Drinking in Russia: Vodka, Balsaam and hangover cures

If Vodka is available everywhere in Russia, the thirsty traveler can also find a huge array of beers as well a plethora of delicious nonetheless dangerous liqueurs known as “Balsaam”. 

Drinking in Russia is not quite as one-sided as one would expect. Of course there is vodka. And lots if it. You will be expected to drink it in shots, and not small ones at that. However, get past the vodka and there lies a plethora of fruity liqueurs to be tried and experimented with, a huge array of beer that would put the Japanese convenience store to shame and some other tasty delights to tickle the palate.

vodka shelves

A common misconception of Russian drinking is the use of the word Nastrovia, which most of us believe to be the equivalent of cheers, kanpai or santé. In fact, Russians do not use Nastrovia at all and our use of it garnered giggles from our Russian friends. Russians like to toast, and when raising their glasses use Za……! or simply ” To….!”. So, for each drink a different toast is made. Za Russia! “To Russia!” Za lyoo-bóf “To love!” Etc. Other toasts that we’ve learnt along away, which may very well be regional, include various onomatopoeia for the sounds of clinking glasses. For example Tchin Tchin which is the sound made when the top of glasses are clinked together. There are similar toasts for glasses clinked together at the bottom or the sound made when wearing thick winter gloves.


Vodka Talka

Vodka Talka

Vodka whilst ever present is not quite as ubiquitous as originally feared. Tax hikes in recent years has meant that the days of $3 bottles of voddy have ended. In fact your average 750ml bottle of vodka costs upwards of $10. This is still cheap compared to the astronomical prices of imported foreign spirits that the budget-conscious traveler should avoid like the plague. Drinking vodka is a rite of passage for any visitor to Russia. One of the first things we did on arrival was search out a bar and have a few shots. Russian bars all stock a staggering array of vodkas and depending on the variety it is usually the cheapest thing on the menu. It generally comes in a healthy 50ml portion (double that of the UK or Japan) and there’s usually a bit of something to take the edge off. Our first vodka came with much trepidation and a slice of lemon. The lemon went down a treat but it could be anything; a gherkin, a slice of bread to be sniffed then eaten or a piece of char grilled meat. Vodka is drunk at whatever temperature it comes at, usually room temperature although I imagine in winter this would be ice cold.

Potato can work as a good chaser for vodka

Potato also works as a good chaser for vodka

Needless to say a few foreigners having a couple of shots is nothing compared with drinking with a group of Russians. Our next serious dabble with vodka came when we were invited to drink with a group of Russians celebrating a birthday. The vodka this time came from a box (like a wine box but more potent) and was drunk at a higher frequency and with toasts to everything from Russia to friendship to Bikin (the town we were in) to the birthday boy. You are expected to keep up and I think we did a good job. This was a celebration and our hosts were in their 40’s but we have found that on more casual occasions, and particularly among young Russians, mixing with juice is perfectly fine if they drink vodka at all. In the Russian Far East ‘Mors’ is the juice of choice. ‘Mors’ being a cranberry or cranberry-like fruit.

A number of flavoured vodkas are available at most supermarkets too; chili, herb, fruit or honey. Medavocha is a honey flavoured vodka that slips into a hot coffee nicely.

Vodka is, perhaps unsurprisingly, available everywhere. You can buy it in supermarkets, kiosks, corner shops, cafes and service stations. There’s always variety too. From 3 or 4 in your humble roadside café to hundreds in your larger supermarkets and with 500ml, 750ml or 1 litre bottles, it can be bewildering. We choose based on price and label and have generally found them all very drinkable. We have, however, found a favorite. It is called Talka and was recommended to us by our friends in Khabarovsk.

There are also a couple of vodka based cocktails at seem quite popular. Vodka mixed with beer. I am not sure what it is called but wouldn’t recommend it. Rather use the beer as a chaser to the vodka than spoil two perfectly good drinks. “Northern lights” is champagne and vodka. We haven’t had the pleasure of this tipple yet due to budget restrictions but I’m sure that both would probably taste better drunk separately.


