Drinking Vodka the Russian Way

MTAlexander Nikishin posing with a vodka bottle.
Drinking is the joy of the Rus," said Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev at the end of the 10th century. Any foreign visitor to Russia would undoubtedly concur that modern-day Russians share this passion for alcohol with their ancestors, in particular for a glass or two of vodka.

But the complexities of drinking vodka the Russian way can often lead to uncomfortable faux pas. At a meeting with Stalin in 1942, Winston Churchill missed out on one essential part of drinking vodka -- you have to zakusyvat, or take food with the drink.

Alexander Nikishin, general director of the National Museum of Russian Vodka, told the story of a drinking competition between the two wartime leaders. "Churchill had to give up after five glasses because he just drank, whereas Stalin could keep going as he ate food as well."

The best zakuski, or snacks, are salted cabbage, cucumber, mushrooms, fish and bread, Nikishin said. These are essential to the enjoyment of vodka's taste.

"You shouldn't sip vodka," warned Nikishin. "Otherwise it tastes bad." It has to be downed in one go.

And vodka always tastes better when drunk with friends. "Vodka loves company," said Nikishin. "Russians see it as a collective activity za stolom [at the table]."

Westerners don't understand vodka, he said, as they are not aware of the whole culture that surrounds it. "Foreigners can only understand when they live here and experience the whole philosophical idea that goes with drinking vodka."

Toasts are another essential part of the drinking process. "These depend on the type of company you are in," Nikishin said. Toasts range from serious speeches to jokes, but often simply "Davai!" or "Let's go!" will do.

The National Museum of Russian Vodka, 4 Samokatnaya Ulitsa, 361-6010, M. Rimskaya