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.

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