How to drink vodka (or not) with that Russian swagger

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It sounds like the most rancid cultural cliche, but I keep hearing that vodka shots are a compulsory part of visiting Russia if you go to local bars, which I most surely am. Ritual reigns. Toasts, garrulous and heartfelt, are mandatory. Friendships are forged over the clear, biting liquid. Backslaps, perhaps high-fives (please no), succeed the flaming gulps. Vodka is a social lube, a social glue. After a week in St. Petersburg next month, I fear that I’m going to have made dozens of new (bibulous) friends and wind up with the squinchy elfin aspect of this fellow:

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“The national drink is an inseparable part of Russian social life. Vodka is drunk everywhere, with the intention of breaking down inhibitions and producing a state of conviviality Russians refer to as dusha-dushe (soul-to-soul). When a Russian taps his throat, beware: it’s impossible to refuse this invitation to friendship.”

So writes The New York Times. “Impossible to refuse this invitation to friendship”? I will find ways. I can be terrifically anti-social. I don’t want to be around too many guys who “taps his throat” as an alarm bell to guzzle a shot I might not want. I get more than two shots from these tipplers, well, then, comrade, my nice relaxing night at the bar may quite be over. I’ll take a beer, sir, and the check, and … who in hell pays for those shots? I have a stinky feeling I’m getting stuck with the bill.

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I hate Russia. I hate vodka.

Not really. Indeed, I have firm, jazzed plans to visit St. Petersburg’s newish Russia Vodka Museum, dubbed “excellent” by Lonely Planet, a glassy, liquidy historical survey of the beverage through storied, stumbling Russian yore. A 30-minute guided tour in English and sizable samples of three vodkas with traditional Russian snacks — pickles! herring! — is about $10, and I’m dimly gobsmacked. That sounds pretty fine.

I love Russia. I love vodka.

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Russia Vodka Museum. Looks like a well-stocked vodka bar. As it should.

Vodka in Slavic means “little water,” but it seems more like big water in Russia. Supposedly invented in Poland, the drink’s name was first recorded in Russia in the late 1700s. Today there are hundreds of brands of vodka available there, though I doubt my go-to, Tito’s Handmade Vodka, a Texas upstart, moves many units.

Imbibing the spirit, as I said, is a ritualized affair, almost a drinking game, freckled with frat boy machismo and cornball sacraments. The Times notes the dubious “vodka procedure,” which entails guzzling a nice big shot, neat, of course. It continues: “Prepare a forkful of food or chunk of bread. Inhale and exhale quickly, bringing the food to your nose. Breathe in and tip the vodka down your throat. Now breathe out again, and eat your food.”

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I don’t think so. That sounds a bit like yoga for alkies. Can’t I just order a vodka tonic, a Cape Cod, a, huh-hum, White Russian, vodka martini, or something divine and aquamarine, conjured magic-potion-like by a multi-tentacled mixologist? Of course I can. And I will.

But I also want Russia’s traditional, unalloyed vodka experience. I’ll do a shot or two, hopefully with guys who don’t whoop a lot or slam their glasses down on the table and beat their chests. I can’t speak a lick of Russian, so who knows what kind of rigamarole I might find myself.

I’ll just say this: Temperance is golden, abstinence is mournful, more than five shots is suicidal, and eating herring with your vodka is, plain and simple, foolhardy. Na zdorovie!

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Sharing rides, sharing lives

On a recent hot Monday, I bought a big bottle of Dewar’s White Label Scotch. The home supply was running low. It was dire.

I tapped the Lyft app for a ride and soon enough the usual dark, Japanese-made sedan pulled up. The driver was a late-middle-aged guy, tan with a ball cap and a festive tropical shirt from the Jimmy Buffett line. I climbed in back and set the heavy bottle on the floor. It made a gurgly thunk.

We drove in becalmed silence.

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As I opened the door to get out, the driver turned and said, “What do you have there?” I hoisted the bottle so he could see the label. He frowned, then he took the bottle and read the label more closely as if he couldn’t believe his eyes.

