Out of the vodka box 

Beyond the potatoes and madness

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The first one is drunk for health. The second for love and pleasure. The third is for tears. The fourth for madness. So goes an old proverb from the Polish side of my lineage. But I'm sure my distant brethren in Russia have a similar expression, and I'm sure they're talking about vodka — or wódka, as we say in Polish.

Think "going out for a good time" in Russia, and you're bound to think "vodka." Good times or not, just say the word "Russia" and you think "vodka", as I did in conversation with Whistler's Roger McCarthy and Paul Mathews, who were on the Sochi front while they designed and built many of the Olympic ski venues we're all riveted by these days.

So is it true what we hear about all the vodka drinking in Russia? Not at all, if you were to believe a pretty laughable interview with Dmitry Chernyshenko, president of the Sochi Olympic Organizing committee, when he spoke with CBC Radio's Jian Ghomeshi last week.

Vodka drinking, by Chernyshenko's book, is just like the non-existent corruption or all those rows of empty seats at Sochi events we can see on-camera. Venues not sold out? No, people are in the bathroom or at the concession stand — all at the same time. Vodka drinking? Not a problem. "But we still love vodka when we have something to celebrate," said Mr. Chernyshenko.

Must be a lot to celebrate all the time in Russia because a quarter of all Russian men die before they reach their mid-50s, and alcohol — particularly vodka — is largely to blame according to a recent study by the University of Oxford and the Russian Cancer Research Centre. The study, which surveyed 150,000 Russians, showed extraordinarily high premature death rates among male Russians, some of whom reported drinking three or more bottles of vodka a week.

"The alcohol consumption is pretty interesting," says McCarthy, who oversaw the building of Sochi's ski trails designed by Paul Mathews and his company, Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners.

"In our office in Moscow it was 80 per cent women — maybe there were four guys, plus me. So I asked my secretary, what's the story here? We have a Christmas party and all the women are there. They all have kids, so they all have to go home and look after the rest of the family, and she said well, the problem is that the men get married when they're 25 and the women are like 20 or 22. By the time the men are 30, the women have had a couple of kids and he's turned back to the bottle. Grandma has moved in and she's kicked the husband out of the house.

"I thought it was such a gross generalization, but I heard it again and again."

Going out on the town in Russia means four or five courses, with a vodka shot for each course, or if you're at a business event, a round of vodka shooters to toast each speaker. Things can quickly move into the proverbial madness realm.

"You have to throw it over your shoulder or something because you're going to end up dead like they are," says McCarthy. He would pour it on the floor or, alternatively, throw it all in his mouth, and then take a sip of water and spit the vodka back into the water glass. This strategy was also favoured by Matthews, who learned it from "an old Swiss FIS guy."

"They think if you don't drink it (vodka) you're really some kind of jerk," says McCarthy. "You're not one of them; you're not a real man."

You don't have to die of alcohol poisoning to live or do business in Russia, but it does help to understand a little about where the vodka culture has come from. For centuries in eastern Europe and Russia, the only people who could distill quality vodka were nobility. Inns could also brew the stuff, but it was like rot-gut. In Poland, this low-grade stuff is called siwucha from the word "siwy" meaning grey. That says it all.

In Russia the word "vodka" comes from "voda" meaning "water." The country has a long and tangled relationship with the stuff — you can write a book on the subject, and many have. But of note is Peter the Great's use of vodka almost like a form of class warfare. He loosened controls over production that kept it in the hands of a privileged few and started a campaign aimed at the general populace, extolling vodka's virtues. His aims: generate big-time revenue for state coffers by using vodka as a tool of absolute rule.

The other big change was vodka was traditionally meant to be taken in moderation with food. Take a sip of vodka, take a bit of a meat pie or pirozhki. But if people are starving, or taverns for the poor don't serve food, it's vodka all the way.

Sochi or no, here in North America, we have a pretty clichéd view of vodka, like so many things Russian.

No, it's not all made from potatoes, in fact these days very little of it is. There are wheat and barley vodkas. There are rye vodkas — considered the purest of vodkas in Russia. Belvedere out of Poland is one of the finest, distilled four times and touted by its company president, sounding like Peter the Great in The New York Times, as keeping with "...a great night out and with people who are in the know about life, in the know about vodka."

There's a wide and complex range of vodkas, each with its own character and purpose. Traditionally in Poland, fruits like sour cherries and Angelina plums are made into jam or preserved in spirytus, the basis for delicious fruit-flavoured vodkas. Zozworówka Wódka Starzyka z Rozmarynem, also out of Poland, is flavoured with rosemary, ginger and honey — totally sophisticated and complex.

There are vodkas infused with herbs to settle your stomach. There are vodkas filled with gold. Danziger Goldwasser, produced in Germany and with a lineage going back to the 1500s, is flavoured with anise seeds and, as the name implies, it's flecked with 22- to 23-karat gold flakes. The inspiration, so the story goes, was Renaissance artists, who used alcohol along with glue in their water-based gilding "liquors" to stick down the gold or silver leaf.

Whichever vodka you're curious about, know that your knowledge is far from "absolut." Vodka is loaded on many levels — just try not to get too loaded as you learn about it.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist whose surname was "Bartoshek" until my dear Polish grandfather — who emigrated all by himself with his Grade 5 report card in hand for documentation when he was a boy of 11 — shortened it to better fit his new home.


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