Vodka with Vitaly


I am in a Polish bar, the Na Zdrowie on Little Turnstile in Holborn, drinking vodka with a Russian man. The Russian in question is charm itself, educated, clever, a well-known travel writer who, having been hounded out of his homeland by the KGB in 1990, now lives in London. He is very polite but one thing makes him cross. Westerners do not know how to drink vodka.

Vitaly Vitaliev became teetotal a few years ago (he was drinking too much, his stomach ulcers couldn't cope with it, he suddenly felt it was time to stop) but as he has just written a book, Borders Up!, on the drinking habits of Eastern Europeans since the fall of communism, he's had to do a bit of tasting. Since his return from the wilds of the east he hasn't touched a drop. But for me he has agreed to spend an evening at the mercy of theWyborowa, the best and purest Polish vodka around.

Vitaly complains that we take two good ingredients (say, fresh orange juice and vodka), mix them together and from the two make "one terrible wish-wash". "You know vodka is filtered and filtered over and over again to make it as pure as possible and what do you do?" he asks with contempt. "You add impurity in the glass." He continues to grumble that we have a "complete lack of understanding" of vodka's nature. So how do Russians drink? Very differently.

Russians and Poles drink with the aim of reaching oblivion, Vitaly explains. "Vodka warms up the body, leaving the head clear and relaxed, unlike beer which just makes you stupid," he adds, failing to explain how anyone can head for oblivion with a clear head. "In Russia I once had vodka that made your eyes burn and pop. That isn't good," he says. But after the long, bleak day Russians and Poles need the vodka. They need to be drunk to escape the grimness and starkness of their daily lives.

This is how they, and we, do it. Take a measure of vodka, the purer the better, in a shot glass. The glass is vital. For some it is the last link with civilisation; Russians will go to the greatest lengths to procure one rather than swig the spirit out of the bottle. Vodka is, after all, a drink over which the serious problems of life and death and the fate of the world are discussed. "These are vodka subjects," says Vitaly with an air of satisfaction. "It is a delusion to think you can sort these out without half a litre of vodka."

But back to the drinking. You must have a chaser to hand. A chaser is not another drink but something with a strong taste or smell to remove traces of vodka from the palate. Remember, the idea is that you do not taste the vodka at all. Pickled gherkins are good, or pickled cabbage. Orange juice isn't bad, apparently, providing it is not polluting the vodka in the same glass. Well-off Russians will have caviar or pickled herring. In desperate times, amid serious food shortages, Russians have been known to grab a street cat and press their noses into its furry body to get a good whiff of cat after they've knocked back their shot.

So we lift the glass, breathe out, gulp the vodka down in one and, before inhaling, take a bite of gherkin. The flavour of the gherkin permeates the palate and the nasal cavity so efficiently that the vodka slides down almost before I realise it. Vitaly is still grumbling that westerners will never learn to drink it properly.

Julia, who is also drinking with us, remonstrates. She says she drinks because she enjoys the flavour. "You are mistaken," Vitaly cries with some passion. "Your tastebuds are perverted by the western drinking culture." And who knows, perhaps he is right. I am heading towards oblivion the Russian way - with a clear head.