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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Remaking Vodka's Image in Russia

UGLICH, Central Russia -- In a large room on the second floor of the Rossiya movie theater in this shabbily genteel town, Vladimir Shabalin teaches people how to drink vodka.

"Smell it first," he tells visitors clasping murky antique shot glasses. They do. "Take a sip, and hold it in your mouth for just a bit. Swallow, and then have a mild snack."

The chilled vodka, Shuiskaya Classic, is considered among the best in Russia. It goes down as smoothly as Shabalin promised. His visitors then dutifully begin munching pickles.

"If you equate vodka with drunkenness," Shabalin says, "it's like saying love is the same as venereal disease."

Such distinctions may be lost on most Russians, who tend to toss back their vodka, rather than sip it. But as director of a new vodka library in Uglich, 200 miles north of Moscow, Shabalin and his partners are part of a scattered effort to create a new, upscale culture of drinking the ancient spirit.

In Moscow, for instance, the Russian distiller Smirnov is fighting to establish an image as a brand to be savored, not guzzled. The Kristall distillery, maker of the most renowned exported brand, Stolichnaya, has begun producing upscale vodkas for domestic consumption.

These businesses are banking on the growing worldliness of the Russian middle class, which they hope has begun to appreciate the nuances of liquor rather than merely its alcohol content. They worry that successful Russians are moving away from vodka to what are viewed as more refined drinks, including gin, whisky and expensive wine.

"If before, people drank to get drunk, now they drink as social drinking," says Natalya Karchazhkina, senior analyst with Qualitel Data Services, a Moscow market research firm. "These people are afraid of alcoholism, and vodka is strongly associated in their minds with alcoholism."

"You can't ban vodka, so you have to teach people how to drink it properly," Viktor Minayev, folklorist and partner in the vodka library, says. "What's a culture of drinking? It's placing limits on yourself and determining the norms in any situation."

There is little agreement about when vodka was introduced, where or by whom, but most agree that mass production of grain-based spirit began in Russia in the 15th century. The Poles, no slouches themselves when it comes to vodka, sometimes claim to have been first.

Amid the resplendent and crumbling churches of 1,062-year-old Uglich is the Aleksandrovsky Monastery, where the monks began making vodka in the late 16th century. Until the end of the Soviet era, vodka even served as a form of currency in Russia, viable in most transactions and necessary in others. Gravediggers, for instance, are still paid in bottles so they can toast the deceased.

Minayev contends that Russian men did not always drain every 100-gram toast down to the very bottom. There was a time when drinking vodka meant reconciliation rather than murderous late-night fights in urban kitchens. Russian cadets always drank their third toast to women, he says.

In the fall, the library will hold a vodka festival featuring old, arcane regional recipes for everything ranging from garlic to gooseberry vodka. People will be taught to drink vodka in contemplative sips.

Smirnov tries through advertising to position its vodka as an elite brand. "Drinking has become very fussy and discriminating," Alexander Drozdov, a Smirnov vice president, says. "The political and economic changes have brought new values. Now people are too busy to drink as much as before."

But he believes that even prosperous Russians, after drinking vodka to celebrate births and mourn deaths, will eventually return to the tastes of their forefathers.

"They may be drinking French wines now," Mikhail Kozhukov, a journalist who recently opened an elite vodka restaurant in Moscow, says, "but in their heart, there is still a place for vodka. The smell of it is still in some small corner."