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Russian Vodka Drinking Etiquette Posted by on Oct 7, 2015 in Culture, Russian life, Traditions

If you are a type of person who occasionally enjoys drinking adult beverages, read on. Today’s blog is about proper vodka drinking etiquette as I have observed it. Consuming this spirit is definitely a part of Russian culture – for some it is a larger part. It is my hope that you will be entertained, even if you don’t drink, and that you understand that I am in no way advocating consuming vodka irresponsibly.

Drinking vodka with Russians isn’t like drinking beer with your buddies – there is a right and wrong way to do it. Obviously, as with anything, there is more than one way to do it. What follows are the “unwritten” rules that many Russians seem to follow.

Let’s assume you already have chosen a decent vodka actually made in Russia – this does not guarantee quality though. Check to make sure the vodka is made in Russia because some have a Russian label but are made abroad. Here is a quick link with quite a few Russian vodka choices and ratings.

Before you begin drinking, make sure you have something to eat or at least, smell. In Russia we call it закуска. The word is not easy to translate but basically it means something you follow alcohol with. It can be anything but your most common types of закуска are pickles, any other pickled vegetables, breads, salads, salami and other kinds of processed meats, and of course, fish. Dry fish is most commonly paired with beer, while a pickle is your number one choice for following vodka.

Some of my Russian friends could drink a good-sized glass of vodka without stopping and simply smell a pickle. I have tried this with a smaller glass of vodka and it sort of works, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Eating the pickle works even better for most people. Some people prefer to eat something with fat; that helps keep you in the game a bit longer. Sausage, cheese, bread, and even butter by itself, can all help.

So now you’ve got your vodka, glass, and food to eat after. One person will proceed to pour for everybody at the table and usually lead in the toast before drinking. Remember to pour your own last – it is rude to pour your’s first. Sometimes the toasts get more creative with each passing round; at other times, you might quit toasting after several rounds. For many people leaving an empty bottle on the table is a big no-no, it is considered a sign of bad luck.

Once everybody has their various sized shots of vodka, a toast will be made. “To your health,” works in many cases. “To love” is usually the third toast. Basically, feel free say something positive or maybe even humorous :-). It is also common to toast to your host, to parents, to children, etc.

Just after the toast is made, exhale sharply and then throw back you shot. Sipping is not usually an option but can be tolerated by some. Sometimes I cannot/will not drink the entire glass depending on the situation. You should do what makes you feel comfortable because you are trying to have a good time – no need to demonstrate false bravado at the expense of ruing the experience.

As soon as you swallow the vodka and before your brain has a chance to question what you’ve just done, eat whatever food you’ve placed on the table. Some love the flavor of good vodka, others merely tolerate it. As I belong to the latter group, I like to eat something as soon as possible.

By remembering that if you pour the shots, you make the toast, and pour yours last, you’ll appear cordial. In my experience, you never want to simply pour yourself a shot and then drink it. Even if you can’t drink with the ferocity of some, don’t worry – the purpose is to relax and enjoy yourself. Stay in the game as long as you like, bow out before crossing the threshold into oblivion. Remember, all things in moderation!

Here is a short video on the subject that I found somewhat entertaining:

 

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About the Author:Jenya

Born in Russia, I spent the first twenty years of my life in Orenburg, Russia and Mogilev, Belarus. For the last eleven years, I've lived in New Hampshire and Michigan, US. While I continue to absorb and adapt to American culture, I am always thrilled to share my Russian heritage with those who find it interesting. Travel, photography and art play a special part in my life. Twitter: @iamnx2u


Comments:

  1. samonen:

    Веселие на Руси есть пити…

    Thanks for this post, Jenya. Drinking vodka is such an essential part of Russian life that it is good to remind non-Russians that they actually have a culture and an etiquette to it in Russia. We don’t — or at least the Finnish etiquette is quite different. The “old school” Finnish way to drink vodka was very unceremonial: using glasses was superfluous. You’d open the bottle and pour a large quantity down you throat. In a few minutes, you’d experience nirvana… The classical hiding place for the bottle was the firewood stack.

    I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the concept “vodka tourism”. These were Finns taking a trip to Leningrad in Soviet times consuming humongous amounts of alcohol. Many people actually believed there was a “dry law” in place in Finland because it seemed like Finns regarded vodka as something very “defitsitnoe” consuming as much as they possibly could passing no opportunity. While many people were ashamed of this behavior in Finland, the Russians seemed to have no problem with it. I guess you’d expect Russians to have seen drunks. And besides, I’ve been told the “fartsovshchiki” were only happy to trade with oblivious people.

    • Jenya:

      @samonen Samonen, thank you for this entertaining bit of information!

  2. Richard:

    Jenya, I noticed a typo in the first line of your post. I think you must have meant to use the word “unadulterated” instead of “adulterated”. The word adulterated in this context would mean that the vodka has inferior ingredients or that it’s in some way not authentic.

    Do Russians ever eat yogurt when drinking vodka? I’m just curious as the yogurt would protect your stomach; not sure how the two would taste together though.

    • Jenya:

      @Richard Richard and Ken, thank you very much for pointing that out. It was definitely an oops :-). I have decided to go with “adult” beverages instead. As for yogurt, I am sure some people have tried it but it is certainly not typical. Hot potatoes with butter, soups, hearty meat dishes and bread are common when drinking but if nothing like that is available then people just eat whatever they have.
      Ken, drinking vodka chilled is definitely the way to go! It goes down much easier, however, many Russians do not chill their vodka.

  3. Ken:

    I enjoyed the post. It was interesting to learn more about this important aspect of Russian life. I saw the mistake in the first paragraph also, but I don’t think it was a typo. Rather, I think it was just a bad word choice. If it were intentional it would be a clever malapropism. Since the rest of the article is a more or less serious discussion about how Russians consume their favorite alcoholic beverage, I think it was probably unintentional. I think the word the Jenya was looking for is simply “adult” as in adult beverage, a beverage for adults only. Adulterated denotes that something has been changed from its original condition and the connotation of this change in condition, as Richard points out, is seldom positive.

    I’ve enjoyed most of the vodkas I’ve tasted, but I’m far from being a connoisseur. I usually drink vodka ice cold from the freezer. This is how my Russian friends told me it is done. Drinking it cold does smooth out the flavor making it easier to drink. It is a romantic notion, but perhaps it brings to mind the coldness of the Russian winters, good friends, good women and bodies warmed on the outside by the fire and on the inside by vodka. За нас!

  4. Teemu:

    Isn’t it polite for a guest to always raise a toast for the hozhyanka? Also.. I heard somewhere that the 3rd toast goes to women? 🙂 Or do I have bad info..?

  5. Bill:

    Teemu, I was taught the same thing. I used to take a couple trips a year to Russia, and we were taught the protocol that you toast to women on the 3rd, 7th, and 21st toast, and then every subsequent toast after the 21st. 🙂

  6. Victor:

    All this reminds me of growing up in my russian-American household, where a family friend first introduced me to vodka at the ripe old age of 11. There were also strippers involved. Despite the undeniable irresponsibility of a 35 year old feeding booze to a child, I have very warm memories of all this. It’s also really fun to see things written in Russian and actually understand that stuff (oh and to all of you Russians out there have you ever noticed how ridiculous the not-actually-Russian russian bad guys in every single movie sound? can’t they find a single russian actor?). Anyway I have a friend with three bottles about to knock on my door so it’s time for me to excuse myself and insult my liver.