Everything a Foreigner Needs to Know About Ukrainian Vodka
Ukrainian vodka is legendary. Here is a comprehensive guide to Eastern Europe’s favourite poison.
The Origins Of Vodka
The exact origin of vodka is subject to constant debate. There is very little material to draw conclusions on. Russians and Polish people alike claim they invented it first. One thing is for sure, distillation was not possible until the 8th century. This is when the still (a device that boils and then cools and collects the vapour) was invented and producing hard liquor like vodka became possible.
Distilled drinks exist in many different cultures. In France, it’s the cognac, in Scotland – the whiskey, and in Eastern Europe – vodka.
What Is Ukrainian Vodka?
It is a distilled drink made out of cereal grains or potatoes. In some countries (i.e. Bulgaria and Serbia), they distil fermented fruit to make liquor. Vodka companies have embraced that but strictly speaking, the product should not be called vodka.
Vodka is grain-based (or potato-based but this is rare nowadays). Enough said.
Ukrainian Vodka Is Not Called Vodka?
In Ukraine, the traditional distilled beverage is called horilka. The word comes from Ukrainian verb for burning – hority. It’s pretty much a blanket term that could refer to any strong spirit, including vodka. Traditionally, horilka is distilled from wheat or rye and it has the same alcohol content as vodka.
By definition, it’s the same thing as vodka. Don’t say this to Ukrainians, though.
What Makes Horilka Different
Ukrainian vodka would imply two ingredients:
- And water
There are different ways to ensure the vodka is free from all impurities. First off, producers remove parts of the distillate that contain ethyl acetate and ethyl lactate as well as the fusel oils. These compounds alter the taste and are best removed through multiple distillations.
The resulting vodka is then filtered through activated charcoal to achieve the perfect clean taste.
None of these happens for horilka. Ukrainians embrace the different flavours and aromas the drink can have. There are also derivative drinks that use horilka and flavour it with fruit, honey, spices, or even milk.
A Guide To All Horilka Varieties
If you are at a Ukranian party, especially if it’s a celebration, expect homemade horilka. There are probably hundreds of different recipes. Every family has a slightly different take on the flavoured horilka. Here is what you might expect:
Firstly, “moonshine” horilka that people distil in their homes is fairly popular. It’s called samohon and it could be the best (or the worst) thing ever. The main danger with drinking home-distilled vodka is that you’re not sure if the process was at all clean and safe. Alcohol disinfects, that much is true, but not removing fractions of the distillate could mean traces of toxic substances like methanol.
The irony is that methanol poisoning can be treated by ingesting ethanol (this is your normal, non-deadly alcohol). There have been cases in the past where people survived copious amounts of methanol, simply because they kept drinking. Either way, this is not something I’d rely on.
The first rule when it comes to drinking horilka is:
Know where it comes from!
Your hosts are not trying to poison you with their Ukrainian vodka but it could be somewhat dangerous all the same.
Stay safe and drink factory-produced (or at least don’t overdo the home-distilled variety). I know you’re going to break this rule but try to break it just a little.
Spicy Horilka – The Must-Try
I’m sorry, you are not leaving Ukraine before trying this.
The hot pepper-flavoured Ukrainian vodka is a staple in any foreigner’s programme, no matter how short. It can either contain whole hot peppers inside (the longer they soak, the spicier it will be), or pepper essence.
In my experience, the former tastes more real but the latter is way hotter.
Now, for some terminology:
- Horilka z pertsem is horilka bottled or aged with some hot chilli peppers inside. Sometimes they are left in the bottle, while other producers leave them out.
- Pertsivka is flavoured with either hot pepper or pepper essence.
- Medova z pertsem gets sweetened with honey and then they soak the peppers. The result is spicy, sweet, and really easy to drink (a.k.a. get drunk on)
Spicy horilka is also the most common homemade type. It’s fairly easy to throw together and it does taste amazing. The heat of the pepper makes the strong liquor easier to drink (kind of like the Tabasco sauce in Russian Breakfast shots) and the honey softens up the harsh flavours.
