How to Drink Ukrainian Horilka Like a Local

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Photo of Maria Sibirtseva
24 July 2018

For a long time, many have considered Ukraine a motherland of strong alcohol. The traditions of creating the proper spirits, as well as skilful drinking culture, has developed and evolved for centuries. Among the most popular Ukrainian drinks is horilka, which is basically a solution of purified alcohol and water. Unsurprisingly, it is known as one of the purest spirits in the world.

A brief history of horilka

The name horilka is aptly derived from the Ukrainian verb hority, which means, “to burn”, as it has a high enough proof that it can be set aflame. Similar to many other alcohols, its original purpose was primarily medical. It was only in the 15th and 16th centuries, during the Zaporizhian Cossacks era, that Ukrainian horilka was exported to Moscow, and it gained popularity as an alcoholic beverage outside of the country. Of course, this drink can be found in every Ukrainian city or village, but the small town Nemyriv, in the Vynnitsya region, made it a popular worldwide. This is where Nemiroff, a brand of genuine Ukrainian horilka, started.

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Basic rules of drinking horilka

Horilka is an integral part of any Ukrainian feast. The drink should be cooled to between 8-10°C. If it’s any cooler, the taste is diluted, so if someone serves you horilka that is too cold, it could mean they are trying to sell you a low-quality horilka. It should also be served as a small shot and consumed all at once. Exhale deeply, and then swallow with the next breath. Afterward, exhale deeply again to get rid of excess alcohol vapours. Also, forget about drinking anything else for the night. If you’ve chosen to drink vodka, drink it until the end of the feast, and exclude all other alcoholic beverages.

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If you know you’ll be drinking horilka later, try to snack on something fatty about an hour beforehand. Many choose salo (pork fat) to help delay the effects of the alcohol. When you start drinking, take at least a three-minute break between the first and second shots. After the third shot, take another 15-20 minute break to help delay the effects of the alcohol. It is also quite common to take a couple of activated carbon pills to help absorb the alcohol.

What to eat

Horilka is often served as an apertif, as it is known to increase appetite and stimulate digestion. Appetisers that pair well with the drink include pickled cucumbers and tomatoes, mushrooms and sauerkraut, and herring and onions. As Ukrainians love cheerful and continuous celebrations, they usually serve other traditional Ukrainian dishes, as well. Especially popular are fatty and highly flavourful foods.

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