by Olivia Giovetti
The scene surrounding Sheremetyevo Airport—the first view of Moscow from a descending Boeing—is grey, bleak and dark. At 9 a.m., the sun is barely rising and will set six hours later. Smitten with its own misery—as seen in the works of Tolstoy, Shostakovich, and Pushkin—Russia has maintained a sense of dark, impenetrable foreboding long past the fall of the Iron Curtain. And while the only thing colder than the icy morning air is the attitude of most hardened Muscovites, all you need is a bottle of vodka for a quick thaw.
Not for the faint of liver, Russia is a place where you’ll never drink alone. A social tradition that extends back to the early days of Peter the Great, vodka is the standby for colds, hangovers, birthdays, funerals or—its most culturally engrained prescription—dusha dushe. Literally meaning “heart to heart,” dusha dushe is the state of conviviality that has historically gotten Russians through everything from Napoleon to Communism to frigid nights that drop well below zero.
You won’t find your babushka’s vodka, either. Stateside, vodka is considered to be sans odor, color or taste; here the libation features a myriad of flavors, from distinct to subtle. Its original intent was more to heal than to inebriate (vodka means “little water”). However, the Russians love to drink—they rejected Islam as a religion in the late 900s, as it forbade alcohol—and it wasn’t long before families began distilling their own mixes for intimate company and lavish parties alike.
Though prevalent in Moscow’s bars, clubs and restaurants in flavors ranging from limonnaya (lemon) to pertsovka (pepper), vodka is still best when it’s homemade. My native friend Grisha assures me of this as I down a shot of his own herb and verbena brew. It stings and burns. As one of the many Russian drinking adages goes, “The first vodka comes like a stick in your throat. The second flies in like a falcon. The others just dive like small birdies.”
Birdies abound if you’re taking vodka in a Russian home. Every occasion is an occasion to toast; from the food to the weather to the host to the game on TV. Michael E. van Landingham, an American Russophile currently living in St. Petersburg, chalks this up to a quirky sense of Russian hospitality.
“When you are at someone’s house you are like family,” he says, “and there is no better way to get close to one another than to crack open a bottle of vodka or some beers and toast to each other.” Toasting is an art form, both in private and public, to the point where many bookstores (including Bilingua, which is also a hip bar/café/club) carry several tomes on how to say cheers.
Interestingly, while the Russians are all for drinking, they look down on public drunkenness. The first thing you’ll see on any menu is zakuski, chasers which usually include a variety of pickled vegetables, fish and bread. It’s good form to have a shot of vodka in one hand and a zakushki in the other. Have one set with each toast, and you should still have your wits about you by the end of the night. And if you’re really looking to keep sober, Russian beer has recently gained in popularity and quality.
While it’s no longer sold piping hot from unmarked barrels, as was the norm in Grisha’s time, it’s still common, van Landingham says, “to see business men carrying beers in the morning on the street and home at night.” Move down the street from your beer stand to a blini (traditional buckwheat pancakes served with sour cream and salmon or caviar) stand, and you’ll have one of the best meals in the country.
Many of the top beer brands are brewed in St. Petersburg, whose famous soft waters account for a smooth flavor backed up by a healthy dose of alcohol. Baltika is the tsar of beers here, without question. Its wide range of products—from lager to porter to bitter—offers a broad appeal, and with an alcohol strength that can go as high as 9 percent, there’s very little not to love.
Giving Baltika a run for its money is the self-described “young and audacious” Tinkoff Brewery, another St. Petersburg mainstay with a similar lineup of funky lagers, pilsners and porters. They’ve even combined the restaurant and the brewery into a one-stop shop. Scattered throughout Moscow, Tinkoff restaurants feature beers brewed on-site and an eclectic menu including everything from classic American grub to questionable sushi.
In spite of this, while beer continues to rise in popularity, it cannot destroy what Richard Owen once described as the “mystical” relationship between Russians and vodka. And that’s a relationship worth toasting. •
WATCH THE BIRDIES: Russia’s Top Beers and Vodkas
Baltika Porter No. 6: A malty brew widely available in the United States, Baltika’s porter is perfect for Thanksgiving or a rich dessert.
Tinkoff Belie Nochi: The name translates to “White Nights,” an apt time to drink this hefeweizen that has a nice combination of fruitiness and bitterness.
Ochakovo Black Beer: Stout enough to seem like a Russian cousin to Guinness, Ochakovo is smoky and sweet. Good for pairing with chocolate.
Baltika Lager No. 3: Another favorite from the brewery that accounts for 70 percent of the Russian beer scene, this award-winning lager is one of the best brews to buy off the street and enjoy in the park.
Oxota Svetloe: Surprisingly tasty, this summer beer has some citrus notes. Best to avoid the canned version.
Liviz: Distilled since the late 1800s, Liviz is one of the highest-regarded grain vodkas in St. Petersburg.
Dovgan: Its recipe—featuring black earth grain—stretches back to 1885, yet Dovgan is paradoxically one of the first “new” Russian brands that cropped up when the state no longercontrolled vodka production.
Smirnov: Don’t let the similar name fool you; this isn’t the U.S. vodka called “Smirnoff,” though both pay homage to Muscovite distiller Pyotr Smirnov.
Jewel of Russia Classic: A luxurious wheat and rye distillation, Jewel of Russiahit the market in 2001 andis easily found Stateside.
Zyr: Another wheat and rye vodka, Zyr is at once playful and strong. In spite of its intensity, it finishes with a sweet aftertaste that leaves you pouring another glass.