Holiday Spirits

          (A Russian Doctor Describes the Only Correct Way to Drink Vodka)  
Americans do not know how to drink vodka. Perhaps that is because the true, Russian technique has never been formally laid down on paper. I would like to correct this omission.

Russian men drink vodka shots. They drink vodka with gusto while making loud breathing noises. They drink vodka as if their manhood depended on how loud those noises are. After these shots, Russians eat. They eat small morsels of food, chewing pensively, their gaze directed inward like that of a woman in late stages of pregnancy. In fact a good prix-fixe Russian dinner is a twenty-course affair, seventeen courses of which are hors d’oeuvres in small portions. During such dinner a Russian may down seventeen shots followed by seventeen different hors d’oeuvres while giving seventeen toasts.  With Thanksgiving approaching, I’m sure that this technique can be adapted to the traditional holiday meal, with excellent results. Americans are so creative!

The social purpose of rapid-fire vodka shots is to get as much alcohol in you as quickly as possible to get the party going. The gastronomical purpose of drinking vodka at dinners is to enhance the flavor of the food. Vodka is 40% ethyl alcohol, which is an ideal solvent for the small-molecule chemicals that give food its taste. Most of the taste is sensed not by the tongue but by the nose, and alcohol dissolves the flavor components and vapors and delivers them to their destination, making the food taste stronger.

Two other steps must be taken.  First, you need to prevent the burning in your mouth that comes with all hard liquor. The burning likely comes from the oxidation of alcohol to acetaldehyde and acetic acid in the presence of digestive catalysts in the mouth. Thus, Russians evacuate oxygen by powerfully breathing out before each shot.

Second, the vodka must have no or minimal taste of its own. For example, cognac, which is an antithesis to vodka, needs to be savored in the mouth. This allows the complex flavor components to be vaporized to the taste buds in the larynx and the nose. Since vodka’s main function is to deliver the taste of the food that follows, flavored vodkas must have very simple background tastes – pepper, lemon, horseradish — which the best of them do. (The now unavailable Stolichnaya Pertsovka was the best in this regard.)

All of the above leads to a multi-step vodka drinking ritual choreographed and perfected by Russian revelers over millennia. To be more specific:  

     1. Pour a half an ounce of vodka into a shot glass (preferably made of Czech crystal). This amount is optimal for both fully experiencing the drinking process and for extending it through four to six toasts (2-3 drinks).
    2. Pick out a spicy and salty hors-d’oeuvre of your choice and smell it. High-brow: caviar, smoked fish, selected marinated mushrooms. Low-brow: pickles, herring, salami.
    3. Breathe out loudly through your mouth emitting an animal noise. No air should be left in your lungs.
    4. Drink your vodka in one swallow. DO NOT BREATHE IN. Breathing in will let the air into your system and will negate steps 1-3, and your mouth will burn.
    5. Put your food in your mouth WITHOUT BREATHING IN and chew it pensively for 15 seconds, trying to direct your gaze inward like as if you were a woman etc.
    6. Finally, breathe in.

If you have done everything right, you should be feeling tender warmth deep in your chest, spectacular tastes in you mouth, and no burning anywhere.

Before you begin, however, make sure that you are hungry and remain hungry as long as possible. Two centuries back, Russian aristocrats would get up before dawn and hunt until mid-morning. At that point they would proudly barge into the main hall of the estate with unlucky specimens of game hanging from their belts. Next they would approach an impeccably laid table with three or four different carafes of ice-cold vodka and seven or eight varieties of high- and low-brow hors d’oeuvres consisting of several types of red and black caviar, mushrooms, pickles and smoked fish. The starving aristocrats would then follow the above steps several times with different combinations of vodkas and hors d’oeuvres until they no longer felt the pangs of near-starvation, at which point, still hungry enough, they would proceed to the dining room for breakfast.

Trust me–the breakfast was not cereal.

I suggest that you, like Russian aristocrats, enact the whole ritual three times before your Thanksgiving meal. I have been doing it with my American friends for twenty years with wonderful results.

Igor Galynker M.D., Ph.D. is the Associate Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York. His Ph.D. is in Chemistry.