For years, I would restrict myself to a light whiskey, a girlie drink as they call it, that has the right proportions of lemon juice; warming, floral bourbon; and sweet syrup to deliver a refreshing cocktail that’s neither too cloying nor too biting. Just what I needed to mingle around with a drink in hand.
I learned to drink stronger stuff during my business trips to Belarus. Vodka, the typical Russian drink is not for the faint of heart. In the States, I’ve tried vodka diluted with orange juice and ice cubes, and found it too strong for my taste.
In Minsk, I experienced the burning effect of straight, unadulterated Belarusian vodka. When I landed in Minsk, Belarus, to work as the Program Manager of an American-Belarusian project of demilitarization that included refurbishing an analytical laboratory, I discovered that Belarusians can’t function without a bottle of vodka handy.
During our delegation’s first meeting in the historical Hall of Officers, I presented a ten-minute summary of the project. Later an officer brought a bottle of vodka and small glasses, filled the shot glasses and distributed them. The Belarusian general raised his glass in a toast. “Welcome to Belarus. Moy drouk, my friends, I wish you a happy stay in my beautiful country. Na zdorovie. To your health.” Na zdorovie was the second Russian word I learned after Dobroye outroh, good morning.
The men emptied their glasses in one shot. I swallowed a first sip. A colonel laughed. “Let me show you how to drink vodka. One of us makes a toast. You raise your glass and you swallow it all at once. Bottoms up, as you Americans say.”
The officer filled a second round and the general stood for another toast. “I propose a toast to the success of our joint project in Minsk.”
The men chorused, “Bottoms up.”
I raised my glass, then emptied half of my drink and brought my hand to my throat. I could swear it was on fire.
Waggling his finger, the officer chuckled. “You cheated. You left half the vodka in your glass. With each toast, you’ll get better.” Toasting with vodka became part of my job description.
Vodka, a liquor usually made from fermented grains and potatoes, has a standard alcohol concentration of 40% ABV in the United States, and 45% in Belarus (or up to 76%). Belarusians drink vodka to celebrate, to keep warm, to treat cough and sore throat. They use it in cooking and pastry. When I got sick during a trip to Minsk, they treated me with six shots of vodka. I fell asleep right away and awakened cured.
In remarks to U.K newspaper The Times, President Lukashenko encouraged citizens to drink vodka (unless working) and visit the sauna at least twice a week to stay healthy. Thanks to their heavy drinking of vodka, only 152 people have contracted COVID-19 infections, with no deaths.
I wrote two books set in Belarus:
Allow me to present my new series, LOVE PLANS with three romance novels released in September and October.