In the eyes of a stranger it might seem that vodka and Russia are synonymous words. Every foreigner named vodka in their top three, when asked: “what comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘Russia’”.
I myself used to live in a very multinational Dubai where every day I met people from all over the world. When I told them I am from Russia, they would respond with “oh, so you like vódka» imitating the Russian accent and would get really disappointed when I replied I hardly ever drink it at all.
Yes, historically, vodka is a big part of Russian culture, there is no doubt about that. It is what Russians have been making and drinking long before there were ever any global alcohol companies and international alcohol imports which have brought so much variety and shifted consumption over to other spirits.
Russians don’t drink vodka all day every day
Contrary to popular belief, Russians don’t drink vodka all day every day. That’s for the myth-busting part. For the practical part, you need to know how to do it for when the occasion finally presents itself.
Vodka is for bonding
Food is considered the best social glue, and alcohol, obviously, is the super glue. In Russia, specifically, being knowledgeable about the culture of drinking is the best bonding strategy there is. You might be surprised to hear — in Russia drinking vodka is less about the drinking and more about the bonding. It is a ritual much more than an act of getting wasted.
Following is a great example to explain what I mean. A scene from the 1981 Foreign Film Oscar Winner — “Moscow does not believe in tears”. It is a cult Soviet movie which all of us have seen so many times we probably know it by heart. Before his first meeting with Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan watched this movie eight times in an attempt to understand the “Russian soul”.
In Russia drinking vodka is less about the drinking and more about the bonding
Not sure how that went with understanding the “Russian soul” but for understanding the drinking culture and the authentic vodka-drinking ritual it suits us perfectly. However, I must put a disclaimer: this video demonstrates advanced level drinking etiquette.
A quick briefing on the context: a man (Gosha) has found out some very upsetting news about the woman he loves. He is at his apartment having a suffering and heavy drinking session, which got out of control and is going on for a few days now. His woman’s best friend asked her husband (Nikolai) to go and check up on Gosha and try to talk sense into him. Gosha and Nikolai have never met before.
Like I said, the scene demonstrates advanced-level drinking etiquette.
As you can see, it’s about communicating much more than it’s about getting wasted. We have just witnessed the social super glue in action. Before saying a word to each other, the two men are very clearly already “speaking” the same non-verbal language: a certain respect protocol has been adjourned to by both of them. Before the two even start discussing Nikolai’s agenda, the respectful tone of their relationship has already been established. Advanced level.
Tips for drinking vodka like Russian
One day you will be in Russia, and the scenario of how you will end up in a situation when there is vodka on the table may vary but the situation itself is more than likely to happen. What else is more than likely to happen is — someone sitting next to you at that moment won’t be speaking any of the languages you do, whether it will be your Russian friend’s dad, or your business partner’s brother, or a friend of a friend. So doing things the same way will be your common ground.
Even if you don’t care about the cultural aspect and the practicalities, it’s still pretty rad to know how to drink vodka like a Russian. I’m sure it appears on more than one “things you must do before you die” list. So, lets jump into it.
Shots only. We don’t have it on the rocks or with a twist of lemon. We don’t make vodka cocktails either. We don’t pour vodka in long-drink glasses at all. Shot glasses only (Isn’t vodka the reason why they exist?). But Nikolai in the video is gulping from a glass! Yes, Nikolai is a Soviet man, his vodka-drinking skills are far superior to yours for numerous reasons. Stick to shot glasses.
Also, Nikolai is gulping from a glass because Gosha poured him an entire glass. It is considered rude to stop the host from pouring you whatever they deem necessary or to not drink it entirely.
Ice-cold. Vodka must be cold, never room temperature. It must always be kept in the fridge. Ideally, the shot glasses should come out of a freezer and be ice-cold.
With food. In a broad sense, vodka is “seasoning” for food, not a party drink, more like a dinner drink. A bottle of vodka is likely to make an appearance on a festive dinner table and unlikely to make an appearance on a «quick meal under 15 minutes prep time» dinner table.
At the very least with “Zakuska”. “Zakuska” is also food. Typical “zakuska” is something with a punchy taste or smell. The perfect “zakuska” is pickled anything — most commonly, a pickled cucumber. Other types of zakuska are potato with herring, rye bread with sardine and lemon or with salo, which is pig fat (if you think it’s gross, think of it as bacon) and mustard, or olives.
On advanced levels and in extreme cases, sharp smell also counts as «zakuska». Instead of eating your zakuska, you can smell it like Nikolai does in the scene.
Make a toast. In Russia, toasting can almost reach an art form at times because vodka is not about getting wasted, but about communication and bonding. When we toast, we take our time and put our heart and soul into it. Don’t just «cheers».
It’s NOT «Na Zdorovye»
It’s «ZA ZDOROVYE»
“Zdorovye” means “health”. “Na zdorovye” means “for your health” in the sense of “you are welcome”.
The toast is “ZA zdorovye” meaning «to health». If you want to impress your company and raise a toast to their health, you say “vashe zdorovye” — literally “to your health”.
Raise your glass. The protocol is: everyone’s shot glass remains raised in their hand off the table for as long as the toast is being said. Putting down your shot glass during a toast is considered a rude interruption. You politely wait until the toast is finished, take a shot and only then, put down the empty shot glass.
Down a shot like a boss. This is how you take a shot: breath in, exhale completely, down your shot while holding your breath. Exhale the post-vodka air sitting in your mouth through your nose and only then inhale. Have a piece of «zakuska».
Now you are ready to drink vodka like a Russian. Vashe zdorovye!