Stereotypes are hard to shake off. And Russia is no exception. The nation’s reputation for vodka-guzzling is unrivalled, superseding other refreshments on the offer. In reality, however, the range of its drinks is as diverse as the lay of the land that extends from Finland in the west to the Bering Strait near Alaska in the east. We round up a list of eight local thirst quenchers—alcoholic and non-alcoholic—that will help you cool off in the summers and keep you warm in the cold.
This dark, purple beverage that is either sweet or spicy is ideal to drink on a cold day and has been called the Russian answer to German mulled wine. Served hot, sbiten is usually non-alcoholic, and consists of water and herbs.
Cost: 250 roubles (₹250) for a 250 ml glass.
Whether it is detox, vitamin intake or a burst of energy with your breakfast that you’re after, mors—a non-carbonated drink made with berries—is an ideal fit. Given the abundance of berries in Russia, the drink is made by diluting berry juice or boiling berries in water and is further sweetened with honey or sugar. The most popular version is made with cranberry, followed by seabuck thorn (also found in Ladakh) and lingonberry. Mors is widely available in almost every grocery store and in most cafés and restaurants. The best mors, though, is usually homemade.
Cost: 150 roubles (₹150 approx) for a glass.
This clear and strong grape-based pomace brandy, which has nothing to do with ‘uncles,’ traces its origins to the villages by the Caucasus Mountains. It’s similar to the Italian grappa and its alcohol content ranges between 40-60 per cent.
The drink is enjoyed both as a shot or slowly accompanying a meal. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, chacha is available in Georgian and Armenian restaurants. The price varies greatly depending on the quality of the spirit and the restaurant. In southern cities like Sochi, you can buy a stronger homemade brew for about 600 roubles (₹600) for a one-litre bottle.
Cost: 200 roubles (₹200) for a 30 ml shot.
One of the most beloved signs of summer in Russia is the arrival of yellow and barrels on street corners that contain kvass, a golden brown beverage with a slight touch of alcohol and a bit of a fizz. This drink is made from fermented rye or black bread, herbs and spring water.
It is on the sweeter side and is perfectly safe for children to drink, and a healthier alternative to sugary sodas. Kvass has been satiating Russian thirsts for several hundred years and is best sipped fresh from a street-corner stall. It is increasingly being bottled and sold in supermarkets, and while the taste is not as good as a fresher version, you can bring a bottle back home.
Cost: In Moscow, a glass costs around 100 roubles (₹100), while it is far cheaper in small towns and cities.
Russia has always had a tradition of making both non-alcoholic and light alcoholic beverages from honey. Medovukha is the alcoholic version, with alcohol content varying from two to nine per cent. It is made by fermenting honey with water and is spiced with ginger, cloves, cinnamon and rosemary.
Outdoor markets in traditional tourist towns with ancient monasteries such as Suzdal and Vladimir sell one-litre bottles in the late-summer and early-autumn months.
Cost: A quality bottle can be had for around 1,000 roubles (₹1000). Restaurants in Moscow price them slightly higher than beer.
The forests of Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East are home to a variety of berry known as klopovka locally and Kamchatka Bilberries or Red Bilberries in English. Known to improve digestion and contain tonic properties, the berries are distilled into a strong liqueur called klopovka. With an alcohol content of 35 per cent, the mildly sweet drink makes for a great aperitif, but also goes well with dessert. It would be a waste to have it as a shot though.
Cost: Available in exclusive Moscow shops for 4,500 roubles (₹4,500) for a 700 ml bottle. Sakhalin-themed sea food and fine dining restaurants in Moscow charge around 700 roubles (₹700) for a 50 ml glass.
Not to be confused with the sauce or dessert you get in Europe, kompot is a fruit squash that is made from slow-boiling fruits and berries such as strawberries, apples, apricots, peaches and sour cherries. It is sweetened with raisins or sugar.
The best version of this healthy beverage is homemade, but they are available in several organic and vegan cafés in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Kompot is served hot in the winters and cold in the warmer months.
Cost: In cafés, it is priced on par with fresh juices at 200 roubles (₹200) for a 250 ml glass. A variant made with dried fruits called uzvar is also worth tasting.
Every country with a strong tradition of alcohol production has its own version of moonshine. In Russia, the most famous homebrewed alcoholic beverage is samogon, made through fermentation of beet roots, potatoes, fruits and sugar syrup.
The sapid drink was in high demand in the 1980s when Mikhail Gorbachev—one of the world’s best-known temperance advocates—experimented with alcohol prohibition. Recipes and tastes vary from region to region in Russia with some families adding oak bark and tea or coffee, as well as a host of berries.
Samogon is not available in shops, but some traditional Russian restaurants in big cities offer the drink and price it in the same range as local vodka. The fancier restaurants ironically market the Russian moonshine as a high-end beverage. Even the most experienced travellers to Russia tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to samogon and depend on the advice of local friends.
Cost: 200 roubles (₹200) for a 30 ml glass.
Ajay Kamalakaran is a travel writer and independent journalist with a special passion for the Russian-speaking world. He loves learning languages and believes in slow travel off the beaten path.
Artur Abramiv is a Ukraine-based documentary and adventure photographer, who has dabbled in the art for 14 years. He regularly travels around Europe and treks to the mountains for inspiration.