If you love vodka, how do you drink it? If you are like me, you have probably drunk vodka in popular cocktails. I am pretty sure you have drunk – or have encountered in bars – Bloody Mary, screwdriver, and caipiroska. Wonderful drinks, no doubt, but have you wondered how the Russians, who created the drink and who drink it as a ritual, consume it? In cocktails? Not by a long shot.
The Russians drink vodka as a quick shot, and the way the Russian drink the white spirit, it is imbibed unadulterated. It is an ice-cold shot in a small glass. The gulp is quickly followed by sniffing bread or eating pickle or “zakuski,” as Russian appetizers are known, according to a BBC.com feature. Furthermore, one is supposed to speak after drinking vodka, not privately nurse one’s drink in a corner.
“Vodka should be cold, glass should be tiny and there must be something salty, or rye bread, to follow,” said Helena Bayliss, a Russian immigrant in the UK. “There’s no point in drinking vodka and following it with an eclair, it doesn’t work.”
“Or,” added Natasha Ward, another host of Russian descent, “God forbid, following it with nothing!”
They follow a time-honored tradition of sniffing bread after knocking down a shot. The bread is believed to soak up the alcohol and offset the taste of the vodka, while the salt and acid in Russian pickles help neutralize the alcohol.
But there are nonchemical reasons, too. There is socio-economic history behind the ritual. Food was once scarce in many Russian households – a little bread was passed around the table, each diner sniffing in turns. In fact, affluent Russians might skip the sniffing ritual, instead eating something, like pickle or caviar, with vodka. Another reason one might just sniff bread is to avoid eating when one is already too full.
It happens when the toasting, a rather garrulous occasion – Russians are mostly social drinkers – goes on too long and the diner has already eaten her herring, sardine, or caviar. At those times, just sniffing rye bread goes a long way.
Next time you drink vodka, think about the Russian tradition of vodka. Think about its history. And try sniffing some dark bread after a shot of vodka. I plan to do likewise, raising a toast to the libation of my choice.