B12 Solipsism

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From Bread Wine to Vodka

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Vodka and food
Vodka and food, London

In her article about Russian food writer and historian, Maksim Syrnikov, Julia Ioffe recalls that the first time she met Syrnikov, he was preparing to make samogon—Russian moonshine—for a television broadcast. “I don’t like store-bought vodka,” Syrnikov said. Ioffe gives this brief history of vodka in the country:

Distilled liquor was initially tightly regulated in Russia. It is said that the first Moscow tavern allowed to serve it was exclusively reserved for the oprichniki, Ivan the Terrible’s secret police. But eventually it was made all over the country, in a process much like the one that Syrnikov was going to show the TV crew. For a long time, vodka was similar to whiskey: it tasted and smelled strongly of the grains used to make it, and was called “bread wine.” Until the twentieth century, only bread wine infused with herbs or berries was called vodka. The crystalline, nuanceless spirit that we now know as vodka emerged in the late nineteenth century, when the monarchy monopolized alcohol production and marketed the measure as a health initiative that removed the impurities in homemade bread wine.

Russia’s intense relationship with vodka was the subject of Victor Erofeyev’s 2002 Letter from Moscow, “The Russian God.” Erofeyev wrote that just mentioning the word “vodka” could cause unpredictable behaviors in Russians.

It seems to punch a hole directly into the subconscious, setting off a range of odd gestures and facial expressions. Some people wring their hands; some grin idiotically or snap their fingers; others sink into sullen silence. But no one, high or low, is left indifferent. More than by any political system, we are all held hostage by vodka.

Erofeyev argues that the daily ration of vodka given to Russian soldiers during the Second World War was “as important as Katyusha rocket launchers in the victory over Nazism.”

(click here to continue reading Back Issues: From Bread Wine to Vodka : The New Yorker.)

Imperia Russian vodka
Imperia Russian vodka

and from Wikipedia:

The Russian name for any home-made distilled alcoholic beverage is called samogon (ru: самого́н), literally translated as “self-run” or “self-distilled”. Historically, it was made from malted grain (and therefore similar to whisky), but this method is relatively rare nowadays, due to increased availability of more convenient base ingredients, such as table sugar. Modern samogon is most often made from sugar. Other common ingredients include beets, potatoes, bread, or various fruit.

Samogon of initial distillation is called pervach (ru: первач), literally translated as “the first one” – it is well known for its high quality (pure alcohol is lighter, so it evaporates in the beginning of the process but impurities don’t; over time more and more impurities evaporate, too, thus making the rest of the batch not that clean). The production of samogon is widespread in Russia. Its sale is subject to licensing. Unauthorized sale of samogon is prohibited, however, production for personal consumption has been legal since 1997 in most of the country.

Samogon often has a strong repulsive odor but, due to cheap and fast production and ability to personalize the flavor of the drink, it is of relative popularity. However, pervach is famous for having a little or no smell. Samogon is one the most popular alcoholic beverages in the country. It directly competes with vodka, which is more expensive (in part due to taxes on distilled alcohol), but contains fewer impurities. A 2002 study found that, among rural households in central Russia, samogon was the most common alcoholic beverage, its per capita consumption exceeding the consumption of vodka 4.8 to 1. The study estimated that, at the time, it was 4 to 5 times cheaper to manufacture homemade samogon from sugar than to buy an equivalent quantity of vodka.

Since then, the price of vodka has been rising above the rate of inflation. As of 2011, typical cost of production of homemade samogon is on the order of 30 rubles ($1) per liter, mainly determined by the price of sugar. The breakeven cost of “economy-class” vodka is 100 rubles/liter, but federal taxes raise retail prices almost threefold, to 280 rubles/liter. Possibly due to rising taxes, per capita consumption of vodka in Russia has been falling since 2004. It has been largely replaced with samogon among marginal classes. Some analysts forecast that the trend will result in increased adoption of samogon among the middle class, and, by 2014, samogon will overtake vodka as the most common alcoholic beverage nationwide

(click here to continue reading Moonshine by country – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.)

Black Currant Tea Vodka - Russian Tea Time
Black Currant Tea Vodka – Russian Tea Time

Vodka is not my favorite spirit, but I always keep some around. I’ve also made some flavored vodkas of my own1, the best of which was adding a few tablespoons worth of black currant tea in a cheesecloth, soaking for a week or so, then straining. Quite tasty…

Footnotes:
  1. after first having some at the Russia Tea Time restaurant []

Written by Seth Anderson

April 10th, 2012 at 12:37 pm

Posted in Food and Drink

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