Knowing Moscow would not be complete without knowing how to drink vodka in Russia. But you can toss a lot of knowledge that you think you have about drinking vodka out of the window.
Today I’ll share with you a brilliant piece by my friend Chris Helmbrecht on how to drink vodka like a Russian. Chris is not only one of the best and most experienced party hosts in Moscow but has also had his fair share of vodkas, so he knows what he’s talking about. Believe me, I checked.
This is a shortened guest post version but you can read his entire article on his website here.
Russia is as famous for vodka as Bavaria is for beer. The clear distilled alcohol belongs to (almost) every family or even business event. Here are a few things a foreigner should know about vodka and the Russian etiquette of drinking it. I will also explain the different kinds of “vodkas” and give you my favorite brands.
What is Vodka?
Vodka (Russian: водка [ˈvotkə]) is a distilled beverage usually composed of water and ethanol, sometimes with traces of impurities. Traditionally, vodka is made by the distillation of cereal grains or potatoes that have been fermented. Russians also make “moonshine” vodka out of bread at home, called samogon (ru: самого́н), meaning “self-distilled”, literally “self-ran”. Another popular way of “making” vodka yourself at home is to buy ethanol in a pharmacy and mix it with water and other ingredients, like grapefruit peel. This version is called “spirit” and also pretty common.
The different types of vodka
Among commercially sold vodkas there are different brands, which mainly differ in the distillation process (filtering and how often they were distilled). Low cost brands are usually more impure. They are mainly consumed by alcoholics and the poor. These are cheaper than the anti-freeze used for cars in the winter and lots of Moscow taxi drivers use these low cost vodkas as their anti-freeze.
How vodka is served in Russia
The amount of vodka is typically classified in grams. 25 grams would be a small shot. 50 grams a normal shot and if someone wants to drink you under the table (or kill himself), you’ll face a 100 grams vodka portion, which is usually served in a small fruit juice glass.
Vodka is typically stored in the freezer and served in cold glasses. It is never served as a long drink on / with ice. That is something we would drink in New York or Munich, but almost an offence to any Russian.
My advice: never go to a family event, business meeting, a business dinner or any other Russian social event, without eating a good amount of food before. No worries, there is usually plenty of very tasty food, served at these events, but before you even get to take your first bite, you’ll have to drink 1-3 shots of vodka.
Three rules how to drink vodka in Russia
Rule #1: don't drink alone (ever!)
Russians say: “Who drinks vodka alone, is an alcoholic!”. Vodka drinking is a social thing and not many Russians will drink alone. You may get invited for a vodka at a bar only because the guy who invites you wants to drink (for whatever reason, there is usually one).
Rule #2: don't drink before others do!
Speaking of reasons. Drinking without a reason is also not allowed! So there must be a toast. You can’t drink before the vodka gets “dedicated” to someone or something. When someone makes a toast you have to lift your glass and must not let it down until the toast is done. However long that takes. We will get to family dinners and toasts a bit later.
Rule #3: drink all of it at once!
Vodka is drunk all at once in one sip. Yes, even a “100 grams” portion. It will be (sort of) a shame, if you leave a half full glass after everyone downed his. A good strategy (and an accepted one) is to ask for a smaller portion when the glass is filled. Half a glass, or 75% of it, will do and is usually accepted and no problem. That is, unless someone wants to drink you under the table. In which case you should look for a quick exit anyway because you will never win this battle against a trained Russian vodka drinker.
What to do if you don't want to drink vodka
You can try the following proven cheats if you need to continue to drink with someone but you are afraid of getting too drunk:
- Fill the glass with water when no one watches. If you get caught, you are the stupid foreigner who made a mistake (or is already drunk).
- Pretend to drink the shot and right after drop the glass quickly and spill the vodka on the floor or into some flowers. This works well in a bar or club, on the dacha Shashlik, but of course not so well at a family dinner.
- Keep the vodka in your mouth and go to the toilet or spit it out at some other convenient place.
- If you don’t want to drink at all, tell them that you are taking antibiotics (because of an infection). It will be accepted but naturally can’t be used again and again with the same people.
