A toast to horilka

Today is the first guest blog from one of our members, Lydia Bezeruk, a Ukrainian Australian. Lydia is going to be sharing some of her best tips about visiting the Ukraine with us all in the coming weeks. We hope you enjoy the series.

********

Don’t even think about keeping up with a Ukrainian drinking vodka. These were the words of warning I uttered to my husband as we arrived in the village in western Ukraine to meet my relatives for the first time. Needless to say, he chose not to heed my warning and the rest, as they say, is history (That would be my family history, not yours).

There is no denying Ukrainians drink alot. According to 2010 WHO data (published in 2014), Ukraine comes 6th behind Denmark, Moldova, Lithuania, Russia and Romania in terms of liters of pure alcohol consumed per capita per year. (We need to note that we are not discussing rates of alcoholism, just the average consumption of alcohol within a country). So at least 5 other countries drink more than Ukrainians’ 13.9 liters per capita per year. Admittedly, nearly 50% of the 13.9 liters is made up of spirits – the ubiquitous vodka or, as it is known in Ukraine, horilka – a word that translates literally as “something that burns”.

Horilka is traditionally made from grain and references Ukraine’s traditional role as the “bread basket of Europe”, although different regions have been known to use different sources such as potatoes or beets, particularly if it is home-distilled – ‘samohonka’. Its alcohol content can vary between 35-80 percent by volume: it is basically water and pure alcohol. Sometimes flavourings are involved: pertsivka horilka is flavoured with honey and pepper (I make one with plums at home). But Ukrainians don’t do anything fancy with their horilka: martinis are neither shaken nor stirred; nor are bottles chilled in freezers. Ukrainians drink their horilka straight – in a shot glass or ‘charka’ – in one gulp – usually after a toast and a vociferous “na zdorovya” or “to your health” (of which not much remains after downing enough of the stuff). There are variations on how this is done: a favourite of mine was taught to me by a cousin in Sarny who places the shot glass on his elbow and lifts it to his mouth, drinks and returns his arm to its original position, all without spilling a drop. (Upon my return to Australia I introduced this drinking game to my family at our next Christmas lunch).

But we need to look at drinking in its cultural context. Ukrainians do not drink alone: it is a social event always accompanied by food (which will be the subject of my next blog). Even when my family decided to go for a walk after lunch to the local historical fort, my cousin’s husband carried with him not just a bottle of horilka (presumably so that we could toast the fort’s tenacity in standing for many centuries) but a loaf of bread. If nothing else is available, it is customary to follow a shot with a slice of bread. This cultural practice is so important, it is part of traditional Ukrainian wedding ceremonies: upon arriving at the reception, the bride and groom are greeted with bread and horilka of which they must partake before everyone is seated and the inevitable eating and drinking begins.

Drinking has been a cultural institution for many centuries and is passed down through successive generations. It is often said that it takes training, skills and knowledge (and maybe a hint of genetics) to drink horilka properly. Which leads me back to the original warning I gave my husband as we sat down to feast with my family. His English genetic stock did not prepare him for what was to come. Even after passing out, my cousins continued to prop him up on the couch and toast to his health. It was rather like watching a Ukrainian version of “Weekend at Bernie’s”.

You can read more about horilka here.