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Modern Gentleman’s Guide: When in Ukraine, Drink as Ukrainians Do

4. December 2012 by Xavier 0 Comments

Vodka is Russia’s national drink, and it’s popular in Ukraine, too. But, the spirit that really can be considered Ukraine’s national drink would be the powerful grain-based liquor horilka.


Horilka toasts are traditional at weddings, Easter, Christmas, and other feasts. Be sure to try some local horilka in any are of Ukraine you visit. Adherents insist that a locale’s water, weather and mood are apparent in the horilka produced there; so, wherever you are, local horilka is the right thing to drink.


While horilka can be made from sugar beets, potatoes or honey, grain horilka is most common. Commercial horilka is available, but most of what you will find is homemade. Throughout the country, people from different areas use different methods to flavor their horilka.


Pertsivka, which is flavored with hot peppers and honey, is popular throughout the country. In other places, you will find horilka made with strawberries, spices, apricots, lemons, nuts, or even with milk. Some families, instead of infusing the liquor, make flavored syrup to use as a mixer with their horilka.


Horilka used to be a relatively mild spirit, with usually no more than 20% alcohol (40 proof). Since the 1800s, however, modern distilling methods have allowed horilka lovers to make stronger brews; most modern horilka clocks in at about 80 proof.


The traditions for making a horilka toast are quite like those that surround vodka. Toasts are always enjoyed with a group of friends. Often, the health and happiness of a party’s honored guest will be the object of the toast. Small snacks, known as zakusky, are served with horilka. Generally, you will pop a pickle or potato slice into your mouth, down the horilka, then have another snack.


Besides being enjoyed as a celebratory drink, horilka is said to have health benefits, as well. Horikhivka, the horilka that is flavored with nuts, is renowned as a cure for female troubles. Zubrivka, which is infused with bison grass, is said to be a mood elevator, and a general health tonic.


The history of horilka involves many legends. In many, horilka is the invention of the Devil, who means to use it to enslave humanity. Under a complex agreement with Jesus and the saints, the Devil gets the soul of every man who dies while drinking horilka.


But, never fear. Should you find that you become too fond of the Ukrainian spirit, Ukrainian folklore has a remedy. At a funeral, place bills or coins in the hand of a recently deceased corpse. Recover the money, and then use it to buy a bottle of horilka. Have one shot from that bottle, and your taste for horilka will be gone for good.


Photo: WikiMedia