How to toast in Russia
At a family dinner and especially birthdays, the second drink is always dedicated to the parents of the host or the person, who has his birthday. Usually the family members will make the first round of toasts. It’s a little speech and the person giving it usually stands up. Only when the speech is finished (which can take a while) are you allowed to drink your vodka.
After the family is done, it is toast time for the guests. Depending on how many people there are, it will sooner or later be your turn to make a toast. Better be prepared! Even though you may not speak Russian, it is expected that you make a toast and probably someone will translate it.
When the guest round starts wait for your chance and step in right away. Get it over with before you get too drunk to make a toast and start slurring your speech. Good subjects are always health, success and so on. You can also choose another subject but your speech should not consist of only one sentence. You’ll have to package your message in a nice little speech. That will be a well received toast and earn you some respect.
What do Russian women think about drinking vodka
Russian women usually don’t drink vodka. They participate only during the first shots and toasts, if at all. Usually they drink wine or Russian / Crimean sparkling wine. They don’t like this kind of drinking and how their men are getting hammered more and more with each shot. After a while they will ask their men to stop drinking or force them to go home. They will tell you how being able to drink more will not earn you the respect of the Russian men present at the celebration. The wife or mother of the host will tell you to stop, if your girlfriend (or wife) is not there to tell you herself.
How to prepare for drinking vodka
- Prepare yourself and eat at least 30 min before the dinner or meeting. Eat something oily and fat.
- Drink a lot of water or juice in between the toasts. The more, the better.
- Eat oily and fatty stuff, bread and potatoes during the dinner. Stay away from the light stuff that fills your belly (like salad).
- It may help and extend your drinking stamina to go to the toilet and vomit the first few rounds out at one point. Just make sure that no one hears you vomiting and that you have a minty chewing gum to cover the smell until you drink your next portion. Needless to say that I would fill my belly with some fatty food right after my return and the next round of shots.
What is the best Russian vodka
This Moscow based premium vodka, made in the famous Cristall distilleries, is one of the best vodkas I have ever had. It not only features a beautiful bottle, with the famous St.Basils cathedral inside, but it’s also 3 times distilled. This makes the vodka smooth and oily, going down like charm and not irritating you too much. Unfortunately, the Belvedere Group bought the Cristall Distilleries and today you can hardly find this vodka in Moscow’s stores anymore. This vodka (if you can find it) is always a good present or souvenir.
Beluga comes in 6 different variations / flavors. Beluga Noble is probably the most common. While this vodka is considered “premium” among most Russians, it is only my second choice and not nearly as smooth as the Dolgoruki. I have tried some of the more upscale Beluga brands but I was too drunk to remember their taste.
The owner of this vodka brand from St.Petersburg, Roustam Tariko, is a billionaire by now, flying around in a stylish Boeing 737-700BBJ private jet with the company’s logo on its tail. While this vodka is considered premium by foreigners and you’ll find it in many clubs, it is also served at dinners and on dachas. In my opinion, Russian Standard is actually located in the upper medium segment. The vodka is ok. It’s clean and doesn’t give you a headache next day, even after many shots. But I find it a bit harsh and burning. Right, you could say, that it is only for the real tough Russian men and not for a German pussies, like me, ha ha.
I must always laugh when I think back to my New York model party nights, where “Stoli” was the absolute premium vodka and the first choice of many high society girls. In Russian “Stolichnaya” is a lower middle class vodka and nothing special. The only thing premium and spectacular about this vodka is the label, which shows the 1930s-era Hotel Moskva. It has been rebuilt as the Four Seasons, one of the best 5 Star-Hotels in town today.
If you look carefully, you’ll see that the labels on bottles of Stolichnaya vodka sold outside Russia (like these in New York City) read “Premium Vodka,” not “Russian Vodka.”
A big thank you to Chris for allowing me to share this great guide on drinking vodka! You can find the full version, which also includes his observations on how to battle the hangover the next day, on his website here.
You can also check out how to get in touch with him if you need help with event organization and nightlife in Moscow.