“Ack. Dewar’s. Need the good stuff. Need Glenlivet.”

“You’re right, that is the good stuff. I save that for special occasions.”

“Special occasions? I only drink Glenlivet,” he grumbled. “Stopped drinking Dewar’s years ago.”

“Or there’s Laphroaig,” I said, trying to sound whisky-literate, refined, like I clearly knew Dewar’s was rotgut.

“This isn’t even Scotch,” he said, grimacing. “It’s blended, not single malt.”

I told him I knew that it was blended and hinted that with this 1.75 liter bottle, I was getting more bang for my buck. That didn’t go over well with the purist. He scowled.

I wanted to read him the encouraging Dewar’s description: “Up to 40 of the finest malt and grain whiskies are blended together in perfect harmony … Notes of Scottish heather and honey linger on the finish, with the faintest touch of smoke.”

Honey! Smoke! Harmony!

But surely it would sound to him like a paper-sack-sipper’s doggerel. This was outstanding. My Lyft driver was a whisky snob. I suddenly wanted to engage him in dialectics about beer — does he wrinkle his nose at IPAs as I do? — cocktails — would he ever drink one with cucumbers floating in it? — and wine — is vino in a box tantamount to ramen in a styrofoam cup?

I wondered about his life — what kind of music he listened to, if he bet on the horses, does he watch “America’s Got Talent.” Lyft and Uber drivers are fascinating. I talk to most of them, a lot about where they come from. I always tell Jamaican drivers that I visited Jamaica twice as a teenager. A lively gabfest, full of lush places and vivid anecdotes, invariably follows.

The ride sharing phenomenon is patently different from the standard taxi pickup. Lyft and Uber drivers pilot their own personal vehicles, so you never know what you’re going to get. Mostly you get mid-range four-doors — Toyotas, Hondas, Kias, Nissans, the occasional American model — and minivans with maw-like sliding doors. Only once did I get a truck, this towering Chevy beast. The driver told me that all his fares remark upon its hulking exoticism.

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Because there are no physical taxi-like barriers between driver and passenger, the situation is literally open, which makes it socially conducive. We talk. We pry. We joke and laugh. We gripe about the weather and bad drivers. (It’s no “Taxicab Confessions.”) I always inquire about whatever keychain, tassel, necklace or other tchotchke is swinging from the rearview mirror. Stories abound. A sliver of a life resides in that little dangling dreamcatcher.

I try to compliment the driver’s choice of vehicle, especially if it’s extra nice or extra clean. And, with queer frequency, I tell them how pleasant their car smells, because, boy, they are besotted with nose-tickling air fresheners.

It’s a human thing, and the encounters, spanning many cities, are kaleidoscopic. The garrulous, too-much-information pot dealer; the beaming student who has by chance picked me up a few times and now calls me Mr. Chris; the yoga-psychic who insisted I write down my number so she could get my business; the Paris drivers who talked jazz and Trump and practiced their English; and the countless immigrants — so many Haitians! — from Boston to London, whose stories of their former homes and their new home are wondrous and heartening.

Expansive chatting was not to be on this ride. My Lyft driver was a taciturn man. Strictly Scotch. Strictly my Scotch.

As I left I took my bottle and I thanked him with sincerity for the lift. (I went on to award him a five-star rating.) Kindly, he thanked me back.

“Enjoy your drink,” he said. “You’re going to get a hangover.”

Drinking and striving

A Cucumber Rickey? That’s a thing?

It is a thing, evidently, an alcoholic thing, a thing that tastes like a wonderful thing.

I recently discovered the Cucumber Rickey (yes, I now know the drink’s been around since Tutankhamun) at the Montreal bar La Distillerie, a packed, ultra-trendy but relievedly casual spot that specializes in inspired, palate-thrilling cocktails without the pretense and rigamarole of highfalutin mixology, and does so at gulpingly cheap prices. My Cucumber Rickey — Bombay Sapphire gin, a truckload of fresh cucumbers, lime juice, simple syrup, and orange and mandarin bitters — was $7.50 in U.S dollars. Another, please.

