Julia Ioffe’s profile of Russian chef/culinary historian Maksim Syrnikov includes a wonderful segment on distilling samogon, a kind of rye whiskey, with a very Russian-seeming stove-top still, half built by a professional dairy engineer, half jury rigged with a bath towel, nail, and empty desk drawer. A “degustation” sipped from the still, Ioffe writes, “was still warm and smelled of freshly risen dough.” Rowanberry samogon sounds even better, made with frozen fruit plucked after the first frost.
Then there’s myod. Alcohol runs deep through Russian history, but not the kind we think. Tasteless — soulless — vodka is a late-nineteenth-century invention; before that, folks drank “bread wine” like Syrnikov’s samogon, often infused with foraged herbs and berries. Before that, though, they drank mead. In 1476, when Ambrosio Contarini visited from Venice, distilled spirits were rare. “They have no wines,” he wrote home, “but use a drink from honey which they make with hop leaves.”