Vodka: A Taste of Russia

The national drink is an inseparable part of Russian social life. Vodka is drunk everywhere, with the intention of breaking down inhibitions and producing a state of conviviality Russians refer to as dusha-dushe (soul-to-soul). When a Russian taps the side of his throat, beware: it's impossible to refuse this invitation to friendship. If you have a cold, sore throat, or any such minor ailment, don't be surprised if someone prescribes a shot of vodka—even for a hangover. The Russian belief in the curative and preventative powers of this drink is almost limitless.

Choosing Vodka

There are hundreds of brands of vodka in Russia, as a glance into any store will show. Some of these are rough and best left alone; three of the best are Flagman, Beluga, and Russky Standart, although there are many acceptable cheaper brands. Alcohol counterfeiting, which can lead to alcohol poisoning, is a big problem, so you should always purchase vodka from a reputable-looking store, and be sure the seal on the bottle hasn't been broken.

The Vodka Procedure

When you're drinking vodka, there's some etiquette involved. In North America and Great Britain, vodka is generally associated with cocktails and martinis. In Russia, mixing vodka with anything else is considered a waste, unless the mixer is beer, which produces a fearsome beverage known as yorsh. Vodka is meant to be gulped down in one go, not sipped. Since this can give you a bit of a kick, Russians always have some zakuski, or snacks (including pickles, herring, boiled potatoes, and black bread), to chase the shot. You may witness something called the "vodka procedure," which, if you want to try it yourself, goes roughly as follows. Prepare a forkful of food or chunk of bread. Inhale and exhale quickly, bringing the food to your nose. Breathe in and tip the vodka down your throat. Now breathe out again, and eat your food.

A Toast

Vodka shots (unlike beer and wine) are downed collectively, and always preceded by a toast. You'll score points if you propose toasts—it doesn't matter if they're in English, particularly if you wax long and eloquent. Drinking before a toast is considered a faux pas of the first order. Although you're expected to gulp down the first couple of shots, no one will mind if you take it a little easier after that—saying choot'-choot', pozhaluista (just a little, please) is a polite way of asking for a smaller refill. Vodka is also considered predominantly a man's drink, so it's more acceptable for women to take things easier.

If all this sounds like an ordeal, rest assured that vodka drinking can be an extremely pleasurable experience, involving good food, great company, and a unique sense of mild inebriation that can last for hours. It's a memorable taste of Russia in more ways than one.

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