
Reprinted with permission from Beyond the North Wind: Russia in Recipes and Lore by Darra Goldstein, copyright © 2020. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.