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Ukrainian Horilka — more than just an alcoholic beverage
Romko Malko tells a story of horilka, Ukrainian vodka, treating it as a cultural phenomenon, and giving tips concerning horilka drinking.
“And bring us a lot of horilka, but not of that fancy kind with raisins,
from Taras Bulba by Mykola Gogol
Icould never understand why people drink horilka (horilka is Ukrainian for vodka). I’ve never actually liked its taste (if you can speak of any taste of horilka at all, except, of course of those kinds that are flavoured and thus are supposed to have some taste), and when at a party or in a company of friends they try to push a glass of horilka on me — even a very small one — I usually refuse. Beer and wine are quite a different matter. They have distinctive flavours, you can drink them slowly or sipping, enjoying the taste. Wine drinking can be even turned into a ritual with its own special aesthetics. But horilka? When it is served straight, all you can do is just drain it in one swig.
Probably, I did not have horilka at the right moment or with the right kind of food. Traditionally, horilka is consumed with some food, zakuska; after draining a glass, it is advisable to eat something, to get rid of the horilka taste in the mouth; among the best zakusky are pickled cucumbers and mushrooms, and herring.
It takes some training, skills and knowledge to drink horilka properly, and not everyone can do it the right way. Some time ago, four friends of mine and I went on an extensive tourist trip around France. One fine evening we invited two Frenchmen we had become friends with to join us for dinner with pertsivka (horilka with red pepper). They accepted our invitation. We had two bottles of pertsivka for seven men, and when we were through with these bottles, the two Frenchmen were so overwhelmed by that little amount of hard liquor that had put into themselves that they collapsed fell in a dead faint, while all the rest of us felt as though we had had practically no alcohol at all. Which goes to show that you do have to have some training in horilka drinking to avoid a disgrace of “falling flat on your face.”
Why, indeed? Though answers to the question, Why do people drink alcohol? in each individual case will vary, most of the answers will boil down to just a few basics: to improve the mood; to deal with a stress; to pass the time; to get drunk just for the sake of getting drunk. For very many people, a party, whatever the occasion, or a celebration can hardly do without a libation. “No drink, no fun.” At the same time, when asked whether they could do without alcohol, most people would answer in the affirmative. Paradoxically, those who actually abstain from drinking, are in the minority.
Many peoples of the world have a traditional drink without which no feast is celebrated. At such feasts, this national drink is usually consumed in considerable quantities. The Scots drink Scotch whisky; the French drink wine; the Germans drink beer, and the Arabs drink coffee — to provide just a few obvious examples. For the Ukrainians horilka is probably the most widely consumed liquor and it sort of gives it the status of “a national drink.” Though horilka is not the oldest alcoholic drink known to have been consumed since time immemorial, it has been with us for the past four hundred years or so. It was with us in good times and in bad times, and as such does deserve to be written about.
Horilka myths and origin
There are many myths and tall stories about horilka and its origins, and I am not going to refute or support them on purely subjective grounds. I shall try to use a more scientific approach.
One of the popular myths has it that vodka is a purely Russian invention. I must disappoint those who believe this myth because vodka is no more “a Russian invention,” than pelmeni (dumplings stuffed with minced meat) are — the recipe for pelmeni is believed to have come from China centuries ago. Ukrainian horilka for quite the wrong reasons is often referred to in the west as “Russian vodka.”
The journalistic research that I have done has led me to believe that the Russians learnt the use of horilka which they called vodka (the word is a derivative of voda that means “water”; the etymology of the Ukrainian horilka is less clear; it could have been derived from hirky — bitter, or from hority — to burn). The origin of vodka is shrouded in mystery; the invention is attributed by some historians to the mediaeval alchemists. My research indicates that vodka was a product borrowed by Russians from the Ukrainian Cossacks some time in the fifteenth or sixteenth century.
I have to admit though that I have not discovered any definitive, reliable or scientifically well-grounded information that would provide me with solid facts as to the origin of horilka. It is clear though that people of Ukraine could have stumbled upon the discovery of horilka in ancient times quite easily. People who lived in Ukraine since time immemorial began to grow grain, wheat in particular (and it is a wheat mash from which horilka was originally made; later other grains and potatoes were used for making horilka), about six or seven thousand years ago, and like it was with wine, horilka could have been a chance discovery.
There are many legends that are still alive in Ukraine about the discovery of horilka. Most of these stories suggest that it was the devil who gave it to the people. And if you think of it, there must be something in this claim.
One of these ancient stories goes like this. “There were times well beyond our memory when people lived quite happily without this cursed horilka. The devil did not like it at all to see people doing quite well and he decided to do something nasty to spoil their fun. It took him quite some time to figure out what would be a very mean thing to do, but at last he did hit upon an idea. He made a drink from the roots of the wonder bush, tried it and found it powerfully intoxicating. It so happened that the Saviour accompanied by St Peter and St Paul were near the place where the devil set up a distillery in his house at the time when the evil one made his first horilka. They decided to pay the devil a visit. The devil welcomed the guests in and offered them his newly invented drink. The Savior refused to have any of it, but St Peter and St Paul did have a small glass each. St Paul felt he wanted to have some more. ‘It’s a good drink that you have here. What do you call it?’ ‘Horilka.’ ‘Could I have some more of this horilka of yours?’ St Paul had a second glass and asked for a still another one. The guests then thanked the host, rose from the table and were about to leave, when the devil dashed to St Paul, grabbed his hat and pulled it off his head. Then the devil shouted, ‘The first glass was free to welcome you in, the second one was free for the road, but for the third one you have to pay.’ But the guests did not have any money on them. Then the Saviour tells the devil, ‘Look, give the hat back, and as a payment, you can have the souls of all those mortals who will die of drinking horilka.’ The devil decided it was a good bargain and gave the hat back to St Paul. And then he taught the humans to make vodka and ever since he has been encouraging them to drink. He likes to hang around in taverns and in bars, sweet-talking people into drinking.”
