February 14, 2007

Drinking in Russia


What do you drink or not drink in Russia? Let's start with the water. We have noted that it is not the norm to find ice in soft drinks, etc. This is typical of many European countries. Hotels and restaurants, which cater to tourists, will offer ice. But, take caution. Scientists consider about a fourth of Russia's water to be unsafe. Some areas are tainted by a parasite which will cause most unpleasant results. In short, the best thing to do is consume bottled water. If the water is not considered safe, then, neither is the ice!

Tea was introduced in Russia by the Mongols in the 1600's. It is the most popular nonalcoholic drink in Russia. Tea is consumed after meals and during a mid-afternoon break. It is not considered appropriate to drink tea with a meal. A majority of Russia's tea is imported from India and Sri Lanka. One exception is tea produced in the Krasnodar region. At the time tea came to Russia, the nonalcoholic drink of choice was sbiten. This was a brew created from hot water, herbs and honey. Tea bags are rarely used in Russia. Loose tea is brewed in a hot teapot or by using a samovar. A strong tea, zavarka, is produced, then poured into teacups or podstakannik; glasses with metal holders. More hot water is added to create the strength the drinker prefers.

Samovar is a uniquely Russian appliance. The samovar is a metal urn with a tap for pouring out the brewed tea. Older, non-electric samovars used hot coals, placed in a cylinder, to heat the water. Over the centuries, styles have varied from the basic samovar to very ornate, gold plated units.

Vodka is an alcoholic beverage, distilled by using water and pure grain alcohol. It is, typically, 40% grain alcohol with a strength of 80 proof. Vodka is clear in appearance and has no particular flavor, save that of the ethanol. The alcohol is the product of the fermentation of the starch and sugar found in grains. It is not known for certain when vodka was introduced. However, it was in existence during the days of Kiev Rus' and, as such, was first produced by the Slavs in modern Ukraine. Vodka is not aged and rarely has added flavors. It is consumed with meals and is considered to enhance the flavors of Russian cuisine.

Russians enjoy toasting throughout meals, especially where guests are present. It is obligatory to respond by downing a shot of vodka. Vodka is typically consumed neat or straight and not diluted with mixers. The shot is followed by eating something salty such as a pickle, herring or bit of sausage. While this routine is a treat for the pallet, the guest who is unaccustomed to this manner of drinking will soon find himself under the table!

There are plenty of jokes about Russians and their consumption of alcohol, especially vodka. However, Russia's problems regarding alcohol are no joking matter. The reality is that the average Russian consumes about a pint of vodka a day; or, one-half of a half liter. The reported fact that the average life expectancy of the Russia male is only 58 years, is attributed, to a great extent, to vodka.

Economics and supply and demand in modern Russia, have bred a multitude of bootleg distillers. Samogon, or moonshine vodka, is peddled in alleys and by street vendors. Sadly, these products are distilled using ingredients and conditions that, far too often, produce fatal results. In 1996, it was estimated that anywhere between 50,000 to 100,000 Russians were dying per year, from poisonous bootleg vodka. The obvious advice to the visitor is to not purchase vodka except from a reputable liquor store and to have a basic knowledge of the credible brand names. If you are invited to dinner, consider bringing the vodka. Not only will you have no need to worry as to its origins, but you will make a very positive impression on your host with this gift. By the way, a package of tea is, also, an appreciated present.

Of the many brands of vodka, the one most familiar to Americans is Smirnoff. Up until recently, this vodka was distilled in the U.S. Smirnoff descendents won a court case, reclaiming sole ownership to the name and label. Thus, Smirnoff is distilled only in Russia. Smirnoff first was produced in 1819 and incorporated in 1864. It's fame comes from the fact that the House of Smirnoff was the purveyor to the Romanov tzars.

In short, when visiting Russia, beware of the water {and ice cubes} and vodka.


Premium Vodka Reviews and Recipes

Tags: vodkatea
Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

22 Russian Crosswords

22 Russian Crosswords

Test your knowledge of the Russian language, Russian history and society with these 22 challenging puzzles taken from the pages of Russian Life magazine. Most all the clues are in English, but you must fill in the answers in Russian. If you get stumped, of course all the puzzles have answers printed at the back of the book.
Moscow and Muscovites

Moscow and Muscovites

Vladimir Gilyarovsky's classic portrait of the Russian capital is one of Russians’ most beloved books. Yet it has never before been translated into English. Until now! It is a spectactular verbal pastiche: conversation, from gutter gibberish to the drawing room; oratory, from illiterates to aristocrats; prose, from boilerplate to Tolstoy; poetry, from earthy humor to Pushkin. 
Steppe / Степь

Steppe / Степь

This is the work that made Chekhov, launching his career as a writer and playwright of national and international renown. Retranslated and updated, this new bilingual edition is a super way to improve your Russian.
Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

In this comprehensive, quixotic and addictive book, Edwin Trommelen explores all facets of the Russian obsession with vodka. Peering chiefly through the lenses of history and literature, Trommelen offers up an appropriately complex, rich and bittersweet portrait, based on great respect for Russian culture.
Marooned in Moscow

Marooned in Moscow

This gripping autobiography plays out against the backdrop of Russia's bloody Civil War, and was one of the first Western eyewitness accounts of life in post-revolutionary Russia. Marooned in Moscow provides a fascinating account of one woman's entry into war-torn Russia in early 1920, first-person impressions of many in the top Soviet leadership, and accounts of the author's increasingly dangerous work as a journalist and spy, to say nothing of her work on behalf of prisoners, her two arrests, and her eventual ten-month-long imprisonment, including in the infamous Lubyanka prison. It is a veritable encyclopedia of life in Russia in the early 1920s.
93 Untranslatable Russian Words

93 Untranslatable Russian Words

Every language has concepts, ideas, words and idioms that are nearly impossible to translate into another language. This book looks at nearly 100 such Russian words and offers paths to their understanding and translation by way of examples from literature and everyday life. Difficult to translate words and concepts are introduced with dictionary definitions, then elucidated with citations from literature, speech and prose, helping the student of Russian comprehend the word/concept in context.
The Latchkey Murders

The Latchkey Murders

Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin is back on the case in this prequel to the popular mystery Murder at the Dacha, in which a serial killer is on the loose in Khrushchev’s Moscow...
The Moscow Eccentric

The Moscow Eccentric

Advance reviewers are calling this new translation "a coup" and "a remarkable achievement." This rediscovered gem of a novel by one of Russia's finest writers explores some of the thorniest issues of the early twentieth century.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
PO Box 567
Montpelier VT 05601-0567

802-223-4955