Vodka is known for Russia, as beer is for Bavaria. The clear distilled alcohol belongs to (almost) every family or even business event. Here are a few things a foreigner should know about vodka and the Russian etiquette of drinking it. Further down we will also explain the different kinds of “vodkas” and I will give you my favorite brands.
What is vodka?
Vodka, from Russian: водка [ˈvotkə] is a distilled beverage usually composed of water and ethanol, sometimes with traces of impurities. Traditionally, vodka is made by the distillation of cereal grains or potatoes that have been fermented. Russians also make “moonshine” vodka out of bread at home, called samogon (ru: самого́н), meaning “self-distilled”, literally “self-ran”. Another popular way of “making” vodka yourself at home is to buy ethanol in a pharmacy and mix it with water and other ingredients, like grapefruit peel. This version is called “spirit” and also pretty common.
Different types of vodka
Among the commercially sold vodkas, you have different brands, which mainly differ in the distillation process (filtering and how often they were distilled). Low cost brands are usually more impure. They are mainly consumed by alcoholics and the poor. These are cheaper than the anti-freeze used for cars in the winter and lots of Moscow taxi drivers use these low cost vodkas as their anti-freeze. On a side note. The all famous and glamorous “Stoli-Vodka” also known as the “Stolichnaya” vodka brand is located at the bottom middle class segment of Russian vodkas and not considered premium at all.
The amount of vodka is typically classified in grams. 25 grams would be a small shot. 50 grams a normal shot and if someone wants to drink you under the table (or kill himself), you’ll face a 100 grams vodka portion, which is usually served in a small fruit juice glass.
Cold? On Ice?
Vodka is typically stored in the freezer and served in cold glasses, but NEVER serves as a long drink on / with ice. That is something we would drink in New York or Munich, but almost an offence to any Russian.
My advice: NEVER go to a family event, business meeting, a business dinner or any other Russian social event, without eating a good amount of food before. No worries, there is usually plenty of very tasty food, served at these events, but before you even get to take your first bite, you’ll have to drink 1-3 shots of vodka. Which is a killer on an empty stomach! Believe me, I made my own painful experiences. One of the worst, during a “normal” business meeting in the afternoon at 16:00, where I didn’t have a chance to grab lunch before. The first German chancellor Konrad Adenauer told his entourage to drink lots of pure olive oil, before meetings with the Soviets in Moscow.
The basic rules of drinking vodka.
Don’t drink alone (never!)
Russians say: “Who drinks vodka alone, is an alcoholic!”. Vodka drinking is a social thing and not many Russians will drink alone. You may get invited for a vodka at a bar, only because the guy who invites you, wants to drink (for whatever reason, there is usually one).
Don’t drink, before the others do!
Speaking of reasons. Drinking without a reason, is also not allowed! So there must be a toast. You can’t drink, before the vodka gets “dedicated” to someone or something. When someone makes a toast you have to lift your glass up and not let it down, until the toast is done. However long that takes. We will get to family dinners and toasts a bit later.
Drink all of it at once!
Vodka is drunken at once, in one sip. Yes, even a “100 grams”. It will be (sort of) a shame, if you leave a half full glass, after everyone shot his. A good strategy (and an accepted one) is to ask for a smaller portion, when the glass is filled. Half a glass, or 75% of it, will do and is usually accepted and no problem. Unless, someone wants to drink you under the table. In which case, you should look for a quick exit anyway, because you will never win this battle against a trained Russian vodka drinker.
You can try the following proven cheats, if you need to continue to drink with someone, but you are afraid of getting too drunk and lost:
– fill the glass with water, when no one watches. If you get caught, you are the stupid foreigner, who made a mistake (or is already drunk).
– Pretend to drink the shot and right after drop the glass quickly and spill the vodka on the floor or into some flowers. This works well in a bar or club, on the dacha Shashlik, but of course not so good at a family dinner.
– keep the vodka in the mouth and go to the toilet or spit it out at some other convenient place.
– if you don’t want to drink at all, tell them that you are taking antibiotics (because of an infection). It will be accepted, but naturally can’t be used again and again with the same people.
What’s your cheat? Comment below!
At a family dinner and especially birthdays, the second drink is always dedicated to the parents of the host or the person, who has his birthday. Usually the family members will make the first round of toasts. It’s a little speech and the one making it, usually gets up. Only when the speech is finished (it can take a while), you are allowed to drink your vodka. After the family is done, it is toast time for the guests. Depending on how many people are there, it will sooner or later be your turn to make a toast. Better be prepared! Even though, you may not speak Russian, it is expected that you make a toast and probably someone will translate it. When the guest round starts, wait for your chance and step in right away. Get it over with, before you get too drunk to make a toast, without lulling. Good subjects are always health, success and so on. You can also choose another subject, but your speech should not consist of only one sentence. You’ll have to package your message in a nice little speech. That will be a well received toast and earn you some respect.
