A few blogs ago, my devoted reader Louis from San Antonio asked me to share the mystical secrets of that famous elixir known as vodka. In the former Soviet Union – not only Russia, but even the Central Asian republics, drinking vodka involves a series of preparations and elaborate rituals, not far behind the famous Far Eastern tea-drinking ceremonies in their marvelous complexity.
First, a warning. You should never, ever question the Russian origins of vodka in conversation with anyone from the former Soviet Union, especially burly unshaven men with off-the-boat accents. A few years ago, the local liquor store in my heavily Soviet Jewish neighborhood had the misfortune of posting up an advertising poster for Polish Sobieski vodka. With characteristically blunt Polish wit, the ad stated: “Poland is the birthplace of vodka. Sorry, Russia”. The poster was immediately defaced by local Russians who scrawled “BULL****!!!” on it (in English) and tore it down soon thereafter. My response to all questions of vodka’s origin is rather Solomonic: rye and potato vodka originated from Poland and wheat vodka originated from Russia.
Next stop is the selection of elixir. I would stay away from the overly commercialized brands like Stolichnaya, Ketel One, and the horrid Grey Goose (I feel like I am getting an ulcer every time I glance at the bottle). There are plenty of Russian and Western vodkas that are more pleasant to the palate and the wallet. The more common and high-end vodkas are Tanqueray Sterling (Britain), Russian Standard (Russia), and Beluga (Russia). As for less expensive vodkas, I heartily recommend the Russian Green Mark and White Gold and the Belgian White Nights.
Now, in order to enjoy vodka, it must be chilled in the freezer (not the fridge!) for at least a couple of hours – the more the better. And it should never be sipped or poured over ice – barbaric practices that horrify and disgust Russians. Instead, it should be poured into shots and drunk at once after toasts, followed by chasers – both essential parts of any self-respecting feast.
The toasts range in length and poetic intensity from the simple “To health!” (“Za zdorovye”) to remembrances of fallen friends and distant battles to witty anecdotes, followed by “So, let’s drink that we always have …” The best toastmasters are the Georgians, followed by the Armenians. Every Georgian toast is a story, a tribute, and a testament. A Georgian does not just drink to his friend’s health on his birthday. Instead, he begins by telling everyone the story of their friendship: how and when they met, the good times they shared, etc., ending with endless wishes of happiness, health, and virility. Needless to say, a shot has to be drained to the bottom, if you do not wish to offend the toast’s recipient.
Vodka chasers – and I don’t mean Coke or Ginger Ale, are seen as a rather weird custom by many Westerners. But it is precisely because of the chasers that Eastern Europeans are able to down prodigious quantities of vodka. The classic Russian chasers are pickles, pickled tomatoes, or salted herring. More elegant chasers are pickled mushrooms, various types of salted fish, or caviar on bread. A stereotypically proletarian liquid chaser is beer, but this is frowned upon by more refined vodka drinkers.
Every shot is accompanied by a generous helping of a chaser, so a plate of pickled vegetables or herring is a must at every Russian feast. A man who drinks vodka without chasers is immediately unmasked as either an alcoholic or a clueless foreigner who is looking for at best, an upset stomach and at worst, alcohol poisoning. The secret to the quantity of vodka that Eastern Europeans drink is not in their genes or the fact that they start early in life. No, they can drink so much, because they eat even more while drinking. Next time, try a pickle after your shot of vodka. You will see the difference. To health!