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Gin, cukes, paradise.

A poor specimen of  a cocktail connoisseur — a kicky gin and tonic does me fine — I’m still keenly curious about and eager to try new alcoholic concoctions. I regret I didn’t have time to sample more from La Distellirie’s festive menu, which boasts 27 specialty drinks, though I did try the toothsome Mohawk — Bombay Sapphire gin, peach purée, lemon juice, elderflower cordial, homemade jasmine tea syrup, soda water — a fragrant sweet and sour pleasure. (What in the hell is elderflower cordial?)

That menu is something else, a disarming, user-friendly catalog tailored to individual thirsts. For instance, if you’re in the mood for a “Herbal, Fresh, Refreshing” drink you can choose from four cocktails, including the ubiquitous Mojito, as well as my dear Cucumber Rickey and Mohawk.

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the Mohawk — sweet, sour, sublime

If you require a “Robust-Intense Powerful Concentrated” drink, select from the Mad Man, Rollercoaster and three others. A quartet of neon-tinged beverages with long French names are located in the “Accessible, Delicate, Light-Soft” category. And so on. There are six categories total.

La Distellirie has three locations in Montreal. I was at the smallest and most popular spot — got there early, beat the crush — in the city’s Latin Quarter (make that Quartier-Latin) on Rue Ontario East. Two doors down from La Distillerie is Pub Quartier-Latin, a ridiculously friendly, semi-dive bar, with a cheery staff, cheap drinks, heaping greasy food and reliable WiFi. I hung out there a lot, writing on my laptop and sipping passable gin and tonics.

My drinking preferences have evolved over time. Fifteen years ago I’d keep a 12-pack of Rolling Rock in my fridge and stock no distilled spirits. A few years later I always had cheap Yellowtail merlot on hand, but still no hard booze, which I drank almost entirely at bars (mostly, blush, vodka cranberries). My beer and wine period seems to have lasted forever, and my liquor sophistication remained downright uncivilized.

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Where zesty cocktails are found in Montreal’s Latin Quarter.

Until, at last, my brother introduced me to the nuanced grandeur of Scotch — the peat, smoke, vanilla, grass, fruit, even hay — all those swirling notes that begin in the nostrils and finish in a slightly seared gullet. He enlightened me by pouring The Glenlivet, Laphroaig and Talisker, single malts reserved for special occasions. (Our everyday Scotch is the smooth, blended, wholly unpretentious Dewar’s White Label.)

We sample gins for the best G&T’s, as we call them, and have graduated from Schweppes to Fever-Tree premium tonic. Our favorite gin to date: The Botanist. Least favorite: New Amsterdam. (Only later did we learn it was distilled in Modesto, Calif., explaining scads.) We quickly realized that Gordon’s London Dry beats out Bombay Sapphire in taste and price.

We make easy Scotch and sodas, the occasional Cape Cod, and try out new ryes and bourbons, Woodford Reserve being a standout.

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My brother’s dreaded Negroni.

As I said before, I’m a cocktail dilettante. My brother’s the aspiring mixologist, who, like a driven chef, derives myriad satisfactions from confecting a complex libation, step by step, following a strict recipe. He’s especially partial to Old Fashioneds and the bitter, face-scrunching Negroni, which offers a delightful finish of ear wax.

When done creating, he always clinks glasses and often smacks his lips after the first sip of success.

He’s particular about his brands and demands his ice cubes just so. This self-anointed beverage snob, a real liquid dandy, won’t drink at any bar that sprays its tonic from a push-button nozzle, or soda gun. That’s commitment.

I don’t care if they fire my tonic out of a gun. Yet I do crave quality, like the tasty bracers at La Distellerie, which take skill and a little heart. I make modest drinks as best I can — my G&Ts, when I slice up some fresh fruit, are really not bad — and I like to think I could pull off my own Mohawk or Cucumber Rickey. All that, even if I do pour my wine from a cardboard box.