You can prepare this Ukrainian vodka yourself, too. Just soak a couple of hot chilli peppers (no seeds and no stems) in a bottle of good quality vodka and leave them anywhere between a week and a month. It takes some planning but it will surely impress all of your guests. Make some pelmeni to go with it and you’ve got yourself a Ukrainian-themed dinner party.
Fruit In My Vodka?
Cranberries are not the only fruit that belongs with vodka. There is a whole range of fruit-infused Ukrainian vodka. Here are some delicious options:
- Vyshnyak is morello-flavoured
- Malynivka is made with raspberries (and has a beautiful pink colour to it)
- Morelivka tastes like apricots (and alcohol, duh)
- Mokrukha is a delicious wintery horilka made with oranges and cloves
- Tertukha is strawberry-flavoured
There are tons of berry-based variations. You name it, they make it. Blueberries, blackberries, gooseberries, ashberries, etc.
It may be tempting to turn fruit-flavoured Ukrainian vodka into cocktails but try to resist the urge. Horilka is best enjoyed on it’s own, no chaser and no mixing it with other drinks. Cool it down beforehand, adding ice dilutes the taste. Which brings me to:
How To Drink Ukrainian Vodka The Ukrainian Way
Forget that shots are even a thing. Horilka is served in small, shot-like glasses but you are still supposed to sip it. Ukrainian families have it with salad or some other form of mezze, not with the main dish. Cold cuts and cheeses are traditional pairings (the fat really helps if you are drinking the spicy kind), and so are pickles, caviar, and other seafood.
If you are invited into a Ukrainian home, it’s important to remember that you don’t drink just because. It’s all about the shared experience. Ukrainians love long toasts and they drink vodka as a sort of social lubricant, not to get wasted and end the night hugging the toilet.
If you are a guy at your girlfriend’s house, try not to have more than a glass or two (tops!).
Alcohol addiction is an all too common problem for men in Ukraine. Her family will definitely hate to see you’re an avid drinker. Don’t refuse drinks, just take it very slow and take care not to appear (or be) drunk at any point in the evening.
Sometimes your host may even offer some of his homemade Ukrainian vodka as a sort of “party favour”.
Don’t say no but find a way to “repay” them. Maybe bring a bigger gift the next time you visit or invite the family over at your place. Don’t forget to praise the awesome horilka they made, although you’re under no obligation to actually drink it. If you’re not sure about the maker’s standards, you might be better off not to.
An Odd Anecdote About Ukrainian Vodka
Ukrainians might have a complicated church situation (there are a few different Orthodox churches in the country, each with a claim to become the official one) but they sure do have faith. The following anecdote… it’s a bit sacrilegious so maybe don’t mention it on a first date.
It goes that Satan was the first to come up with the distillation process. He did so, of course, in Ukraine. When Jesus noticed that more and more people were liking this new drink, he decided to come down and check out who’s behind the ‘innovation’. He brought St Peter with him.
It wasn’t long before they stumbled upon the Devil’s distillery (that would sure make a cool name for a vodka brand, right?). He was right in the middle of preparing a batch of spicy sweet horilka. Being the nice host that he was, Satan offered each a glass.
Jesus said no but St Peter tried it. As the Devil was telling them about this new drink, St Peter finished the glass and got offered a second one. He proceeded to have a third, too.
When they got up to leave, Satan stood up, reached over and grabbed St Peter’s hat. The first glass was free because you’re my guest, he said, We pour a second one for the road so that was free, too. The third, though, you have to pay for. It’s either your hat or the souls of everyone that drinks vodka.
Apparently, Jesus and St Peter went for the souls option. I guess it really was a cool hat. From that day forward, Satan started lurking around bars and taverns, claiming the souls of all vodka lovers.
What can I say, though—Ukrainian vodka is still pretty good. Maybe minus the eternal damnation part, I guess. Either way, drink responsibly, always have enough cash on you to pay at the end of the night, and have fun.
Most importantly, have fun.
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