The best places to discover Russia’s national drink
Is any country more defined by its national beverage than Russia? Sure, the Czechs have Pilsner and the French their red wine, but in Russia, vodka isn’t just king – it’s Tsar of the country’s drinking scene. The name itself comes from the Russian word “voda,” or “water” – if that tells you anything about how life-sustaining the spirit is. Rumour has it that locals have been quaffing the stuff since roughly the 9th century – for a time, it was even considered medicinal.
These days, few would argue with the continuing predominance of vodka in Russia, and many still enjoy vodka tastings in the traditional way – gulped as ice-cold shots, with caviar-topped blini on the side. But vodka has also grown up: across St Petersburg many of the most in-demand cocktail bars are finding new ways to (literally) shake up the spirit of choice. From the stylish St Petersburg vodka bar scene to the dedicated Vodka Museum, this is our ultimate St Petersburg vodka tour.
Any good tour of St Petersburg vodka will kick off from the Russian Vodka Room No. 1 and the Vodka Museum. Take note: the name is something of a misnomer – this museum is far from extensive, but after browsing the small collection of artefacts, this will hardly matter. Sign up for a tour, and you’ll find yourself faced with a few snifters of the spirit, alongside a sampling of traditional Russian snacks. See if you can taste the differences amongst the distillations – or simply enjoy yourself before sopping it all up with some hearty, old school grub at the adjacent restaurant.
Post-tasting session, head straight to the source by seeking out some locally made St Petersburg vodka. Since 2006, Russian Standard’s expansive distillery has served as a sentinel perched on the edge of the city, and the shiny, even futuristic facilities churn out a staggering four million cases per year. The distillery famously claims to produce its vodka according to chemist Mendeleev’s standards (he championed a 40:60 ratio of vodka to water in order to make a well-balanced spirit), and uses wheat from the Russian steppes and water from the nearby, glacial Lake Ladoga when crafting its bottles. Play your cards right and you may just get a peek inside.
Ordering your vodka neat can be the best way to taste the subtleties of each distillation. But then again, no vodka tour would be complete without stopping by a St Petersburg vodka bar, or few. Technically a café and club as well as a cocktail den, trendy Dom Byta fills its drinks menu with local, Russian ingredients. Start with a Berezki, which features vodka alongside aloe honey, cucumber, rosemary, birch syrup, and blueberry, or the Forrest Gump, which pairs vodka with sorrel, honey, and raspberry.
Favoured among the city’s young and stylish set, Mishka Bar is also (in)famous for its custom vodka shots. And the true cocktail purists should add Zing Bar to their list, as the bar specialises in classic cocktails – and reputedly refuses to serve Coca-Cola, Piña Coladas, B-52s, or drinks set on fire. We’d tuck into a Moscow Mule instead (even if this is St Petersburg).
In shots or craft cocktails, in special vodka tastings or straight from a (very chilled) bottle – it’s hard to do vodka wrong here. But there is the distinct possibility of enjoying yourself just a bit more than recommended. In which case, the city’s traditional Russian eateries will be just the ticket (there’s nothing quite as restorative as a steaming bowl of borscht). Try the kitschy Podvorye, which, while themed like a wintry Russian cabin, offers warmly satisfying fare. Not to mention a list of 16 traditional infused vodkas, from gently rosehip and juniper to caraway and horseradish…for the hardy among us.