Rule number one when in Russia: don’t get too stuck on trying vodka. Although good vodka should be on your list, the Russian alcohol scene has much more to offer. Take full advantage of being in Eastern Europe, and try local liqueurs, as well as spirits from across the region that aren’t easy to find elsewhere. And, of course, enjoy, but drink wisely!
Don’t dwell on the vodka, but do start with it, as it’s an integral part of Russian culture. Although there are still disputes about whether the Russians or the Poles made it first, both countries have been distilling vodka since early in their history. Historically, the government had tight control on vodka production and consumption to try to limit alcoholism. Nowadays, vodka is sold in shops and bars, and most regulations are to ensure purity. For an authentic experience, visit a ryumochnaya, where the focus is on shots of vodka and small snacks. Also, make the best of being in the country, and only drink authentic Russian brands – and maybe take a few bottles home.
Nastoiki are homemade liqueurs, usually vodkas, that are often flavoured. The practice has been undergoing something of a revival as of late. When Russia first began distilling vodka, it was far from perfect, and the end result had many impurities, which were skilfully masked with various flavours. Now, it is not so much a necessity but more of a fashion. Bars make their own nastoiki and sell them by the shot. Be sure to try a variety of flavours, such as horseradish, cedar nut, raspberry, cherry and lemon.
Gorilka is often considered the Ukranian brother of Russian vodka, though the drinks tend to be quite different; Russian vodka is usually made with rye, and gorilka is often made from wheat. Traditionally, gorilka was also not purified or distilled as much as vodka, and herbs were used to mask the impurities. In Russia, gorilka can be bought in supermarkets, and some restaurants that specialise in Russian and Ukranian cuisine are also likely to sell it.
Medovukha is similar to mead, which was popular in many medieval cultures, including Russia. Medovukha was made of honey and water and was left to ferment in large wooden casks for somewhere between 15 to 50 years. Over time, it was eventually replaced by beer and wine, which was better for mass production, and by the start of the 17th century, it was all but forgotten. Recently, medovukha has regained popularity, and some cities have become centres of mead-making, including Suzdal, Veliky Novgorod and Kolomna. There are also some more industrial versions of mead sold in shops around Russia.
Russia has had a large beer market for many years. There are several large producers, among them Baltika, Tinkoff and Stary Melnik. However, craft breweries are quickly gaining traction, including in St Petersburg and Moscow, where craft beer has really taken over the drinking scene. There are a number of breweries that operate locally and compete to produce unique beverages inspired by Russian traditions. Stop in for a tasting session of Russian craft brews at a brewery near you.
As is evident from the name, Soviet Champagne was originally produced in the Soviet Union. When a system for mass production was introduced at this time, it made the sparkling wine more accessible and affordable, and more people began to enjoy it. Although, of course, the Soviet Union is no more, several companies still produce Soviet Champagne, and shoppers can find different varieties today.
The Massandra winery in the south of Crimea, near Yalta, has produced wine for more than a century, which makes it the oldest winery in the country. The name has also become synonymous with the port wine produced in the region. This port is sweeter than many might expect, as it contains at least 20 percent sugar. The wine is fermented for three years, allowing it to soak up all the flavours. Many drink it straight, or it’s sometimes served on ice. Massandra is available at select bars, but most alcohol shops also have it in stock.
Ararat brandy is easily found in most post-Soviet countries including, of course, Russia. This Armenian brandy has been produced in the capital, Yerevan, since the end of the 19th century. It is made using a special grape grown in the Ararat region and Armenian spring water. Ararat brandy is aged for anywhere from three years to 30. In Russia, brandy is marketed as a cognac, so don’t be dismayed if you see ‘Ararat cognac’ on a bar menu – it’s still the right one. It is also easy to find in large supermarkets or specialist alcohol stores, if you feel like bringing a bottle home.
Russian wine-producing regions are mainly in the south of the country. Since economic sanctions on imports were introduced in 2014, more restaurants have turned to using and providing local goods, including having more Russian wines on their drinks lists. The quality of Russian wine has greatly improved over time, and naturally, they are cheaper.
Another treat from a neighbouring country, wine lovers should be sure to try Georgian wines while in Russia. Although they are lesser known around the world, Georgia has made wine for 8,000 years, and they currently grow approximately 40 types of grapes for commercial wine-making. The best place to find Georgian wine in Russia is at a Georgian restaurant, but local wine markets will also have a good selection.
It is hard to really call kvass an alcoholic drink, as it only contains about 1 percent alcohol. Still, it’s important to mention because, unfortunately, it’s often overlooked. Kvass is made by fermenting grain – it’s actually basically made of bread. It was popular among peasants working the land who would take it into the fields to keep hydrated. Over time, kvass became less and less popular, but it underwent a true revival during the Soviet era. Kvass is now sold in most supermarkets and is often considered a healthier alternative to sodas and sugary juices.