Kinds of horilka
It was only in the eighteenth century that horilka began to be made with the alcohol content of up to 40 percent or more (from 80 to 100 Proof). Earlier, there was hardly more than twenty percent of alcohol in horilka and you had to drink twice as much of it to achieve the same level of drunkenness. Horilka was made in moderate quantities and only at distilleries under the state supervision, and it was only at the end of the nineteenth century that people started making it illegally at home.
In ancient times, before the arrival of hard liqour, alcoholic beverages Ukrainians drank were all kinds of mead and beer. After the advent of horilka, zapikanky and nalyvky began to be made from fruit and nuts.
Mead, or medovukha, was made from fermented honey and water. It was not very strong and even had some medicinal properties. Some of the medovukha kinds were made from the best honey and were aged for several years. Medovukha was consumed at feasts and celebrations, but was also used as a general health-improving tonic and as a good remedy against the cold and running nose.
Zapikanky and nalyvky usually had vodka as a major ingredient but also different herbs and fruit were used to flavour these drinks. Horikhivka (horikhy — nuts, were used to flavour this beverage), in addition to its being an alcoholic drink, was known to be good against some female disorders; zubrivka with herbs was excellent for improving the mood and against all kinds of health disorders. The name of nalyvka indicates what fruit or berries were used in making it: vyshnivka — from vyshnya (cherries); slyvyanka — from slyva (plums), and so on. In fact, most of these nalyvky continue to be made. Different berries and roots, as well as imported or local spices, pepper, coriander and raisins among them, were also used in making nalyvky.
Horilka in our times
It was only well into the twentieth century that the amount of horilka consumed increased considerably. Before that, horilka was consumed in Ukraine in moderate quantities. Even at the wedding parties there was usually only one charka (a glass or rather a handless cup — tr.) on the table. It used to be like this all over Ukraine but now this tradition has been preserved only in the Carpathians where in some villages people who gather for a meal, eat from one and the same bowl that sits in the middle of the table, or drink from one and the same charka. People of the older generations still remember that before the war (WW II), no more than three litres of horilka were consumed even at very big wedding parties which were then refereed to as receptions when “there was horilka galore.”
There were and are many slang and local names for horilka — okovyta, syvukha, palenka, burachanka to name but a few. But these names were mostly used to describe samohonka, or home-made horilka. These days people make only limited amounts of horilka at home, preferring to buy it in stores where you find a great many brands of horilka. There seems to be little difference between any two brands though. They say that the main difference lies in the purity of alcohol used. Also, very unfortunately, forged horilkas make their way to the shelves of stores, mostly in those provinces where control is not too tight.
Samohonka, if it is well-made and well-purified is better than any horilka that you buy in stores. I tried such samohonka several years ago at a wedding reception in the Carpathians and since then when I do feel like having a drink — which happens very rarely — I look for good-quality samohonka. Usually, it is much stronger than regular horilka, with the alcohol content being 60 or even 70 percent. It has its own specific aroma which some people find pleasant or others describe this specific smell as “stink.” Samohonka goes particularly well with such dishes as salo (hard pork fat), potatoes and pickled cucumbers.
Here is a tip for you if you decide to have a glass or two of samohonka — they say that it is best to drink alcohol made in the area where you happen to be at the moment when you decide to have a drink. The local water, climate and mood are all important factors and when you travel across Ukraine do not take with you horilka which you’ve purchased, say, in Kyiv, because when you get to Chernivtsi, for example, and feel like having a drink, the horilka that you’ve taken with you will do you no good. Everywhere you go in Ukraine, people who invite you to be their guests will always find some good local horilka to give you.
And now another tip for you. If you find that you can’t live without horilka, and your blood test shows that the alcohol content in your blood exceeds the amount of red corpuscles, then I can offer a couple of ways of dealing with the problem. When one of your friends or relatives dies, put some money into his hand when he is lying in state. A little later recover the money, go buy yourself horilka with this money, and after the funeral pour this horilka into a bowl, catch a rat and throw it in this bowl, and then drink this horilka. You will never want to have any horilka ever again. Or put a coin into the corpse’s mouth, let it stay there for some time, recover it, drop it into the glass with horilka and drink it. Aversion to horilka is guaranteed. Don’t use credit cards though. Bills and coins will do fine. They say credit cards behave funny after being held by the deceased.
And one last tip — drink moderately and responsible, and have good food to go with your drinking. If you see some Ukrainians sniff at pickles or some such products rather than eat them after they take a swig, do not follow their example. It’s a custom that has been imported from our big eastern neighbour and we, Ukrainians, are a Great European People and thus should behave accordingly. And provide good examples for others.