When it comes to vodka, the Russians don't mess around. They write dissertations about it (Dmitri Mendeleev, the chemistry professor who invented the Periodic Table of Elements, established its precise 80-proof formula in 1894), they create monopolies over it (Tsar Ivan III protected it as early as the 1470s only then it was known as "hot wine," "bread wine" or "green wine") and they drink it. Straight up. In shot glasses. In one brave swig.
Russian billionaire Roustam Tariko, the entrepreneur behind Russian Standard, Russia's largest vodka maker, recently made headlines for forking over a whopping $3 million for the rights to own vodka.com. That's $375,000 per letter.
Indeed, vodka has played a crucial role in the history of Russian civilization from its production in 15th-century monasteries to fundraising for Peter the Great's reforms, from lost military battles (Stalin's daily rations became known as Commissar's 100 Grams) to Gorbachev's ill-fated attempt to curtail its consumption, an unilaterally unpopular campaign that was abandoned within two years.
So you won't be surprised to hear that I downed a sizable portion of Russia's national drink on a recent river cruise between Moscow and St. Petersburg. The crew on the Scenic Tsar, a new boutique ship, the first new build since the Soviet thaw, even went so far as to teach me how to balance a shot glass on my elbow, drink without my hands and finish an entire bottle in one sitting, an absolute necessity if you don't want to offend your Russian hosts.
The comforting news, at least for those who care about my (hic) welfare, is that each bottle of vodka is meant to be shared between three friends, a tradition started during Kruschev times when a joint investment of a ruble apiece could buy the standard 500 milliliter bottle. Of course, there was also a time after the Soviet collapse when the ruble was basically worthless and the currency was vodka. But that's another story.
To properly drink vodka, you'll also need brown bread, salted fish and pickled veggies, especially pickled tomatoes. You swig a shot (sipping is strictly forbidden) after which you nurture your burning throat with the bread and salted, pickled accoutrements. Usually, there's an accordion, a balalaika and at least one exuberant Russian (oftentimes more) singing "Kalinka," the upbeat Russian folk song that has been appropriated by everyone from the Chelsea Football Club to the German pop group Yamboo to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
To make it even more fun, vodka in Russia is not just vodka. There are literally thousands of flavors. Sophisticated gourmands consider it a point of honor to try flavors beginning with all 33 letters of the Russian alphabet -- acorn, blackberry, caraway seed, dill, etc. -- and bottled in all manner of shaped glass -- guns, swords, crowns, statues of Stalin, etc.
And then, when you're properly sloshed, as we were in Mandrogi, a fairytale wooden village on the northern banks of Lake Ladoga where we enjoyed an exquisite four- or five-course feast, you stumble over to a Vodka Museum, one of several in Russia, and pay homage to the beverage Catherine the Great reserved for the exclusive production of the aristocracy. Whether there's really a stuffed bear at the entrance wearing an apron and holding a tray, that's probably more than I can rightfully claim. I am a journalist, after all, and wouldn't want to spread any blurry facts.
A 15-day package on Scenic Tours sleek, luxury-laden Scenic Tsar includes four nights in both Moscow and St. Petersburg and all (well, nearly all) the bottles of vodka you can drink.
For more information visit scenictours.com or call 866-689-8611.
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Pam Grout is the author of E-Squared, 9 Do-it-Yourself Energy Experiments that Prove Your Thoughts Create Your Reality. Find out more at www.pamgrout.com.
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