Vodka was first brought to Russia under the name aqua vitae or water of life. It’s a fitting name for this cultural staple that can be found in homes, restaurants, and celebrations all across Russia and the world. Around the 18th century this water of life still not called vodka, as it had a lower alcohol content and was generally called “bread wine” or “wine.” Vodka was a term reserved for high-alcohol medicinal tinctures. By the late 1860’s the Kremlin started promoting a state-manufactured liquor with the name we use today: vodka.
In the U.S., this clear and seemingly innocuous beverage is often mixed into fruity drinks with playful names like “White Russian” and “Appletini.” These drinks are a far cry from the Russian style of drinking vodka. Here in the land where vodka is consumed as fast as water, there are no chasers or mixers. Vodka should be served chilled in a tumbler glass and drunk a little bit at a time, as though you were taking shots.
The Russians surely did not invent candy and fruit-flavored vodkas you see today, but they did historically use some flavoring. Over the years vodka has been distilled in a variety of ways and has produced quite the range of quality. In the early days of distillation, Russians used local herbs to flavor the vodka and mitigate unpalatable flavors. Black peppercorns and dill weed were the most popular additions. Legend goes that black pepper flavored vodka was the 17th century emperor Peter the Great’s drink of choice. You may never find a vodka cocktail in Russia, but if you look carefully you can still find these traditionally flavored dill and peppercorn vodkas.
Since there are no juice chasers in Russia, vodka is accompanied by something even better: zakuski! That is, salty snacks and pickled foods served like appetizers. These are the real life-savers in keeping up with the Russian pace of vodka consumption. Slowly picking at the snacks keeps the stomach full enough for more vodka. Zakuski will typically be made up of pickles, onions, tomatoes, coleslaw, and other salted or pickled foods. The most simple combination is a glass of ice-cold vodka and a slice of pickle.
The one who orders the bottle will be in charge of toasting, at least until you’ve all had so much you can’t remember who ordered. Instead of cheers, Russians are more likely to clink their glasses with a “za vashe zdorovie” or “to your health!” Vodka is not the kind of drink one would have casually with dinner, but rather is a drink for celebrations. Whether at a wedding or birthday party, the vodka will be flowing aplenty. Thus, there should be a reason for toasting (and oftentimes verbose ways of doing it). The more important the occasion the longer the toast may be, saluting everything from health to family to country pride. You might find that some Russians will loudly exhale after toasting before taking a drink. This is a custom that comes from an old adage that exhaling will prevent a hangover. If may be superstition, but if anyone knows how to stop a vodka hangover it's the Russians.
While TOSSWARE’s 4oz Taster or 7oz Flight cups might be good for a shot of vodka American-style, to drink your vodka in a truly Russian style we suggest a large Tumbler. Just don’t forget the pickle on the side!