Russian Drinking Traditions: A Primer

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Clink. Drink. Eat. Repeat. That’s all you need to know should you find yourself at a Russian social gathering facing down a table covered in colorful zakuski and copious amounts of vodka being consumed from shot glasses. “A lot of the toasting happens at the front end of a meal, and in Russian tradition there is absolutely never drinking without food,” says Bonnie Morales from a sunny window seat at Portland restaurant Kachka, where she’s the chef and co-owner. “Zakuski are the cold appetizers on the table to start, and by the time you get to the mains or the hot food, you are usually done toasting in rapid succession. Now people are just eating to sop up the alcohol. But the bulk of your time is spent over zakuski.”

On Morales’ left sits her father, Seymour Frumkin (pictured below), whose disarming smile and gregarious nature are overlaid by a thick accent from his native Belarus. “You have to clink your glass, otherwise it is meaningless,” says Frumkin. “Part of my drinking credo is to never drink alone. And if you’re not drinking alone, then you don’t drink without a toast.”

While most cultures have a version of “cheers!”, Russians (and other citizens of former Soviet states) take the practice further. From short exclamations for wishes of good health (vashe zrodovye), to humorous or paradoxical anecdotes, any gathering—whether planned or impromptu—will elicit a string of toasts. “Back in the ’60s, it would be rare to have a phone in your apartment in the Soviet Union, so most people would just drop in without previous arrangements,” says Frumkin. “When they walk in, it is an impromptu party, so the toast would simply be ‘To our meeting!’”

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Seymour Frumkin raises a toast at home with his family. Photo by Leela Cyd.

At a larger or more formal event, such as a wedding or birthday, there may be dozens of toasts—to the person or couple being celebrated, to the parents, the grandparents, and so on. “There’s also the tradition of the tamada, which is a Georgian word,” says Morales. “A tamada is someone who leads the party but more specifically leads the drinking. It’s usually the person who is the host of the party, but it happens very organically—the tamada takes the reigns and leads the pace.”

Though traditionally toasts are made with vodka (and lots of it—Frumkin would hedge his bets when hosting a party by purchasing a bottle for every person in attendance), it’s also common for guests to sip wine from their shot glasses. “From a kid’s viewpoint at the dinner table, the important part was the toasts and the clinking and that cadence,” says Morales. “I’d have juice in my shot glass, but I still had a shot glass. You weren’t expected to drink alcohol, but you were expected to participate.”

At Kachka, Morales tries to embody the tradition and encourage the social aspect of sharing food and drinks by offering a primer on the cadence of clinking, drinking and sharing zakuski. “It engages people more with their table and leads to a more boisterous atmosphere,” she says.

“This is the whole idea behind getting together for drinks—to open up people’s minds and mouths,” says Frumkin. “It could be as short as budem (pronounced boo-dyim); that’s my favorite toast. Budem means, essentially, ‘We will.’ It implies we will exist—it’s to our future.”