Beer is available to drink in every country where it is legal to drink – and some where it is not – and therefore comes as no surprise that it is widely available in Russia too. What did come as a surprise was the variety, its universal availability and young people’s preference for it over vodka. Our Russian friends all preferred beer to vodka. Whether this is due to age, cost, vodka’s potency or a combination of all three I am not sure. Heineken and Tuborg seem to have the market share in terms of foreign brands, however you will also find Guinness, Stella Artois, Budweiser and numerous other recognizable brands. The foreign licensed beers usually cost somewhere upwards of 60 roubles ($2) a pop. But who wants to drink Heineken anyway. Russian beer is cheap and delicious. Popular brands include Three Bears, Zlanty, and Baltika (more so the further west you go). Baltika comes on sliding scale from Baltika 0 (no alcohol) to Baltika 13 (a dark stout) with Baltica 3 (a light lager) 7 (standard lager) and 9 (an ale) being the most readily available. Beer usually comes in bottles, 500ml cans, 1 liter cans, or big 2 liter plastic bottles. More intriguing than the standard beers that you can find everywhere are the beers you can find on tap in some supermarkets, cafés or corner shops. Here you chose the size of your plastic bottle and fill it up with delicious draft beer. Our friends in Khabarovsk would go for this and would turn up periodically with a couple of big bottles of local brew for us to all share.

Draft beer in the supermarket

Draft beer in the supermarket

Fruity liqueurs

Check out Chudley’s cocktail recipe

Uzriskky Balsaam is a popular range of fruity liqueurs that our friends in Vladivostok and Khabarovsk claim to be unique to the Russian Far East. They say that people from Moscow or Russian expatriates always request a bottle of Balsaam from friends visiting from the Far East. These liqueurs come In a Variety of flavours; blueberry, cranberry, unknown forest berry, rose-hip etc. They all come with a helpful picture of the fruit on the front. They’re sweet, perhaps too sweet for some, and about 20% alcohol but personally I think they are the perfect foil to too much vodka and would make a delicious summer cooler mixed with soda and drunk in the sun. There are a couple of other non fruity Balsaams recognizable by the pictures of animals (tigers, bears, hawks) on their labels. These are herbal liqueurs and a bit stronger. The Siberian tiger Balsaam tastes very similar to Jaegermeister.

Balsaams make Russians happy

Balsaams make Russians happy

There are a couple of gestures used when talking about drinking or the state of drunkenness one finds one self in. Two fingers or a thumb pushed against the neck indicate that someone is on the slippery slope to drunken oblivion, or to indicate that heavy drinking is on the cards in the foreseeable future. A finger drawn across the throat, in a similar way that westerners use to indicate being fired, is indication to someone being completely wasted. Both these gestures are quite common and you will notice them often when drinking with Russians. We found them to be a helpful guide as to what is going on when faced with a language barrier. So if our Russian companions push a thumb against their neck and then a little while later motion a throat slitting, do not fear that they are gesturing a pulse checking before they murder you… just prepare for several large rounds of vodka.

Hangover cures
Fortunately I have so far been unburdened by the hangovers that haunted my life in Tokyo. However when asked what they do to alleviate the torments of the night before our friends informed us that there are two cures for a hangover in Russia. The pickling juice from preserved vegetables… or beer. Hair of the dog works for me just fine.

The juice of these pickled veggies is used as a hangover cure in Russia

The juice of these pickled veggies is used as a hangover cure in Russia

Russia is a fine country to drink in. There may not be the affordable variety of booze when compared with Europe, Japan or the US but the vodka is infinitely more drinkable than Smirnoff or other western brands. The beer is cheap and delicious and the liqueurs are sweet and a nice counter balance to the beer and vodka. Expect to toast (and toast a lot) before every drink. Do not worry if someone looks like they want to slit your throat. Finally, if staying with Russian friends be prepared for a glass of pickle juice in the morning to ease your head.

4 responses to “Drinking in Russia: Vodka, Balsaam and hangover cures

  1. ハイ!サイモン(‘v’)/
    I am sorry only for Japanese!See you!

      • Yeah! I’m so happy♪♪
        I ‘m looking forward to receive something from Kazakhstan. And I’m looking forward to the new blog up!!
        What is Climate of Kazakhstan? Japan is a super hot!!!!

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