The first thing that crosses one’s mind when speaking about Russian drinks is certainly vodka. Yet, as a matter of fact, long before vodka there were no less popular drinks in Old Rus. As for vodka, it came to Russia via Lithuania where it was brought by the Genoese from their colony in the Crimea. Actually it did not happen until the mid 14th century. So vodka is another story.
Initially these were only nonalcoholic liquids that were called drinks in Russia: they were invigorative and nourishing. Perhaps hence is the now archaic Russian expression translated as “to eat tea”.
The history of Russian beverages is rooted in hoary antiquity. Various kinds of rassol (brine), mors (berry or fruit drink), kvas, myod (drinking honey), vzvar (decoction), forest tea (of herbs and berries) have endured many centuries on their way to our table.
They are all different, each of them having its peculiar role and purpose.
Some of them are good for their warming effect (such as spicy teas, myod, and sbiten’) and so were mainly used in wintertime, while others are splendid cooling tonics (birch sap, kvas, mors, and again teas) and are indispensable on a hot day; some are used for the purpose common for all strong drinks (beer, vodka, nastoyka (liqueur), and nalivka (fruit liqueur)), and others are of exceptional value as approved folk remedies mitigating the severe aftermath of immoderate vodka indulgence (these are cucumber and cabbage brines). However, Russian drinks have one common feature: always only natural raw stuff and high nutritional value. Some beverages are based on bread or flour, some on berry and fruit juices, and others on honey.
Mikhail Zabylin, the author of the book “Russian People” published in 1880 wrote that myod (honey beverage), a favorite Russian drink, was made so strong, that people got tight with it just like with wine.
Kvas can be considered a national Russian drink along with honey beverages. The first record of kvas dates back to 989, remarkable as the year when the Kiev Prince Vladimir converted his homage to Christianity. The chronicle reports on this as follows: “To hand out food, myod and kvas to the folk”. Kvas was used in banyas (bath-houses) to increase the vapour, whereas sour kvass was poured over oneself for better health. Kvass was made of grains of different processing grades and even from turnip and water-melon. Sorts of kvas differed from each other depending on malt brand, and on flavouring, that could be honey or berries. They also brewed beer, which was made strong and had a variety of brands according to its colour and quality.Perevar, vzvar, and sbiten were popular in the early 20th century. They were made of honey seasoned with hypericum, sage, laurel leaf, ginger and capsicum. The drinks were served warm.
Tea was for the first time brought from China as a present to the Moscow tsar Mikhail Fyodorovich in 1638, yet was not commonly adopted till the early 18th century. Eventually tea drinking ritual became as popular among all circles of Russian society as in the native land of the drink. The scenes of prolonged tea drinking ceremonies with the traditional samovar have been recorded in numerous works of literature, depicted in paintings by lots of Russian artists and folk decorative art. Nowadays, however, one can hardly find a samovar in a usual modern household.
At the same time many people today tend to turn back to the fragrant and salutary teas of forest and field herbs, that had been enjoyed by the Russians long before they adopted “the Chinese herb”, coffee and cacao. Old recipes are being recollected and revived today. You can find some exotic beverages (such as medovukha, sbiten, etc.) available in some Russian stores, or try and make the drinks on your own, following our unique authentic recipes!