Zhenia Samoletoff of Moscow’sDelicatessen wants you to know: Everything from here on down needs to be read with a strong Russian accent. “We think vodka is so special because of the people you’re drinking it with, especially the Russians!” says Samoletoff laughing. “If you drink vodka with Russians, many super odd things can happen: dancing bears and singing gypsies, as well as the most sincere talks and tears of happiness.”
While vodka is having something of a creative renaissance in places like Dorset, England (where the recently launchedBlack Cow vodka is crafted from the milk of grass-fed cows) and Borgarnes, Iceland (where Reyka vodka is filtered through lava rocks), no people are as deeply associated with the spirit as the freewheeling Russians. And in recent years, greater attention is being paid not only to a fresh wave of thoughtful new (vodka-fueled) cocktail bars in urban centers, but the deeper cultural stories that vodka holds.
Peased Princess at Delicatessen
In the award-winning 2013 documentaryThe Green Serpent: Of Vodka, Men and Distilled Dreams, filmmaker Benny Jaberg embarked on a five-week journey along the Trans-Siberian Railway to capture the depth of importance that vodka holds for Russians, interviewing members of the country’s creative class about their relationship to the spirit.
“[We] traveled from Moscow all the way to Olkhon, an island on Lake Baikal … searching for the soul of vodka and filming the people who drink it,” Jaberg writes in hisdirector’s statement. “Vodka and Russia are an old cliché … but vodka in Russia runs deeper. My journey, and therefore my film, was driven by a desire to find a different Russia—a Russia outside the clichés, the postcards or the myopic views that people often project onto the country.”
Back in Moscow, spaces like the quasi-hidden, antique-feeling Delicatessen, led by Vyacheslav Lankin, one of the city’s leading bartenders and restaurateurs, are quietly changing how people think about Russian vodka as well, turning out old classics with new twists and bringing surprising new ingredients into the mix, like peas and beetroot. Check out Delicatessen’s Summer Bummer cocktail, made with beetroot shrub, here.
But traditions die hard, and even the highly creative Delicatessen staff still likes to point people toward the classic spots for vodka sipping. “We always recommend drinking vodka at a cheburechnaya,” says Samoletoff. “It’s a hole-in-the-wall serving deep-fried meat pies called chebureki. The vodka comes in mini-bar-style bottles, plastic glasses and so on.”
If you’re up for a little more vodka-fueled Moscow bar hopping, check out one of these three spots. (Oh, and you can drop that Russian accent now.)
Refined and unassuming with just a hint of edge, Noor is one of the city’s premiere destinations for classic cocktails and a place that makes guests feel downright elegant from the moment they enter. The drink menu is huge, and the staff is top-notch, but drinking a Vesper to kick things off (much like 007 would’ve done) feels like the right choice. Oh, and there really is a bathtub in the middle of the bar filled with ice. Somehow, it fits right in.
Legendarily old school, Vtoroe Dyhanie (“Second Wind” in Russian) is a subterranean step back in time to different era in Russian drinking culture. Part of a class of bar known as ryumochnaya—a publike establishment that derives its name from the Russian word for vodka glass—the bar is low-key and vodka-driven and definitely shouldn’t be anyone’s first stop of the night. Do shots, eat herring, and don’t stay too late.
Strelka is a hub of the avant-garde in Moscow, dripping with late ’70s-meets–Twin Peaks décor that reminds drinkers at every turn that, yes, they’re drinking in a space built by people who love design. The official watering hole of the Strelka Institute, which was founded in 2009 to “change the cultural and physical landscapes of Russian cities,” the bar has a laundry list of inventive creations just ripe to sip while having some heady conversations. The Rose Lee (fruit vodka, white peach, rose water and soda) is a must.