When its too much…
Russian men like to drink and they often compare their strength at night during the vodka drinking. Being on a family dinner or a dacha shashlik, you can easily be forced to drink 12-18 shots or more.
You should probably stop and look for a taxi or the next bed, if you feel that you are losing it. You won’t be considered a loser, but for sure you are not as tough, as the others, who succeed you. You should continue as long as you don’t embarrass yourself. Vomiting on the dinner table will set back your freshly gained respect, for sure.
What Russian women think about drinking vodka…
Russian women usually don’t drink vodka. They participate only during the first shots and toasts, if at all. Usually they will drink wine or Russian / Crimean sparkling wine. They don’t like this kind of drinking and that their men are getting fucked up, more and more with each shot. After a while, they will ask their men to stop drinking or force them to go home. They will tell you, that there is no respect for your drinking abilities and strength by the other Russian men. The wife or mother of the host will tell you to STOP, if your girlfriend (or wife) is not there, to tell you herself. Nevertheless, the men will continue. There is no wait out for you.
The End. Or not?
For me, it is always the worst time at the end of these dinners. Its, when the women mingle to chit-chat in another room or the kitchen and the host pulls out his favorite bottle, from Armenian cognac, to tequila, to whiskey. You may think, you have survived the evening after the cake and coffee or tea were served, but in reality you are in for the final rounds, just after that. That being said, a good present for the (male) host is always a good bottle of your local spirit, like a good Schnaps from me, being a German.
Prepare yourself and eat at least 30 min before the dinner or meeting. Eat something oily and fat.
Drink a lot of water or juice in between the toasts. The more, the better.
Eat oily and fat stuff, bread and potatoes, during the dinner. Stay away from the light stuff, that fills your belly (like salad).
It may help and extend your drinking stamina, to go to the toilet and vomit the first rounds out at one point. Just make sure, that no one hears you vomiting and you have a minty chewing gum, to cover the smell until you drink your next portion. Needless to say, that I would fill my belly with some fatty food right after my return and the next round of shots.
Real Russian vodka brands
My favorite: Youri Dolgoruki Vodka
This Moscow based premium vodka, made in the famous Cristall distilleries, is one of the best vodkas, I have ever had. It not only features a beautiful bottle, with the famous St.Basils cathedral inside, but it’s also 3 times distilled. This makes the vodka smooth and oily, going down like charm and not irritating you too much. Unfortunately, the Belvedere Group bought the Cristall Distilleries and today you can hardly find this vodka in Moscow’s stores anymore. This vodka (if you can find it) is always a good present or souvenir.
Beluga comes in 6 different variations / flavors. Beluga Noble is probably the most common. While this vodka is considered “premium” among most Russians, it is only my second choice and not nearly as smooth as the Dolgoruki. I have tried some of the more upscale Beluga brands, but been too drunk to remember their taste.
The owner of this vodka brand from St.Petersburg, Roustam Tariko, is a billionaire by now, flying around in a stylish Boeing 737-700BBJ private jet, with the vodkas logo on its tail. While this vodka is considered premium by foreigners and you’ll find it in many clubs. It is also served at dinners and on dachas. In my opinion, Russkie Standard is actually located in the upper medium segment. The vodka is ok. Its clean and doesn’t give you a headache next day, even after many shots. But, I find it a bit harsh and burning. Right, you could say, that it is only for the real tough Russian men and not for a German pussies, like me, ha ha.
I must always laugh, when I think back to my New York model party nights, where “Stoli” was the absolute premium vodka and the first choice of many high society girls. In Russian “Stolichnaya” is a lower middle class vodka and nothing special. The only thing premium and spectacular about this vodka is the label, which shows the 1930s-era Hotel Moskva. Todays rebuilt as the Four Seasons, one of the best 5 Star-Hotels in town.
The next day
Ihope you will make it home safe and without gettig in too much trouble with your woman. Drinking Russian vodka, even in vast amounts and different quality levels, never gave me a headache or fierce hangover. For sure you will have to deal with a good amount of rest-alcohol for the entire next day (don’t plan to drive anywhere!). But, the after all effects are quiet mild, compared to other high spirits. The best cure will be a lot of sleep and plenty of water.
This is a Russian phenomenon, which I only saw for the first time, after living in Russia for about 10 years. Some Russians fight their hangover with a glass of vodka. Right away, after they get up in the morning. This starts the upcoming drinking day and goes on until late night. It can go on for an entire weekend. Many people come late to work or even call in sick on Monday, to push the Zapoi a bit longer.
That’s it for today. Check back. I will extend the vodka list, when I have a free minute. There are some more good ones…