Life is full of all sorts of fun experiences, most of which, you never plan for. In fact, it is the unexpected moments that make the best memories – the ones that stick with you throughout the years and make you smile when everything else dissolves into nostalgia.
We had one such evening, quite by happenstance. We had the pleasant fortune to learn what it really means to drink like a Russian.
We love hosting couchsurfers
As we have mentioned before, we partake in couchsurfing. With our convenient location near downtown Portland, we are in an ideal spot for out-of-town (or -country) visitors. In exchange, we meet fascinating new people, get to show off our beautiful city, and learn a few of the lesser-known insights to various cultures. During our travels next year, we hope to be on the other end of that, experiencing foreign cities as a local.
Our latest guests were a charming couple, both of whom had spent some time in Thailand (hot on our bucket list), and one of whom is native Russian. We got to talking about drinks, and how we were once chastised for enjoying flavored vodkas. “Russians drink only pure spirits!” This led to asking our guest for vodka recommendations, and before we knew it, we had a double date with our guests, where she would teach us how to drink like a Russian.
Vodka – only pure spirits
Smirnoff, Absolut, and other bottom-shelf liquors simply won’t cut it. To have a truly enjoyable evening, we had to invest in a quality vodka that would leave us with a pleasant warmth without a gagging aftertaste. And leave the flavors behind. You don’t want to mar your taste buds with vanilla or cherry.
For our evening, our Russian expert directed us toward Bak’s vodka with bison grass (it literally had a long blade of grass soaking in the liquor).
Fatty and salty foods
Russians never drink without also eating. Our guest was shocked when she walked into an American bar to find nothing more than peanuts to accompany the libations. Food pairs with the alcohol to keep a night of shots firmly in the pleasantly buzzed phase. This keeps revelers from later praying to the porcelain god. In particular, fatty foods fill your stomach and help balance the alcohol, and salt enhances the flavors and the overall effects.
On our table, we had a wide assortment of salted fish, mushrooms in olive oil, rye bread, sliced fried potatoes, and – essential on any Russian table – homemade pickles.
A round of drinks with a Russian is more than just a casual social hour. With each drink, participants are expected to tell stories – anecdotes and tales that impart some words of wisdom (something to which to toast!).
We each took our turn, and we heard about a Thailand horror story (with sage advice to be careful of who you trust) and a wish that we have so many friends that we never have to shovel the snow from our doorstep (because so many feet visiting simply pack it all down). In return, we shared our harrowing tales of surviving an icy slide down a steep ski slope (may you never forget your mortality) and a very much abridged version of our nightmare in Idaho (expert advice: fly!).
There’s a technique to drinking vodka
We had no idea there’s a very specific way you’re supposed to enjoy vodka.
- Prepare a bite of food on your fork in preparation, but don’t eat just yet.
- Tell your exciting tale.
- Reveal your gem of wisdom, make your toast, and clink your glasses.
- Exhale (only half way).
- Consume at least half of your shot without inhaling.
- Exhale the rest of your breath.
- Eat the bite of food.
Exhaling ensures you don’t smell the vodka, which would take away from the enjoyment of the experience (and likely make you cough). And quickly following the drink with food ensures you don’t taste it (especially for inexperienced vodka drinkers). This leaves you with just the warmth of the alcohol (important in a cold country like Russia) without the sting of its flavor.
Attempting this with a cheap vodka would not be pleasant, as you’d still taste the liquor despite this method – especially if it’s flavored.
The vodka customs
Now, I also made the initial mistake of not drinking enough on each round. Leaving more than half of the vodka in the glass evidently implies the drinker does not respect the host. Perhaps it suggests you find the drink distasteful. Or there’s a lack of trust. Leave less than half, and you instead convey the message that you’re enjoying yourself.
We also learned that, much like Japanese drinking etiquette, one shouldn’t pour for herself – at least not until everyone else has been served. And once the initial pours have been divvied, the same person is responsible for subsequent allocations. If this person leaves the table before a bottle is through, she will leave her guests thirsty.
Finally, never leave the empty bottle on the table. This is considered bad luck (and it’s a constant reminder of just how much you’ve had to drink). Instead, place it on the floor with your growing collection of previously-polished bottles.
This was a new way for us to enjoy some libations with friends, and we quite enjoyed it! This method allowed us to take full advantage of the alcoholic effects without a nasty hangover. On top of that, we learned a bit more about our guests through their stories, and we’re much more familiar now with a very important Russian ritual.
This type of drinking isn’t for the faint of heart, and with such a high alcohol content, it isn’t intended for off-the-cuff casual socializing. The evening was an event – one we’ll fortunately remember for some time. As always, consume responsibly, preferably in the company of your experienced Russian friend.
What are some of your favorite worldwide drinking rituals?
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