Here is another exclusive photo report about home-brewed vodka in Russia. Pictures showing an actual samogon production are harder to get than those of a secret weapon factory because of the sensitivity of the subject, and I would like to thank those who helped me for this story, especially Boris and Piotr.
Although the statistics are non-existant regarding vodka home-production, or Samogon in Russia, a majority of it probably takes place in ordinary kitchens and private homes like this one. This story shows an actual production of alcohol in a Russian home, which is typical of what takes place in thousands of other private homes across the country. We are here in an undisclosed little town in central Russia, in a soviet-era apartment block, and the people who make this Samogon here do it exclusively for their personal consumption.
How and when the person here began to make Samogon is very interesting : After a health problem 12 years ago, she asked her doctor if she could keep drinking vodka occasionally as she did before. Her doctor answered : only if it's a vodka that you make yourself, because the vodka found in the shops was (then more often than now) of bad quality and health-endangering. Since then, she's being making her own vodka (her husband who helps do it here, doesn't drink), drinking it and remained in good health.
Vodka is an essential part of the Russian culture and same with Samogon, or moonshine vodka. People have always been producing their home-brewed spirit here for centuries and even the occasional anti-alcohol campaigns of the soviet regime never could get rid of it (Russia is a big country...). Every middle-aged Russian remembers with fondness the short Soviet movie-classic "самогонщики" (Samogonshtshiki), a burlesque movie shot in 1961 and starring three famous Soviet actors, Youri Nikulin, Georgi Vitsin and Evgeni Morgunov, the story being the Buster-Keatonesque adventures of moonshiners in the Soviet Union (1961). Special Gift of Wineterroirs : watch Samogonshtshiki below :
Самогонщики (1961) par traktirshik
Deep in the Soviet Union and I suspect in the housing complexes as well, the Russians kept making counterfeit vodka with improvised tools. The communist regime fought it now and then, especially when people made a business of it, but I'm sure on the whole it didn't suffer too much repression if the samogon makers kept it for themselves.
Today Samogon production is flourishing just the same, in spite of the good economic situation (there's no shortage in the shops and incomes are rising fast), because the vodka produced at home is often of better quality than the one bought in the stores (the low-price-range ones at least). Russians have already this tradition to produce their own vegetables in their private gardens, and it is interesting to note that these would be considered organic in the West, as Russians use no chemicals in their garden. The potatoe bugs for example are routinely picked one by one in the russian gardens and burned with gasoline in an open tank. I spoke with a woman living in a drab soviet-era housing in a village, she has like most people a small garden to tend and that's the way she clears her potato plants from the pests. The vodka brewing is from the same vein, and Russians do it very traditionally when for their own consumption, with the tradition of economic autarky and the longing for purity. The only problem I saw is that they rarely filter properly their samogon. There are many websites in Russia to celebrate Samogon, like samogon.ru, where'll you read (in Russian) the superiority of home-brewed Samogon over commercial vodka.
There are myriads of russian internet pages about Samogon, with history, avantages and recipes being exposed, like this page (in Russian), where you read something close to what my host told me : Beginning in 1992, Samogon production was not fueled by economic reasons or refusal of the political regime, but by health motives : well made by one's own means, samogon was pure and devoid of dangerous side-products, contrary to many commercial vodkas. Some pages are full of details about how to filter home-brewed vodka, an essential stage for a good and safe product.
As I said in an earlier post, there is something mysterious about vodka and its ability in Russia to be consumed with food without apparent after-effects. On this line of thought, there are even voices in Russia who advocate the medicinal use of vodka (and home-brewed vodka) for common ailments. One russian website (both in english and russian) dealing with this theme has even a vodka therapy page (in english) where you can explore the ways to cure many diseases with it, including cancer... The website even has a page with recipes of home-brewed vodka. Furthermore, there's even a recipe to cure alcoholislm, using herbs....and vodka!
The operation starts at 5:15pm and by 6pm we already had drops falling into the glass jar. The tap water was of course flowing all the time through the tubes in- and out of the condenser. As we chatted in the living room, the spirit accumulated in the jar, a few drops first and then a continuous, steady stream of clear alcohol. As I remember, from the time it began do drop into the jar, it took 2 or 3 hours only to fill the 3-liter container. We went to the kitchen from time to time to check how things were going and marvelling (me) about how simple and swift it was. This is vodka on-demand, you need it, you make it right away...
The moonshine vodka here is at 50° according to the floating alcoholometer, and can be drunk now, even though it's much better and safer to filter it with an activated-carbon filter. A man who made an excellent samogon that I drank at the beginning of this trip said to me that filtration is very important, both for a really good vodka and for health reasons : unfiltered moonshine carries potentially-harmful impurities that need to be separated from the spirit. I remember by the way his samogon as the best spirit that I had on this whole trip
Whatever, we tasted a glass of this one right away after the distillation and it wasn't even hot, but hardly lukewarm. It wasn't as silky and smooth as the other one but it was OK...
A detail of importance is that during the distillation, there's a regognizable smell that sneaks out of the apartment (you need to be russian to smell something here, it is very discreet) and you must trust your neighboors because an exercized Russian nose, my friends say, immediately understands what is going on...
The water is said to be very important for a good vodka or a good home-brewed spirit, and the people who showed me their samogon this day said that the water in their region was very pure because there was no industry or industrial farming around. Once again I had a taste of how much this country has a quasi-spiritual love affair with nature.
Now excuse me but I'll have a glass of vodka and watch this Russian movie again...